Manufacturer keeps building on creative skills

John Schmitz/For the Capital Press Craig Pope, owner of Agriweld in Monmouth, Ore., has developed many custom implements for niche markets, including this sprayer.

Cranberry growers' needs inspired Agriweld sprayer and sand spreader

By JOHN SCHMITZ

For the Capital Press

Don't expect Craig Pope to spend much time bemoaning the down economy.

Sure, the 53-year-old founder and operator of Agriweld Inc. and one of the founders of the Willamette Valley Ag Expo, is feeling the effects of the recession just like almost everybody else in agriculture.

But instead of letting it get to him, he keeps on plugging away, looking for niche opportunities.

Ever since he was youngster growing up on a grass seed farm, Pope has had a gift for understanding farm equipment and how to make it work more efficiently.

It's with these skills and a lot of drive that he opened Agriweld 21 years ago.

Today he's quick to come back with reports about how new ventures have opened up for him and show great promise once the economy is again heading north.

One of these opportunities Pope created for himself is far from the little town of Monmouth, working with a crop totally new to him: cranberries.

In addition to a small, earth-friendly sprayer that has application in other crops, Pope designed and built a unit for spreading sand in cranberry bogs in Bandon, Ore. He got the order only after spending several years trying to crack the cranberry industry and finally coming up with a piece of equipment that met a need.

"I listened to what they wanted to accomplish, what they wanted to achieve."

Another silver lining that emerged rather recently, due mainly to the clamp-down on grass seed field burning, was the opportunity to work with OSU Extension field crop specialist Tom Silberstein in designing an implement that will help grass seed growers in the Silverton Hills better manage full straw loads after harvest.

Essentially, the machine -- called a crown sweeper -- diverts chopped straw from seedbeds so that next year's crop will get a good, healthy start. In the process, the drifts of straw deposited away from plants and between seedbed rows serve as a mulch that controls weeds and retains moisture.

Pope said that because he is a small, niche manufacturer, he can adapt more quickly to the special needs of growers that mainstream companies would never handle as a single design/build project.

Often he won't build many of the machines he designs, "but it's the right kind of thing for a company my size."

The beauty of it is that the small, one-of-kind machine Pope labors to design and build today may just very well develop into a production model tomorrow.

Except for a few non-stocking dealers in Canada, Denmark and the Willamette Valley, Pope deals directly with his customers.

Pope, who studied ag economics and engineering at Oregon State University before one of his engineering professors told him there wasn't much more he could teach him, said he believes advances in technology have opened numerous opportunities for those in the equipment design field.

"We have become, in agriculture, akin to the U.S. space program," he said. "We've recognized that you have to be as automated as you can possibly be, to find ways to cut manpower out of the job to stay competitive.

Freelance writer John Schmitz is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: johns6869@msn.com.

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