Think Out Loud

After more than a decade, a sawmill in East Oregon reopens

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
July 21, 2022 5:54 p.m. Updated: July 22, 2022 3:53 p.m.

Broadcast: Thursday, July 21

After 15 years of closure, the Prairie Wood Products sawmill has reopened.

After 15 years of closure, the Prairie Wood Products sawmill has reopened.

Brandon Swanson


Earlier this month, the Prairie Wood Products sawmill in Grant County officially reopened. The sawmill in Prairie City initially closed in 2008 during the financial crisis and temporarily reopened in 2009 before shutting down again later that year. The mill has hired 25 people and is looking to hire up to 25 more. Jodi Westbrooks is the president of Prairie Wood Products and Kyle Westbrooks is the business development manager for the same company. We’ll hear from them on why they chose to open the mill after years of closing, and how they’re handling inflation and other challenges.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: The Prairie Wood Products Sawmill and Grant County closed in 2008, during the Great Recession. Normally when that happens, a mill stays closed, but last week the sawmill reopened. 25 people have been hired already. More are expected in the coming months. I’m joined now by Jodi Westbrooks. She’s the president of Prairie Wood Products . Her son, Kyle Westbrooks, joins us as well. He is the business development manager there. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Jodi Westbrooks: Thank you, thanks for having us.

Miller: Jodi first. Were you there a week and a half ago, on the very first day of operating again?

Jodi Westbrooks: Yes, actually. Our whole family was there, and it was so exciting! We got to be in the mill, and watch them run, and could not be more excited.

Miller: What did it mean to you, Kyle, to have this mill running again?

Kyle Westbrooks: It’s honestly indescribable. It’s pretty special to be involved in such a great community over there. They’re always so warm and welcoming, and I just wish my grandpa was here to see it. It’s special, for lack of a better term.

Miller: Jodi, let’s go back in time. What was happening in 2008, to the wood products industry?

Jodi Westbrooks: The housing market imploded, and the economy went down. Everyone was having a hard time back then, and unfortunately we had to shut down.

Miller: How was that decision made? And am I right that 2008 was when you basically took control of the company? What a time to be in the timber business.

Jodi Westbrooks: Back then, actually, my brother and my sister and I were all in charge of the company together. My dad had gotten sick, and so we stepped in. Yeah, it was not great timing. We would have loved to have his leadership through that, but there were a lot of mills going down at that time, and when you have no market, it can’t run. It was devastating. It was heartbreaking, and we hated it.

Miller: If I’m not mistaken, there was a brief reopening a year later in 2009. What happened?

Jodi Westbrooks: Yeah, it opened for a short time. We tried, and I wasn’t as involved back then so I don’t remember the details, but I know that we were hoping that the market would pick up and it just didn’t.

Miller: So, zooming forward Kyle, a number of years, 13 years, why reopen now?

Kyle Westbrooks: We’ve always wanted to be back in that community and have that mill running. We’ve held onto it for that reason. We didn’t know when. We started a sawmill over here last year, a stud mill, a very similar process, and had great success with that.

Miller: When you say here, I assumed you were actually in John Day right now. Where are you?

Kyle Westbrooks: We have our two samples over here on the west side. We are about 20 miles south of Roseburg and Riddle, Oregon.

Miller: So you’re on the west side right now, but your hope was to always reopen the one in Grant County. What is it about the economy now, or the timber business, that made you say now is the time?

Kyle Westbrooks: Well, like I was saying, we had some great success opening that stud mill over here. We felt that we had the ability and the knowledge to go ahead and do Prairie at this time. Obviously the market has been really good in the lumber industry the last couple of years, which has had a very big impact on this decision, but our intentions were to get it open regardless. Just this window opened up with all this coming about, and we’re excited to be back.

Miller: Kyle, what’s the main product that you’re putting out?

Kyle Westbrooks: It’ll be studs primarily, two and better studs, eight and nine foot white fir and Doug fir primarily. Maybe a little bit of lodgepole mixed in, but primarily fir.

Miller: Where are you going to be getting that fir from?

Kyle Westbrooks: Go ahead mom.

Jodi Westbrooks: Right now we’re just getting started, but currently we’re working with some great local loggers and buying logs off of private lands in the area. We are very excited to collaborate in the near future with public lands in Grant County.

Miller: And how do you get those relationships back underway? Because if you haven’t been there for a while, close to 15 years, it means that loggers in the area, they’re not used to driving their trucks to your mill. How do you get them to come back?

Jodi Westbrooks: They have been overwhelmingly supportive of this. It’s been so great. They’ve been having a truck three hours, one way, at least, minimum, up till now, and so the fact that they can just come to our plant has been really good for them and good for us. We’ve had an outpouring of people contacting us, wanting to sell us wood that they haven’t been able to sell recently. That’s been great.


Miller: Three hours. How far away are some of these loggers that you’re working with? That you hope to be working with? How much could they trim that trip by?

Jodi Westbrooks: Oh a lot. They’re local to the area. They’re trimming two and a half hours, sometimes, off one way.

Miller: This is maybe a weird case where inflation, in particular the price of diesel, could actually help you, right? Even more incentive for loggers to take their logs to you.

Jodi Westbrooks: Sure is. It’s not a good problem to have though. We don’t want them to have to pay more for their diesel.

Miller: Right, because you’re paying more for everything as well.

Jodi Westbrooks: Of course.

Miller: Looking at products you need to buy to run your business, how has inflation affected your business?

Jodi Westbrooks: It’s affected every industry in our country right now. This is a huge problem, but we have just put our heads down, and we’re just gonna barrel through it and hope that somebody can get it turned around.

Miller: Kyle, let’s turn to employment and hiring. You had a two day job fair at Chester’s Thriftway, a grocery store in John Day. How did those job fairs go?

Kyle Westbrooks: Oh it was outstanding. We had a very overwhelming amount of people come. It was very exciting, honestly. It was much more successful than we anticipated.

Miller: What kinds of wages are you offering?

Kyle Westbrooks: We’re offering a family living wage over there, a very comfortable wage with the ability to grow there. This new sawmill offers a lot of opportunity for people to develop a career, and grow within a company, and stay there for a long time.

Miller: What does a family or living wage mean in numbers, in dollar numbers?

Kyle Westbrooks: I would say, as a privately owned company, we don’t want to speak on that. I guess I don’t really know how to answer that, to be honest with you.

Miller: Okay. But you’d rather not share that information. But let me put it this way; was it hard to hire the first 25 people who you hired?

Kyle Westbrooks: Not at all. It was outstanding.

Miller: You had to turn people away.

Kyle Westbrooks: No, not necessarily, no. We still are planning on employing about 20 to 25 more people, for the planer and the kilns operation as well.

Miller: Did any people show up hoping to work in this mill who worked there in the past?

Kyle Westbrooks: Yes, actually, a lot. Whether it was a generational connection or a personal connection, quite a few. It’s very cool to hear all the old stories of my grandpa and the way it was before, and all that stuff. It’s really cool to be around.

Miller: So, Jodi, people have come up to you to say this is what it was like, or this is what I remember from your father?

Jodi Westbrooks: Yes. You can’t go anywhere there, in John Day or Prairie city, if they see you wearing a Prairie City shirt or they recognize us, or even not recognize us, just overhearing other people talking to each other. It’s pretty cool. The excitement is contagious, the stories. Everybody that you run into over there either knew my dad, worked for my dad, or had a father or uncle or grandpa or somebody that did. It’s pretty cool. But see, I remember. I grew up over there. We went over there half a week every week until I was in school, and then I didn’t go near as often after that, but I remember how important that community was to my dad and being part of it back then, and it’s really great to be back with my husband and my kids and grandkids.

Miller: Kyle, does all the old equipment work almost 15 years after being fired up? Machines can get rusty and janky if they’re not used regularly and maintained. At least that’s the way it is for cars and all kinds of machines. Did all this stuff work?

Kyle Westbrooks: Well about a year and a half ago we started looking into that. We had our concerns, but we wouldn’t know until we tried. Surprisingly enough we were very excited to see how well everything was put to bed. Everything was turning over. It was very, very good. We were pressing buttons and everything was turning on, so we were pleasantly surprised. Of course, there’s little things that happened, whether it’s motors or belts or chains or whatever it is, that come up, but it was never a big hurdle. We just replaced it and move forward, and it’s been very good.

Miller: Jodi, in a sense, what we’re talking about is a bust and a boom here. How do you prepare for the possibility of another bust? Another either big reduction in demand or big drop in price?

Jodi Westbrooks: Well, we just started with a skeleton crew and we’re going to stay that way until we have the need for more. We are just going to be holding everything tight to the belt, and we’re going to barrel through it just like we are here, on the west side.

Miller: Jodi and Kyle, congratulations and best of luck to you.

Kyle Westbrooks: Thank you so much.

Jodi Westbrooks: Thank you so much. We really appreciate you having us on. Can I just give a real quick shout out to Jim Hamsher, Prairie City’s Mayor? He’s been great to help us and we really appreciate him along with our whole crew. I’d like to name them all, but I just am very thankful for their hard work and determination. Without them, we would not be starting.

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