WALLOWA – A five-year-old business in Wallowa that employs more than 20 people is wrapping up one year of new, on-site construction that will increase production, enhance quality of product, and subsequently create more jobs.
The business is Integrated Biomass Resources (IBR) owned by David and Jesse Schmidt. A much-studied endeavor (Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber visited the site within the last month), IBR is unique in that it’s a sawmill that doesn’t make lumber.
Instead, almost all of the wood products produced and sold at IBR are made from small-diameter logs traditionally thought to have no economic value. Those products include kiln-treated, bug-free firewood; peeled poles; high-quality paper chips; 100 percent wood energy logs; and more.
Firewood was the primary revenue driver during the last year of construction, says Schmidt, but starting up newer, computerized equipment will shorten elapsed time between a 3” to 6” log’s initial cut until those small logs emerge as marketable products. Too, the new machinery will give IBR flexibility to, depending on customer orders and market demand, prioritize manufacture of one product above others on any given day.
“More manufacturing adds more quality and requires more people,” says Schmidt.
Having no interest in estimating how many new jobs will be generated by completion of the “startup” or making long-range projections about future employment possibilities there, Schmidt does say, “We will consistently be adding new jobs.”
Raised in central British Columbia, David Schmidt was troubled by the sight of “hundreds and hundreds of truckloads” of pine beetle-infested logs being stacked and burned. And it was that perceived waste of a natural resource that initiated a passion within Schmidt to discover ways to capture economic value from wood others didn’t want. And from day one, Schmidt’s adopted challenge included small logs and branches traditionally left to rot on forest floors, to become fodder for forest fires or be piled for burning.
The young company ships firewood to chain supermarkets as far away as Southern California and Salt Lake City, while most peeled posts – ranging in length from 6’ to 22’ – are trucked to the Yakima and Willamette valleys for use in orchards, vineyards, and for the growing of hops.
Schmidt, a 2001 graduate of Oregon State University in Wood Science and Engineering, spent years traveling six western states as a wood-related marketing and efficiency counselor. Yet he became “frustrated” by so many people talking about innovative biomass endeavors and following through with none of their ideas.
And so, in 2009 David and Jesse Schmidt leased an 8,000-square-foot building from and in the city of Wallowa, and launched IBR.
“I didn’t want to just talk about it, I wanted to do it and get it done,” says Schmidt today.
Two years into the business of making and selling firewood, IBR needed space to expand and received a generous boost from the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners. Under a contract between the county and IBR, the county purchased the 73-acre former Wallowa Forest Products mill site three miles northwest of Wallowa for $600,000 on the condition IBR lease the land from the county and purchase it within five years.
On June 28, 2013, only 18 months into that five-year contract, IBR purchased the land.
“Buying that land was a mechanism for us to create jobs,” says County Commissioner Susan Roberts.
Schmidt says Wallowa County’s major assist to the biomass project was critical.
“At that time,” said Schmidt, “we needed to put money into manufacturing and not land. That time allowed us to establish enough of a model to get traditional financing (to buy the land). Having the commissioners stick their necks out and doing that resulted in a huge win-win.”
IBR is viewed as a possible prototype for future small-wood sawmills. Minimal waste is associated with its manufacturing operations.
Any logs of traditional sawmill size interspersed in truckloads of small logs hauled to the mill site by independent truck drivers are sold to Boise Cascade. Bark stripped from logs en route to becoming firewood, poles, and other products the market might demand, plus sawdust also are put to use. Those nominal-value byproducts are stoked into one of two large burners on the property to generate electricity and heat. Of those two, says Schmidt, heat is of more value to the overall IBR operation because it’s that heat in kilns that bumps IBR’s firewood to the bug-free status so desirable to buyers.