Working hard to meet demand
Mill supplies juniper boards for landscape needs, paneling, higher-end products
Kendall Derby jumped into the juniper milling game 12 years ago, with a mill in Dayville. He moved to Fossil in 2008 when a mill with a kiln and warehouse went up for sale. Business for his appropriately named In the Sticks Juniper Sawmill has improved by fits and starts.
“I started out with a pickup truck and a chainsaw,” he says. “Now I’m at the point where I buy log-truck loads and ship the boards out by semis.”
It’s not a slam dunk. Living in sparsely settled Eastern Oregon brings its own rural challenges. “If I work for free and work hard, I can stay in business. If I want to repair equipment and pay crew, I have to put out more volume. The lumber industry is all about how much you can produce.”
A year ago, he ran out of logs for a while and had to lay everyone off. “We got our feet back under us and did great for the last 10 months,” he says, “and now I’m back down to a couple of guys.” Finding the right guys is also an ongoing challenge in a county where the entire population is about 1,200 people, only 450 of them in the Fossil area.
Transportation also poses a problem, especially when dealing with truckers who really hate to haul empty. As it stands now, they have to make the trek to Fossil empty, get the lumber and then go home, many of them amazed at the twisty, windy roads.
Still, Derby believes in the product. He mills blue pine and fir, mostly for corral boards, but his bread and butter is juniper. He does a lot of 6x6 and 2x6 boards for landscape timbers, as well as some higher-end products such as 1x6 boards for paneling offering consumers that unique juniper look.
“The good news is the environmental community is on my side, and the business development community is on my side. I have a pretty good crew, and I’m experienced, and I think there’s real opportunity here,” he says.
Derby knows juniper inside and out, having spent a year and a half studying the species as a research technician while he worked to get a degree in range management from Oregon State University.
He sees demand going up. “The problem is not the market — the market is wonderful. We have increased prices, and people are happy to pay them. It’s other things — last year it was the log supply. But I can sell everything I can mill, and that’s a good problem to have.”
An encouraging development happened recently when, for the first time, his mill received a shipment of logs from a Forest Service timber sale. Almost all his supply right now comes from land restoration work on private lands. If loggers on public land sales are encouraged to sell the juniper rather than leave it or burn it, supply issues could ease.
And other good-news examples are cropping up with increasing regularity. The Nature Conservancy is using juniper from its own lands for fencing and paneling in a new office building. “They are paying me to mill and dry them,” Derby says. “That’s The Nature Conservancy putting their money where their mouth is.”
The new Cottonwood Canyon State Park, between Condon and Wasco, purchased juniper from Derby for use as siding on a new visitors’ center, to construct a gazebo and to panel four rustic sleeping cabins.
“And here’s a little tidbit that I just heard about today,” Darby says. “The Forest Service on Mount Hood is going to use juniper — an organic restoration product — on bridges on their trails.”
Back in the pickup-and-chainsaw days, Derby was approached with an order for 6x6 juniper landscape timbers for erosion control on the southern Oregon part of the Pacific Crest Trail. “I couldn’t do that volume then,” he says, “but I’m looking forward to the next time they call. I’ll be like, why, sure, let’s have a party.”