Father-son team relies on ingenuity to make adjustments needed in poor market
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."
Many of their innovations are driven by the economic downturn in the timber industry, said Bud, adding the small firm would normally have half a dozen employees to run a skyline cable-logging operation.
"We've had to cut the crew in half in order to make it," Bud said. "You have to keep your costs way down to make it. What we are doing is becoming mechanized in every way we can."
That's why they decided to try their hand at the wood grinder, he said. They knew that by transporting wood waste out of the forests at lower cost, the improvised machine could help make the hog fuel cost-effective. Hauling loose woody debris was a money loser because it took up too much space.
The Van Norman wood grinder consists of an 8-foot-diameter revolving tub that holds the debris, grinding teeth on the bottom to chew up the wood, a conveyor belt that carries the hog fuel to a waiting truck and a 28-foot trailer that holds nearly 80 cubic yards.
It's small enough to be pulled to the job site by a pickup truck, Bud said, noting most industrial-strength wood grinders are too large for small projects.
"We put a 300-horse engine in it so it would have enough power," he said of the grinder. "It'll grind enough wood to fill the trailer in about two hours."
One person can operate it with radio controls.
"All you have to do is keep feeding it," he added.
But radio controls can't send a signal to improve the market. For instance, the cost of gasoline — or diesel — makes it too costly to truck the chipped wood to BioMass One, the wood-fueled plant in White City, he said.
"We're on the outer fringe — it's 60 miles," he said. "The same for going north. If we had a cogeneration plant (closer), that would be a different story."
The hog fuel they sold last winter to a local mill was used to fire a boiler to dry plywood and veneer, he explained.
"Having a market, that's the challenge," he reiterated. "There has got to be a steady market. In the past 40 years, we've always had highs and lows. We know it will come back, but this low is pretty low."
If the market doesn't improve, they may put the wood grinder up for sale, he said.
"There is a lot of hazardous fuel reduction work there, but so far we can't get anything going," he said, estimating the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Glendale Resource Area alone has some 2,000 miles of roads that need vegetation removed along the roadways.
"It'd be nice if that opened up," he said.
Still, he's optimistic that others are taking innovative steps. For instance, he noted that the Enterprise School District in rural northeastern Oregon reduced its heating bill by installing a wood-fired boiler in that small town.
"We have the schools and the wood in our area to do that," he said.
Meanwhile, the immediate future for his firm is in logging small-diameter trees in thinning projects, he said.
"It's doable economically — there is some thinning work that's coming up," he said.
"It's probably a ways out before the grinder can really be put to use," Kory agreed. "Getting enough money for the product is the biggest thing."
Under current conditions, logging slash is worth more as firewood than hog fuel, he said.
"This is a great place to live, but a hell of a place to try to make a living," Bud said. "All you can do is hang in there, keep plugging away."
Kory said he plans to continue following his father's footsteps at Van Norman Logging.
"Nothing else better to do around here," he said, "and there is a future out there. Definitely."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.