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A Good Leap Forward

BY AMY MILSHTEIN

Agriculture businesses ramp up to meet international demand as workforce and succession challenges loom.

0914 ag IMG 6735 1BY AMY MILSHTEIN | PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN*
*STEFFEN SYSTEMS PHOTO BY JESSE BROWN

Sitting on 2.5 acres in bucolic Donald, Oregon (population 979), the series of hangar-size structures that makes up GK Machine looks quiet. Inside is another story. Engineers, code writers and support staff toil away in no-frills cubicles, but the real action is on the shop floor. The factory buzzes with the 960 individual jobs currently in production. Fabricators and machinists wield high-tech tools to laser cut, bend and form steel to precise custom specifications.

These components end up as agriculture equipment like sprayers and harvesters, or machines for oil and mining fields ,or parts for locomotives. Some of it even ends up as art on GK’s walls. Most of their work is custom order; 80% is one-or two -offs. “It’s a lot of balls up in the air,” admits GK president Gary Grossen.

The son of a dairy farmer, Grossen turns his head to avoid eye contact and blushes easily. He doesn’t relish talking about his business with journalists but clearly loves his work. “I don’t sleep at night because I’m always thinking about the shop,” he admits. A recent family vacation was “torture. I had to leave two days early.”

 GK Machine represents a microcosm of the changes and challenges facing agriculture-based advanced manufacturing and food-processing sectors in the mid-Willamette Valley. GK remains tight-lipped about its more than 2,000 customers. But the family-owned operation is growing, mostly to meet international demand, especially in Asia.

At first glance the salt-of-the-earth, short-sleeve-shirt wearing types don’t seem like international players. But appearances can be deceiving. Look closely at GK Machine’s Gary Grossen. The 60-year-old built the company out of his father’s dairy barn in the 1970s and proudly proclaims that he “didn’t go to school for nothin’.” Yet GK is in the middle of a $10 million, 120,000-square-foot expansion. The business, with sales over $22 million as reported to the Capital Press in 2013, employs 135 people.

 0914 ag IMG 6766
GK Machine president Gary Grossen 

The local agriculture manufacturing and food processing boom spotlights the complexities and contradictions of the global marketplace. Longtime family-owned businesses struggle to find enough workers and maintain a hands-on approach, even as they expand and retool in response to the changing tastes and demands of domestic and international customers.

Just 20 miles down the road from GK sits another unlikely global player, Steffen Systems. At first glance, the two companies couldn’t look or sound less alike. Compared to the cacophony of GK, Steffen Systems seems almost like a library. With just 15 employees, Steffen makes hay-bale equipment: handlers, accumulators and the like. Several of these offerings lie in neat piles on the vast warehouse floor waiting to be assembled. These products make up the bread and butter of the operation.

Then you get to the money room, a hangar where a Model 3546 Bale Compression System is almost complete. A single employee, a cousin of the Steffen family, is dwarfed by the huge contraption he’s working on. When finished, this machine will compress 1,000-pound bales of hay or straw using 900 horsepower. With a Model 3546, a shipper can load an ocean container every 40 minutes with only three operators.

The Model 3546 costs $1.8 million. Orders are backlogged. “If you came to me with a check in hand today, delivery would be 12 to 18 months out,” says sales manager and brother-in-law Pat Twede. Lengthy wait times are guaranteed as Steffen Systems is one of only three companies in the world that manufacture the compressor.


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