The small post and pole sawmill located on seven acres of Wallowa city property between the Truck Route and the old Bates Mill now employs three people on site and two elsewhere in a marketing capacity, but could employ eight or nine persons by next summer, said Plant Manager Ray Cameron.
Cameron said the facility that specializes in making posts and poles for residential and agricultural uses plans to build a roof over the pole peeling plant and operate all year. He said the small diameter mill could put on a second shift by next summer. In addition to the three workers at the Wallowa site, Anette Christoffersen and Ric Bombaci work at Wallowa Resources in Enterprise to market products.
Wallowa County Commissioner Mike Hayward is chairman of Community Solutions, Inc., the for-profit arm of the nonprofit Wallowa Resources and the entity that is the only stockholder in Community Small Woods Solutions, which owns the post and pole plant. He said, "The market is there to sell the material, but to make the business profitable we have to improve on mechanization."
"Right now the work is pretty hand-labor intensive," Cameron said.
Only beginning operations late last fall, the three workers, including Cameron, now sort and buck logs for three weeks for every one week that the peeler is put in operation. The logs are bucked into lengths by chain saw.
Hayward hopes in the foreseeable future to lease a machine called a single grip at $28 an hour to jointly sort and cut the logs into lengths and allow the peeler to run daily.
Under the current operation Cameron hopes to put out a minimum of 500 posts and poles each day. With the help of the single grip, Hayward is looking toward 2,000 pieces each day.
The expressed role of the nonprofit Wallowa Resources is to make the business profitable, sell it to a private entity, then use the proceeds to invest in another small business in Wallowa County.
One goal of the small business is not to compete with Wallowa Forest Products, instead taking in logs smaller in diameter than the Wallowa mill handles. Cameron said the post and pole plant can handle wood up to a nine inch butt and go down to three inches at the top.
The type of wood milled at the Wallowa post and pole plant is evenly split between lodgepole and Douglas fir. The most commonly produced product at the plant is seven to eight foot long posts and poles ranging from four inches to six inches in diameter. A band of 50 pieces, either lodgepole or Douglas fir, now sells for about $150. Cameron said that a newly created pressure treatment process makes Douglas fir even stronger than lodgepole.
Yet lodgepole is still easier to sell. "With lodgepole we can sell as much as we can produce," Cameron said.
Posts and poles are commonly loaded on semi-trucks and shipped to pressure treatment facilities in Sheridan or Silver Springs, Nev., from where brokers, contacted by Christoffersen or Bombaci, determine their final destination. Although Cameron thinks money could be saved by shipping product on the railroad, only trucks have been used thus far. Hayward said rail will become a viable option once volumes increase.
Other products produced locally are 10 foot rails three to five inches in diameter and both erosion control structures and small log habitat enhancement structures to direct stream flows.
Posts and poles sold locally, with the Nature Conservancy being a big consumer, can be pressure treated at Northwest Fence in Enterprise.
Hayward is not as optimistic as Cameron that a second shift will start next summer. "Before we put on another shift we would probably go from four 10-hour days to five 10-hour days. Ultimately I expect we will go to a second shift," he said. "The profit increases if you run a second shift."
The man who actually built the post and pole plant, Matt Gross of Joseph, is in the Oregon National Guard and training to be deployed to Iraq. Cameron, who has been on the job since May, anticipates that Gross will return to the position of plant manager when he comes back from overseas.
The post and pole peeler is the property of Wallowa Resources and is leased to Community Small Woods Solutions. It was originally purchased for installation at Joseph Timber Products in Joseph, but that sawmill ceased operations before the small diameter mill was added to the complex.
Efforts are being made to make the small mill profitable. Both Cameron and Hayward spoke about a desire to expand the mill's capacity to handle logs to about 25 feet in length. When that modification is made there is a market for 24-foot light utility poles that would end up in Mexico.
With funding from grants written by Wallowa Resources or from private investors, Hayward sees a time, possibly only one year away, when the operation could employ an additional six people to produce flooring and paneling. He knows that such an expansion to the business would necessitate capital investment for a saw, planer and dry kiln, but he also thinks that by processing the highest and best use of the wood that the business would become more profitable. Vertical grain Douglas fir flooring, especially from 80-year-old trees, is highly marketable, Hayward said.