STRONG – In the wood yard, a crane feeds tree-length birch and maple into a machine that strips away bark. The logs pass through a chipper, which sprays streams of wood particles into a mound.

In the factory, chips are dried and hammered into fiber, then formed into pellets that fill 40-pound bags. By day’s end, 22 tons of hardwood pellets are in a truck headed for a Lowe’s Home Improvement store in North Attleboro, Mass.

This is the pace of production now at Geneva Wood Fuels: A maple tree growing in Franklin County on Monday can be heating a house in Massachusetts by Friday.

Despite appearances, Geneva is running at less than half capacity. Other pellet plants are, too. But for the first time in two years, there’s optimism.

Rising oil prices and a recovering economy have New Englanders thinking again about alternative heat. The prospect that oil will stay high this year has Maine’s wood pellet plants gearing up. Geneva has a dozen people on the job, four of them hired in the past month. It also brought on a regional sales manager to expand sales. Any job matters in this rural village, up the Sandy River from Farmington.

Less obvious, but welcome, are the 100 or so jobs tied to the plant’s operation, including up to 50 loggers in Franklin and Oxford counties. Making pellets here contributes $1.5 million a year to the economy, according to an estimate by the Finance Authority of Maine.

That could vanish, in an instant.

Three years ago, manufacturers at Maine’s four pellet plants couldn’t churn out enough fuel. It seemed everyone wanted a pellet stove, after oil hit record-high prices. Then oil collapsed during the recession. Stove sales plummeted, and oil heat got a reprieve. Pellet makers suddenly had too much capacity and too few customers.

As the industry recovers, plant owners are hoping that early signs of measured growth can be sustained.

“We’re seeing a renewed interest in the market,” said George Soffron, president of the Maine Pellet Fuels Association. “A lot of people are thinking about next heating season.”

Soffron, chief executive officer at Corinth Wood Pellets, said his company has started an advertising campaign to promote pellet heat. He’s also thinking about diversifying, to sell stoves and boilers.

Corinth has 27 employees working two shifts. The plant could make 75,000 tons per year, but it’s running at half capacity. Soffron will get a better sense of the potential for growth this summer. That’s when pellet plants typically ramp up production, to supply retailers for the next heating season.

Inquiries are up from people who want to buy pellet boilers, according to Dutch Dresser, managing director at Maine Energy Systems in Bethel. The company sells a European-designed boiler and delivers pellets by the truckload.

The up-front price of a pellet boiler — roughly $6,000 more than a modern oil unit — remains an obstacle, Dresser said. But buyers are banking that oil remains high. The company delivers pellets in bulk for $235 a ton. That translates to a heat equivalent of oil at $1.96 a gallon. By comparison, the average statewide price of heating oil last week in Maine was $3.35 a gallon.

“We’re planning for what we expect to be a burgeoning need,” Dresser said. “I’m quite optimistic about this year.”

That’s good news in Strong, where sawdust is a sign of prosperity.

Maine entrepreneur Charles Forster created an industry around here during the late 19th century, using the area’s white birch to make the wooden toothpicks he invented. Strong became known as the “toothpick capital of the world,” a slogan emblazoned on its fire truck. Hundreds of people — often local friends and family — labored to make 3 million toothpicks a day in Forster’s factory, as well as ice cream sticks and clothes pins.

Imports eventually killed western Maine’s toothpick factories. The Forster Manufacturing Co. plant — the last holdout — closed in 2003.

So there was great excitement in 2007, when Jonathan Kahn, a Bowdoin College graduate and Chicago-based investor, announced plans to turn the shuttered factory into a pellet manufacturing facility. It went online in 2009.

Five months later, another blow. A dryer explosion rocked the $17 million plant, making its future uncertain. But Kahn and the other investors chose to rebuild, and operations resumed last spring.

The plant has three pellet mills capable of making 100,000 tons per year.

The process is simple, but the trick is creating a pellet that’s consistently high in heat and low in ash and dust.

Wood chips are dumped into a bark-fueled dryer that bakes the moisture content to 10 percent. Hammer mills pulverize the chips into a fiber meal, which is blown into the pellet mills. Heat and pressure extrude the fiber into slim, dowel-shaped rods that are cut into pellets.

Roughly 80 percent of the output is sold in bags, which are filled on a conveyor. Fifty bags are piled onto a pallet, then covered and wrapped in plastic to stay dry. Forklift drivers scoot back and forth to load the one-ton pallets.

In stores, consumers notice the green and tan bags of Maine’s Choice premium wood pellets. The bags feature a whimsical image of ma and pa moose, sitting around a pellet stove on a winter day.

But filling bags with pellets is costly and cumbersome. Maine’s manufacturers want to sell pellets in bulk by the truckload, as European plants do.

American consumers have been slow to embrace bulk delivery, but there are some encouraging signs. Phillips-based School Administrative District 58, for instance, buys 600 tons of pellets a year from Geneva Wood Fuels to heat its school buildings. A giant pellet boiler being installed at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor will burn 60 tons a day, some of it from here.

Outside, a new metal silo that can hold 300 tons of pellets stands next to the plant. That’s the future, Maine pellet makers hope.

But for now, workers here are happy to fill bags, roughly 40,000 in a week. Off they go, to retailers across New England, from the Maine town once known for toothpicks and someday, perhaps, from the wood pellet capital of the world.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

[email protected]