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Timber ties: From parenthood to sawmill success

December 11, 2023  By  Jennifer Ellson

Brittany and Justin Levinsky are raising a young family while running a small business.

West of the 5th Sawmill is not your average sawmill. In October 2021, the sawmill came to life, thanks to the vision of Justin Levinsky, a former oil industry driller, and his wife Brittany. Their story is a testament to resilience and the pursuit of a dream. This family-owned sawmill, situated just outside Bluffton in rural Alberta, has quickly become a symbol of perseverance, commitment, and community support.

The journey begins in Bahrain

Named for its location west of the fifth meridian, West of the 5th Sawmill’s inception is nothing short of remarkable. The company was born during a momentous period in Justin and Brittany’s lives – when they became parents. The Levinsky’s path to parenthood was marked by challenges, as they struggled for years to start a family. Then, in a miraculous turn of events, they were blessed with the opportunity to adopt two full-sibling children from the foster system: a two-year-old girl and a one-year-old boy. This new family dynamic brought about significant changes. At the time, Justin was working overseas on a month-in, month-out rotation in Bahrain’s oil fields. This arrangement proved to be difficult for the young family.

“When the kids moved in, in September of 2020, Justin was working in the Middle East. This became very difficult for me as a new mom, hard for the kids without their dad at home, and I know it was also hard for Justin as he wanted to be with his family,” Brittany says.

After enduring nearly 10 months of separation, Justin made a life-changing decision. He quit his overseas job and returned home to Bluffton. During his time in Bahrain, he had been quietly formulating a business plan for a sawmill. Upon his return, Brittany encouraged him to turn that dream into reality.


A leap of faith

With unwavering faith in her husband, Brittany motivated Justin to launch the sawmill venture as soon as possible.

Cooks AC-36 sawmill, capable of handling logs up to 36 inches in diameter and 22 feet in length. Photos by Annex Business Media.

“We took out all of our savings that we both had and went all-in on starting the business, full steam ahead,” enthuses Brittany.

Justin acquired the first sawmill – a Range Road Enterprises manual sawmill – and began cutting timber. He then replaced it with a bigger Cooks Saw AC-36 that is currently in operation at the facility.

The impact of the business went beyond financial success. For the Levinsky family, it was a chance to be together and build their home. The sawmill’s strategic location right next to their bungalow allowed them to be present for their daughter Ella, now five, and their four-year-old son Damian. Their seven-year-old golden lab Charlie and two-year-old black lab Mavis also enjoyed the increased family time.

“Our daughter really benefited – she was diagnosed with autism in early 2022, so she needed that routine: the time together and the consistency of her dad coming home every evening,” explains Brittany.

“It is truly an amazing feeling when the kids light up when dad gets home from work, even though they watch him throughout the day from the living room window. Having the business on our land and close to home helps with raising our family. Everything I could ever want is right here on these 10 acres we own: our family, our home and our livelihood,” says the 36-year-old mother.

Species, products, and the dream team

The mill produces approximately 650,000 board feet of spruce and pine lumber annually, primarily full dimension lumber. With the Cooks AC-36 sawmill, capable of handling logs up to 36 inches in diameter and 22 feet in length, they offer various sawn dimensional lumber, large timbers, beams for timber frame construction, and dunnage for oil field applications. Custom cutting services are also available.

The logs used at the mill come from private landowners in Central Alberta, with additional timber purchased from neighbouring logging contractors, including Barmac Contracting in Drayton Valley, McColm Construction in Bluffton, and Lil Mule Logging in Red Deer.

“Logs are loaded onto the roll way via skid steer and then are loaded onto the sawmill with the hydraulic loading arms. Once sawn they are stacked onto their respective bunks, anything that needs to be edged travels down the dead rolls to the edger and is edged into the largest available clean dimension,” explains Justin.

While the industry has its ups and downs, the mill has managed to navigate the challenges successfully.

“At times fibre supply has been an issue. We are quite new to the industry and are sure to encounter more obstacles as time progresses, but so far everything has gone quite well for us.”

The Levinskys are currently working on applying to the Alberta government’s Community Timber Program, aiming to expand their operations.

“We had hopes this year of bidding on a block offered through public auction, but with the devastating fires this year, they never offered any for auction,” explains Justin.

Their small, dedicated team, consisting of Justin, Brittany, sawmiller Tom Bourque, and a part-time employee, operates the mill on an eight-hour shift, five days a week. Brittany manages the books, while Justin and Bourque handle sawmill and edger maintenance. Their network of skilled tradespeople in the community is a valuable resource when complex issues arise.

“We’re very fortunate to be surrounded by a community with many different trades people if we run into something we can’t fix ourselves,” Justin says.

Brittany agrees: “With our family, the team we have created at West of the 5th Sawmill, and with the incredible support of our community, the good days definitely outnumber the bad.”

Sawmill residuals and future plans

As for sawmill residuals, West of the 5th Sawmill ensures minimal waste. First cut slabs find new life in the community, used for firewood or crafting. Sawdust serves local farmers and ranchers as animal bedding, dust control, and garden mulch.

Tom Bourque, left, and Justin Levinsky handle all sawmill and edger maintenance.

Justin’s plans for the future are ambitious. They intend to expand the sawmill building, add a 3-strand log deck to their operation, and install a dust and chip extractor for efficient sawdust management.

“We have looked into a small-scale pellet press to turn the sawdust into pellets and are continuing to do more research.”

Moreover, they plan to add a small kiln and a planer moulder to diversify their product range, as they welcome clients not only from Central Alberta but also from British Columbia, thanks to word-of-mouth. This summer, Justin added a Valley edger to the facility.

With their continued growth, the Levinskys aim to create a workshop closer to the sawmill and transition to three-phase electric power. While they anticipate challenges, they remain optimistic, driven by the opportunity to offer quality products at competitive prices and the satisfaction of supporting local businesses.

Rising costs and staffing difficulties have been challenges they’ve faced, but their dedication and community support have been unwavering. West of the 5th Sawmill stands as a testament to the power of perseverance and the fulfillment of a dream, enriching the lives of the Levinsky family and the community they serve.

“For ourselves and other small-scale family-run sawmills, I see great opportunity to offer quality products at reasonable prices that you might not find in a big box store,” explains the 39-year-old Justin.

“Also it gives people a sense of value for shopping and supporting local. Having a small business gives us an opportunity to meet many different people, have conversations and develop relationships.”

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