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  • Making the best of it: How things work

    Father-son team relies on ingenuity to make adjustments needed in poor market
  • Father-son team relies on ingenuity to make adjustments needed in poor market
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  • Editor's note: This is the first in a six-day series on local residents reinventing themselves in hard times.
    Bud Van Norman hasn't spent a lot of time poring over the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th century American essayist and philosopher.
    But the owner of Van Norman Logging, a firm that has logged throughout Southern Oregon and Northern California since he started it 42 years ago, is familiar with Emerson's observation: "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door."
    The 63-year-old Glendale resident and his son, Kory, 27, built "a better mousetrap" last year in an industrial-sized chipper to grind logging debris into "hog fuel" — wood chips for industrial boilers. It is one of the innovative tools they have designed and built to meet the timber industry's economic challenges.
    "It was originally a hay buster they use for grinding hay," Bud explained. "We modified it so it would grind wood. We wanted to make it small enough and mobile enough that you could get in and out of the woods with it — that's the key."
    "To be a logger today and survive, you have to be a fabricator, mechanic, electrician, businessman," Kory observed.
    After buying the hay buster in Medford, they stood back and studied it a bit, sketched a few ideas for modifying it, then rolled up their sleeves and went to work. For the next three months, the father-and-son team employed what loggers are known for: good old Yankee ingenuity.
    "If something didn't work that we came up with, we just changed it and tried something different," Kory said.
    "We did a lot of welding," his dad said. "There was a lot of work put into it. Figuring out the conveyor system, that was pretty hard, but you didn't have to be a rocket scientist to build it."
    Unfortunately, the world hasn't exactly beaten a path to Bud Van Norman's comfortable log house overlooking Interstate 5.
    "There would be a path here if somebody would fulfill the other end and get us a market," Bud said. "We've done our part. We've got supply. The thing is, you can't get a steady market for hog fuel now.
    "What we were doing last winter was taking the fuel down to the mill here in Glendale," he said. "We ground up a couple of tons. But by spring there was really no demand."
    The grinder wasn't perfect: There were problems with dirt in the woody debris and the chip size needed to be fine-tuned, Bud said.
    "But the chip market is down right now — that's the main thing," he said, noting he has been focusing on small-diameter thinning projects. "However, we know what we can do when the time comes."
    A 1964 graduate of Glendale High School, Bud earned an associate's degree in civil engineering from Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls, then returned to the Southern Oregon woods where his grandfather first bucked logs with a crosscut saw (known to loggers as a "misery whip") early in the 1900s.
    In addition to Kory, a 2000 graduate of Glendale High School who followed his father into the logging woods, Bud has five daughters who are also chips off the Van Norman creative block. One has a doctorate in psychology; another is working on a doctorate in chemical engineering, focusing on alternative fuels; and another has a master's degree in forest science.
    In addition to logging, the Van Normans also own a gas station and restaurant in Glendale.
    "These are interesting times for loggers — very tough," Bud said.
    "We keep on trying things to find something that works," he said. "You look at the problem, then decide what is needed to solve it."
    Take, for example, the small logging yarder sitting next to the grinder. The log-moving machine was built by Bud and Kory and it's small enough to be moved with a pickup truck.
    "With these small thinning sales, we needed to be able to be very mobile and be able to get into small places," Bud said.
    Then there is the tracked log loader they use on the landing. It's equipped with a "dangle head" processor that swivels at the end of a boom, giving it the ability to cut off limbs and saw logs to precise lengths.
    "We wanted to load with it and process with it, be able to do everything with one machine," Kory explained. "But the old computer system in it was obsolete. We were having a lot of trouble with it."
    After they discovered it would cost more than $10,000 for a new computer system, Kory decided he could modify it himself.
    "It took me a couple of days to get it all figured out," he said. "Between the main computer, which was about $400, and the relays, we have less than $1,000 in the whole thing."
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