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Western Alfalfa Backs Dams, Columbia Dredging

by Carie L. Call
Capital Press - April 26, 2002

BOARDMAN, Ore. -- For business owner Dave Murdock, the most compelling issue facing Eastern Oregonians right now is river commerce.

That issue includes two major topics: Lower Snake River dam breaching and the Columbia River channel deepening project.

"The river really is our lifeline. Without it we couldn't exist," Murdock said.

He owns and operates Western Alfalfa with partners John Lloyd and founder Dennis Logan, both farmers. The company was founded in 1977. Murdock, a long-time general manager for the company, became an owner in 1998.

An engineer by training and a farmer by choice, Murdock lives just outside the Hermiston city limits. As he sits in his river-view office at the Port of Morrow, wearing blue jeans and a collared shirt, he speaks softly on the pride he has in his company. He is proud to work with Western farmers, proud to be local, proud to provide jobs -- about 37 full-time posts.

Western Alfalfa buys hay and alfalfa products from farmers in Oregon, Utah, Washington, Idaho and Montana, and compresses it into pellets, cubes and bales for sale to Korea, Japan, Taiwan, China and Saudi Arabia. The product mainly goes to feed dairy cows.

The company has a $1.4 million patented machine that compresses hay bales. The technology helps Western Alfalfa get a freight advantage in increased weight when it ships its full semi-sized containers overseas.

The company is a member of the Channel Deepening Coalition. It is pro-dredging.

"It will become extremely difficult to remain competitive without the full benefit of the Port of Portland," Murdock said.

That means the port must be deep enough to bring in the big, new oceangoing ships. Yet the efforts to deepen the channel by 3 feet have been controversial, placing federal agencies and environmentalists on opposite sides. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has supported the project. The National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will release their reports this month.

Because of the lengthy debate and a shallow-draft channel, the Port of Portland has lost the service of two major shipping lines, Hanjin and Evergreen, reducing the amount of available space on ships.

Hanjin, which also sails out of Seattle, has promised to return to Portland when the economy and the Port of Portland improves. But there has been no movement and no timetable set by the company.

"They keep telling us they do not know," Murdock said.

Last year, four ships called at Portland weekly. Now there are only two, and Murdock doesn't have enough room on the cargo ships for his product. These leftovers, called overflow containers, are the size of semitrailers. He has to send them, via truck or rail, to Seattle/Tacoma, where 27 shipping lines can take his product.

To Murdock, that extra distance by truck and rail translates into a $28 a ton increase in travel expenses. It means his product costs $23 a ton more than his nearest competitor.

"The loss of the vessels created a very hard financial crisis for us," Murdock said. "We look forward to dredging because the larger vessels can come back to Portland and we will have more access to ports of call in Japan, Korea and Taiwan."

Murdock's closest competitors in Canada and Australia have ties to Seattle, California and Australian ports. Though Murdock ships 12 months out of the year and believes he has a superior product, it's going to be tough to compete. "We can try to overcome this by having a quality product, but our consistency of shipment is becoming hindered."

The importance of the river goes beyond exporting Murdock's product. Keeping the river locks and dams open for barge commerce helps him get his hay and alfalfa to his Port of Morrow warehouse, where he makes the bales, cubes and pellets.

Though the Corps has not supported breaching any of the Lower Snake River dams, Murdock doesn't think the issue is settle in the minds of environmentalists.

"There will always be people who want to breach the dams," Murdock said. "There has to be a median struck here between the groups. We need to decide how much we are willing to spend on lawsuits for saving salmon."

He's never thought dam breaching was the answer, despite support for programs to help salmon.

"We pay to help salmon on the power bills on the farms, we are billed for salmon restoration projects indirectly, and have been positive about it," he said.

But, Murdock said, "When is enough, enough? We need to be economically realistic."

(From phone conversation: Sometimes hay that is compressed at their Montana facility is loaded on barge in Lewiston though generally it moves by truck. See containr.htm)

by Carie L. Call
Western Alfalfa Backs Dams, Columbia Dredging
Capital Press - April 26, 2002

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