Business Grants Help Emerging Juniper Industry

Last fall, RDI awarded business investment grants to small business owners in Wheeler County, Oregon, as part of the WealthWorks program. Jim Epley, a Spray landowner and owner of a habitat restoration business, and Kendall Derby, owner of In the Sticks Juniper Sawmill in Fossil, were awarded WealthWorks grants to expand their businesses’ capacity to harvest, process, and sell milled and kiln-dried Western Juniper. 
 
The business investment grants and technical assistance provided through the WealthWorks program allowed the business owners to make critical investments and helped to position them to access larger funding sources to grow their businesses and create at least three jobs, resulting in ripple effects on the local economy. 
 
Since receiving the initial grants, both business owners have received loans from the state of Oregon’s Western Juniper Industry Fund. Jim Epley was awarded the state’s first loan under the program, which was created to jump-start the removal of Western juniper trees, improving the ecosystem and creating much-needed jobs in rural communities. Epley is restoring 1,500 acres of property and is using the state loan to continue cutting and milling juniper trees. Since receiving the awards, he has been able to purchase equipment and hire three people.
 
This spring, Kendall Derby was a recipient of two state business loans to support efforts to increase production and jobs at In the Sticks sawmill. The grant from RDI, in addition to the loans, are allowing Derby to buy logs and purchase more equipment to increase both efficiency and productivity, as well as to develop more market connections for juniper products.
 
Through the WealthWorks program, RDI and its partners look for solutions to expand economic opportunities for local industries, and ultimately build lasting community wealth. Western Juniper is a native species in Central Oregon that grows throughout Wheeler County, and over the past century, it has begun to outcompete other native vegetation and interfere with the balance of the local ecology. Juniper grows in areas that are difficult to reach and the logs are gnarled, so the process of logging and milling juniper is challenging. Because harvesting Western Juniper in Central Oregon is critical for grassland restoration, niche markets in urban areas have been created by buyers who seek out environmentally sustainable wood products.
 
These grants and loans have been a game changer for Kendall Derby and Jim Epley, and are allowing them to expand their businesses and increase the viability of juniper harvesting and lumber production as a livelihood by addressing the issues of quality control, inventory management, and marketing, while helping to restore balance to the local ecology. 
 
“Juniper market development is all ‘small business’ as it becomes a new industry. RDI is investing early and helping shape the future of juniper,” expressed Kendall Derby, owner of In the Sticks Juniper Sawmill.
 
Central Oregon is one of six regions selected by RDI in 2014 to explore the potential for economic development through the WealthWorks program. Introduced by Rural Development Initiatives to Oregon’s rural communities, WealthWorks Northwest is a new economic development framework that aims to build not just financial, but multiple forms of wealth that can benefit community residents today and for generations to come while rooting value in local people, places, and businesses. Some groups are now investing in ways that address gaps and constraints in local and regional economies and are taking advantage of opportunities to expand business opportunities and wealth creation in rural areas.
 
Generous support for RDI’s WealthWorks Northwest program comes from Meyer Memorial Trust, Northwest Area Foundation, and The Ford Family Foundation.