PATTEN, Maine — Brothers Adam and Matthew Fronczak sit astride three industries dear to Patten — forestry, farming and milling — and it can make for some scattershot workdays.
On any given day, 48-year-old Matthew might find himself welding a patch onto a conveyer belt in Patten, doing soil tests in Old Town and picking up auto parts in Bangor while 51-year-old Adam calls customers and surveys abandoned farmland off Route 11.
“There are so many projects and directions to go in that there’s just not enough hours in the day,” Adam Fronczak said recently.
The very versatile brothers, who are former lobstermen, are general managers of Haymart, a farming and milling operation that town officials hope will be a great boost to the upper Katahdin region economy.
A dual-purpose mill
The 175-year-old empty mill site on Mill Street was acquired in 2013 by an investor who wishes to remain anonymous, the brothers said. The two managers began working on it immediately. Since opening the facility in January 2016, the brothers have expanded their payroll from three to 13 full-time workers and begun round-the-clock manufacturing of softwood pellets five days per week.
Their goal is to produce 5,000 tons of home-heating pellets this year and double that amount next year.
They also are growing barley, oats, soybeans and wheat to make feed pellets for hogs, cows and other livestock or for sale as organic produce. Haymart owns or contracts with 14 formerly abandoned farms totaling more than 4,200 acres in Maine, Arkansas, Missouri and Nebraska, according to the company website, Haymart.com. The Maine farmlands include a 1,200-acre plot in Old Town off Route 116, 900 acres in West Enfield off Route 2 and a total of 150 acres over several plots off Clark Road and Route 11 in Patten.
“Our mill is set up for dual purposes,” Adam Fronczak said.
Their Haymart Hotties wood pellets are sold through 16 outlets, including 10 Wal-Mart stores stretching from Waterville into northern Maine and smaller retailers such as Nicatou Stoves of Medway, Brownlee Builders of Patten and Aroostook Milling of Houlton. They also are contracted to supply pellets to heat several Katahdin Valley health centers in northern Maine as the centers convert to pellet heating systems, the brothers said.
The Wal-Mart contract could occupy their one $750,000 pellet manufacturing system full time, but the brothers said they will be maintaining their other contracts and will continue experimenting with feed-pellet production. They’ve produced a few thousand pounds of feed pellets to date.
They hope to add another manufacturing system to ramp up wood- and feed-pellet production by mid-2017, increasing their staff to as many as 30 workers, the Fronczaks said.
The perils of pellet making
Haymart’s production methodology is comprehensive and thrifty. The brothers buy abandoned and often heavily overgrown farmland and clear it of trees and other growth. Not just any farm will do.
“It all starts with the correct soils,” Matthew Fronczak said.
The biomass culled from the land is turned into pellets, used to fuel their mill’s biomass heating system or sold to other biomass energy boilers. Then they seed the farmland for certified-organic crops. This, their first year of crop growth, has gone well, Matthew Fronczak said.
“Everything is going good. Our crops shot right out of the ground this year,” he said. “All of our barley has come up good.”
Yet, production itself has been challenging. Pellet manufacturing is almost an art: Wet weather, moisture levels in the chosen wood products and the manufacturing system’s temperature settings can have a wildly dramatic impact on pellet quality. Experimentation and the company’s addition of moisture measuring equipment to its manufacturing system two or three weeks ago has greatly improved pellet production consistency, according to Jamie Kaelin, 38, of Crystal, who works as a laborer at Haymart.
“There are a lot of moving parts to this,” Kaelin said. “Now production is doing really good. We’ve stepped it up a lot in the last week or so.”
A ‘psychological lift’
The company’s relatively swift growth and ambitious plans have been a tonic to a Patten area that suffered a heavy blow when Shaw Industries Group Inc. of Dalton, Georgia, laid off 18 workers and closed the wood veneering mill it owned at the Haymart mill in 2010.
“We have been sort of adrift since then, and the fact that we can point to them being there, even if there’s not a great deal of economic significance to what they’re doing so far, still gives us a psychological lift,” Patten Town Manager Raymond Foss said. “You feel better about the town knowing that it [the mill site] is active because for three or four years it wasn’t.”
The company’s impact on the local economy is likely greater than its 13 positions, but it is difficult to say how much greater. Economists place manufacturing as among the most valuable employment sectors. Economic estimates indicate that manufacturing typically creates at least four jobs indirectly for every single job directly created.
Haymart’s impact, however, might be dulled because it seeks very versatile workers who, like the Fronczaks, can handle a variety of assignments. Finding good help is a chronic problem for many northern Maine businesses, but filling a job that requires farming, mechanical and forest products skills at $10 to $15 per hour with one person instead of two or three is even more difficult. “It remains our biggest challenge,” Adam Fronczak said.
“Finding a farmer is fine, but putting him into a feller buncher” — a machine that cuts trees and strips branches from tree logs — “or in the shop here — that’s difficult,” Matthew Fronczak said.
A ‘good all-around sense’
Finding the time to train and oversee workers is also taxing, and some of the job candidates themselves have come with heavy luggage. Two potential drivers never got hired because they failed drug tests.
Haymart has contracted with local farms and members of the local Amish community for workers and supplies when needed. The Amish, Matthew Fronczak said, are excellent workers, and the brothers are considering working closely with the local vocational high school to groom workers.
The Fronczaks’ versatility and equilibrium at coping with the rigors of a startup business have impressed Kristen Wittine, the company’s office manager. Besides running the company, they installed the manufacturing system, electrical supply and plumbing to the mill, which includes a large heated warehouse floor where the company’s finished pellets are stored. The indoor storage keeps the pellets dry — a critical advantage to keeping them sellable, Matthew Fronczak said.
“They truly were pulled from one industry into a totally new setting, and they had the good all-around sense to do it,” Wittine said of the brothers. “To me, this is something that a person with an engineering degree could have done.”
The brothers, who both have high school educations, however, are good mentors — even-tempered and analytical, Wittine said. Their skills mesh well. Adam is good with the finances and customer service while Matthew is probably more adept with mechanical things.
“They can read each other very well, and one is always available [to handle problems] if the other has to step out,” she said.
Now that the brothers have their business running, they face a startup businesses’ next challenge: Doing what they can to make their pellets and organic produce sell well.
“We seem to be finding a market for our products,” Adam Fronczak said.
“It’s fun,” Matthew Fronczak said. “We like to work.”