For years, economists have predicted the demise of Oregon’s manufacturing sector.
And it has shrunk.
But there are places, especially in rural Oregon, where manufacturing is holding on and even growing.
In this, the first of a series of stories on the rural economy , Kristian Foden-Vencil visited a couple of small successful manufacturing companies in Prineville.
If you’ve ever tried to pound a fence post into the ground, you know how hard it is.
So spare a thought for ranchers, whose average age hovers around 59, and who have miles of fences to maintain.
About 10 years ago, Powell Butte rancher Dan Rohrer was in just such a position. So he hired someone to do the job.
Dan Rohrer; “He was whining about his shoulders and his arms. And I says, well, why don’t you get some power equipment. And he says there is none, no power equipment that’s portable. The only thing you’ve got that’s driving posts is a huge compressor driven, it’s called a rhino that has to take a trailer mounted compressor to run it. So they still have to drive them by hand. That’s when I decided we’ll look into this and manufactured the first one in about 15 days and sold the first 25 a month later.”
In his back shed, Rohrer took a traditional fence post driver — which is like a long metal cup that fits upside down over a post — and he powered it using compressed air.
Rohrer, who served on submarines in the Navy and then worked for Tektronix in Portland, says his pounder is better than the competition’s because it’s a quarter of the price — and it’s light — so it can be worked by one person, instead of three.
When it was first invented, he says, ranchers told him it paid for itself in a day.
Dan Rohrer: “They couldn’t believe it. But they believed it and bought all the product. That was all I needed.”
It’s easy to dismiss such pride as smooth marketing patter. But Rohrer with his white stubble, leather hat and NRA badges, is anything but smooth. The truth is, the tool works well — and it’s just been picked-up by an international distributor.
Dan Rohrer: “The gentleman that runs Peerless Pumps in Australia flew over here and toured the plant. Liked what he saw. And put it in his first order. Put in his second order and we’re working on the third order.”
Such activity belies the adage that American manufacturing is dead. In fact Rohrer says the last couple of years he’s seen orders increase 10 to 20 percent. And he says, he has no plans to try to strike it rich by outsourcing production overseas.
Dan Rohrer: “There’s a whole bunch of things that fall into place when you send it overseas. You’ve got two or three people, middle men, that you’re working with that are all going to take a cut. So by the time you get it over here and go through all the hoops of customs and everything, it costs you just as much to get it overseas as it does to build it here with good American people.”
Fiercely independent and patriotic, Rohrer has grown his company without borrowing a penny — and it’s patently clear he has no intention of outsourcing.
But that doesn’t mean towns like Prineville can take him — or other manufacturers for granted. Rohrer got a tax break for moving to his current location and just down the street the owner of NW Hydro-Stripping, Wendie Every, is looking for the same kind of help.
Wendie Every: “We are actually looking at possibly moving this business as far as where does it make the most sense for us and what are are municipalities and other cities willing to give us as far as an advantage, and incentive in working with enterprise zones to move the business.”
Cities and counties continue to offer incentives to manufacturers because they provide stable, relatively well-paid jobs. But there’s never a guarantee.
Many Prineville locals are still smarting from the departure of 300 jobs and the Les Schwab Headquarters to Bend a couple of years ago.
The unemployment rate here is 16 percent.
But says Jason Carr, the manager of Prineville’s economic development efforts, they’ve had some great news recently — Facebook is building a server farm in town.
Jason Carr: “That’s really the beginning of what we believe is an important piece of the puzzle to diversification in Prineville. You know certainly having a project like Facebook helps. It doesn’t solve our problems, but that’s what really we need to look at is diversification and getting other types of business and companies and a variety of different jobs in the community.”
But regardless of new businesses and subsidies, Crook County’s manufacturing sector continues to struggle.
In 2007, manufacturing made up about 12 percent of non-farm payroll. Now it only makes up about 10 percent.
But Carolyn Eagan, the state’s economist in Central Oregon, says in some respects rural manufacturers are doing better than their urban peers — because the electronics made in cities like Portland can be made overseas, whereas Oregon has one of the best climates in the world for trees — and that can’t be shipped anywhere.
Eagan says many manufacturing jobs in rural Oregon have been lost during this recession. But she says, local manufacturers — especially mills — aren’t going anywhere, they’re just using the downtime to retool.
Carolyn Eagan: “When the demand returns for doors and siding and other construction supplies we’re likely to see that employment in the wood product manufacturing return.”
Jay Deeaye: “You put a part in like this. Up against the stop. And then push the button.”
Back at Rohrer Manufacturing, Jay Deeaye works three cutting lathes at once to make the company’s successful fence-post driver. Standing next to his boss, he says he’s confident about his job.
Jay Deeaye: “I don’t see this company going oversees.”
Kristian: “And why not?”
Jay Deeaye: “Because we have an American here who’s going to keep it right here that’s going to keep it here. There are those kind of people who believe — I shop in Redmond. I don’t go over the mountain to go shopping. I try to shop right here to buy products that are made and people who are selling stuff in our area.”
Rohrer Manufacturing employs about eight people. And even though Australians are buying, that’s not expected to increase any time soon.
Instead says rancher and CEO Dan Rohrer, everyone’s going to have to work a big harder to increase production.
This story is part of our Rural Economy Project. We’re looking at how small businesses and communities around Oregon are coping with the recession that began last year.
Next Tuesday, hear how farmers are diversifying into other crops, so as to avoid another year like last year.
The project is a partnership between OPB and the Rural Development Initiative, Sustainable Northwest and The Oregon Consortium and Oregon Workforce Alliance.
The Rural Economy Project is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.