Businesses like Integrated Biomass Solutions of Wallowa are the key to a strong economic future.
That was the determination after the July 27 meeting and tour of the facility with U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and State Rep. Greg Barreto.
County commissioner Todd Nash and Nils Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources, were also on hand to discuss development of wood-related projects.
Owners and operators David and Jesse Schmidt conducted the tour, pointed out improvements and told the story of their growing success.
The company has done well in firewood sales due to its ability to reliably meet the needs of their grocery store customers primarily from Oregon and Washington. The firewood market allows them to use trees scorched by forest fires and small diameter logs larger mills do not want, making them a key player in forest restoration.
“For the last two years, 50 percent of our volume through here has been post fire material,” Schmidt said. “We really got that niche market started because we were the first in the west to do certified pest free, so we’re not moving invasive species across the west.”
And for retailers, no spiders in the groceries.
IBS is also preparing to expand it market for posts and poles by using a new process that wraps the base of fir post and poles with Rotblock, a recycled drip irrigation material. That material gives the wood a life expectancy comparable to treated poles.
Organic farms and vineyards are an important new market for the product, Schmidt said, because they do not want chemically treated material in the ground.
“We are partnering with Rotblock to prewrap poles here,” Schmidt said. “We put in, for the second year in a row, for a Wood Innovation Grant through USDA to build an automated system for that.”
One of the problems the business has faced is that most forestry sales are too large for small companies and therefore go to companies outside of Wallowa County, Schmidt said. That means the jobs created are not available to Wallowa County residents –– providing local workers with living wage jobs remains a primary goal for the company, Schmidt said.
Another problem is that the wages IBS can reasonably offer are falling behind the cost of living.
“We’re looking for ways we can offer those $15 to $20 an hour jobs,” Schmidt said. “Housing costs have doubled in Wallowa County in the nine years I’ve lived here ... and the $13 per hour jobs we created are going unfilled. We’ve had five positions open for a year.”
But the situation is improving. Smaller timber sale projects for smaller businesses are being required through the small business set-aside.Schmidt said his company was the only bidder on five recent small-diameter timber sales.
New measures have been proposed included in Federal Farm Bill, according to Rep. Walden, including catagoric exclusions at 6,000 acres, requirements for replanting after a fire and others.
Another measure providing for up to 20-year stewardship contracts were recently approved in the 2019 Omnibus Spending Bill, Walden said.
In addition, large mills are realizing that disposing of material they cannot use is important and are partnering with businesses like IBS.
The company continues to look for capital from a variety of sources, pushing for more automation that will create higher-wage jobs. And they are readying themselves for partnerships with larger companies.
“Our business model fits an important niche,” Schmidt said. “Every month we have communities from all across the west that want to come and look at what we’re doing because this is something that’s needed in other places.”