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The last straw?

Lockout of Longshoremen hits area exporters

POLK COUNTY -- Workers on Kenny Eichler's farm load bale after bale of straw into a sleek compressing machine. A belt drive carries the straw into the metal compactor and out the other side.

The final product is so heavy, a worker can barely lift it. The pressed bales are loaded into giant shipping containers and taken to port.

This process is not unique. Eichler estimates there are about 20 similar operations in the Willamette Valley alone. "In terms of volume, it's the largest single exporting industry in Oregon."

By pressing the straw, he can fit 30 tons into one container. Without compression, only 12 tons would fit.

That business has all but stopped as shipments pile up during the labor battle between Longshoremen and the shipping lines.

Containers -- the 40-foot metal boxes that stack neatly on oceangoing ships -- drive Polk County's export industry. Right now, those containers sit full, waiting for ships to haul them off.

Those ships sit anchored at ports and along the Columbia River, with cargo to unload. Grain elevators at Portland's port can't hold any more.

With shipping at a standstill, local farmers and agricultural business people have nothing to do but wait for a solution.

"We have contracts and we're not going to fill them," said local exporter Bob Stevenson. "Our product is not going to spoil, but when you've got great big barns full of straw, you want to keep it moving."

Denny Wilfong farms 1,300 acres near Perrydale and runs trucks that carry wheat, grass seed and straw to port. His Wilfong Farms and Trucking has five employees out of work and trucks sitting idle.

"I'm optimistic we will make up some of the loss," Wilfong said, "but we will not make up all of the loss.

"I've got nine trucks parked here in the yard. They cost money whether they're running or parked."

Much of Polk County's exports end up in Asia. Kenny Eichler's pressing plant near Perrydale is the second link in a chain that stretches from Polk County to Japan.

Straw, left over from local grass seed harvests, ends up in the bellies of Japanese cattle. Eichler has followed the straw from its start, in Willamette Valley fields, to its destination -- Asian feed lots.

When Asian exporters send containers full of goods to West Coast ports, those containers need to return in some way. The most efficient way to return is full of a useful product. As a result, Eichler said, shipping to Japan costs less than shipping to California.

But Asian farmers don't need to mix straw from Oregon into their cattle feed. With the possibility of a long shipping holdup, those in the agriculture business locally worry about losing the market.

"They could start picking up products from some other country," Stevenson said. "China's been talking about getting into raising grass for that market."

He worries the labor struggle could last long enough to disrupt long-term trading. He said he expected George W. Bush to step in and order the Longshoremen back to work.

"I thought he would, but I guess he's too busy trying to go to war to worry about that."

The Taft-Hartley Act lets a president seek an order putting strikers back to work during national emergencies. Bush has taken the first steps in invoking Taft-Hartley, appointing a panel to see how the lockout is affecting the economy.

Local exporters say they can see both sides of the debate. They understand the rights of union workers but also wish the exporting process was more efficient.

In the end, they just want to return to what they were doing two weeks ago.

After taking five trade missions to Japan, Eichler would hate to lose his considerable investment. He called his trips eye-openers.

"Each bale you send has to be a good product. Some guys only take four bales in their old Datsun pickup, so you can't have a bad bale.

"For farmers here, it's not such a big deal."

As Eichler spoke, the pressing machinery stopped, leaving only the sound of soft rain on the roof behind his voice. And just as suddenly, eight more Polk County workers were laid off.

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