U.S. Rural Development official visits Mountain Pine Manufacturing in Steamboat | SteamboatToday.com

U.S. Rural Development official visits Mountain Pine Manufacturing in Steamboat

— Sam Rikkers, a high-ranking official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s rural development office in Washington, D.C., rolled into Steamboat Springs in a snowstorm Thursday, apologized for his suit and tie and got down to business, huddling with Trent Jones, of Mountain Pine Manufacturing.

Rikkers is acting administrator of the USDA's Rural Business-Cooperative Service and knows Steamboat well — his family has owned a vacation condominium here since his youth. He came through Steamboat on a swing across Northern Colorado, ending up at Colorado State University Thursday.

Jones is exploring federal grants and loan programs that might help him grow his business, which converts beetle-killed timber into wood strand mulch, a process that supports revegetation of disturbed soils at highway projects, oil well pads and scorched forests, among other projects.

Mountain Pine Manufacturing has found a client in Anadarko Petroleum, in Southern Wyoming, where his wood straw mulch has proven superior to less-expensive wheat straw in its ability to remain in place and conserve soil moisture in a dry, windy climate, Jones told Rikkers.

In addition, wood strand mulch eliminates concerns about introducing noxious weeds that come with straw mulch into the environment, he said.

Jones expressed optimism that, beginning in 2016, the Colorado Department of Transportation will begin using more of his product on highway projects. But in order to tool up and meet increasing demand, he needs to finance more specialized equipment. He is hoping the Rural Business-Cooperative Service might be able to lend assistance.

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Jones' business, which employs five people, shares a light industrial site with Rogue Resources on Downhill Drive in west Steamboat. In 2012, he received start-up funds from the Colorado State Forest Service's Forest Business Loan Fund, a program established to lend capital to businesses focused on using beetle-killed trees.

Rikkers expressed admiration for Jones' business, which converts some of the beetle-killed timber that plagues Western forests into a useful product while expanding economic diversity in the region

"It's something that's sitting there dead in the forest — it's such a cool story," Rikkers said.

Jones told Rikkers he'd like to expand his business to include new sites in Southern Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona. But first, he needs to finance the purchase of a more sophisticated saw to more efficiently transform raw logs into the thin sheets of veneer that are fed into a shredder to become wood strand mulch. The veneer saw he currently uses must be shut down every 90 minutes to replace its blades. The saw simply won't keep up with current customer demand, Jones explained. That requires Mountain Pine Manufacturing to purchase some of the veneer its needs from a plywood plant in Yreka, Calif.

A more efficient saw would support expanding the business in Routt County and new shredding operations in neighboring states, Jones said, adding that, when potential customers understand the increased durability and effectiveness of mulch made from shredded pine trees, his company will expand into markets such as Gillette, Wyoming, and Flagstaff, Arizona.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1