Local manufacturer hopes an innovative tractor line can pull it out of recession

When the recession struck in 2008, it hit Corvallis Tool Co. like a sledgehammer.

The company’s specialty was designing and building process automation equipment for wood products manufacturing, and all of a sudden the big plywood and veneer mills just weren’t buying anymore.

“In one week I got $50 million worth of industrial machinery equipment cancellations,” principal owner John Holbert recalled. “And that market was not coming back.”

Deep layoffs followed, with CTC’s work force plunging from 110 employees to a skeleton crew of 15. But rather than fold their tent, Holbert and his partners put their heads together and decided to retool their business around a completely different product line.

What they came up with was an innovative new kind of tractor that is creating some big-time buzz in the agricultural implement business — and restoring some of CTC’s lost manufacturing jobs.

Under the brand name Porter (a nod to the men who do the heavy lifting on cross-country expeditions), Holbert and his partners created a prototype aimed at small farmers and ranchers.

Described by its designer as “an ATV on steroids,” the Porter looks like a bigger, beefier version of the two-seater utility vehicles popular with rural property owners, but with all the functionality of a full-size tractor.

It has an all-steel body and a two-passenger cab with a full roll cage, a four-cylinder diesel engine ranging from 35 to 100 horsepower, a four-wheel-drive transmission and an articulated drive shaft that keeps all four tires on the ground over uneven terrain. The tilting dump bed can handle two cubic yards of wet gravel, and hydraulics power a variety of interchangeable implements on skid-steer mounts.

At the Spokane Ag Expo in February, the Porter’s radical design raised plenty of eyebrows — and sparked some serious interest in parts of the farming community.

One of those who took notice was Rich Garrison, a sales rep for Washington Tractor, the state’s largest chain of John Deere dealerships.

He looked at the Porter’s ground-hugging lines, hefty power output and outside-the-box features and saw some intriguing possibilities, especially for fruit and nut growers. With a few modifications, he thought, it would make a dandy orchard tractor.

Holbert was all ears. After visiting with some of Garrison’s customers, he came up with an even more radical design: the Orchard Boss. Lower and narrower than the original Porter, the Orchard Boss is sized to maneuver easily between rows of trees. It has a big enough engine — up to 175hp — to power the mulchers, mowers, sprayers and other implements orchardists rely on. And it has a fully enclosed and ventilated cab to protect the operator.

“It’s a tractor that’s shaped like a bullet,” said Garrison, who calls the Orchard Boss a major improvement over the conventional field tractors most of his customers are using now.

“Most of the orchard tractors being sold now don’t have cabs on them,” he said. “Your operator’s sitting up there just dodging limbs.”

That’s a major concern come spraying time, when the trees need large-scale applications of pesticides and other chemicals.

“The biggest selling point is to have your guy in a cab, with charcoal-filtered ventilation and air conditioning,” Garrison said. “When it’s 95 degrees and you’re wearing a rubber suit and a mask, it’s not a pleasant task.”

With the Orchard Boss, Holbert hopes to tap an underserved niche market with big growth potential.

“About 2,500 orchard tractors are sold annually in the United States,” he said. “The fruit orchard and avocado people are really interested.”

Also interested is Perkins Engine, a division of heavy equipment giant Caterpillar Inc. Like Garrison, one of the company’s sales reps spotted the Porter prototype at the Spokane Ag Expo and liked what he saw.

Perkins has been supplying Porter with free test engines, helping out with engineering work for the new tractors and modifying some of its production models to meet different design specs.

“Everything’s stretched out,” explained Bill Stone, who works out of the company’s regional office in Ridgefield, Wash.

Stone believes Perkins has picked a winner in Porter and that the upstart Oregon tractor maker could become a significant revenue source for his firm.

“We’re very excited,” Stone said. “The engine sales could be enormous.”

Ed Landis, a partner in both Corvallis Tool Co. and Porter, said he’s been encouraged by the initial response to the new tractors, which appear to fill a gap in the farm equipment market. And with prices in the $40,000-$60,000 range, they could generate some much-needed cash flow.

“We happened to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Still, the partners are taking a big gamble. They’ve invested about $2 million in the new venture, and so far they’ve only got a couple of sales to show for it.

But they’ve already brought some people back to work — CTC’s headcount is up to 35 now — and hope to continue staffing up as demand builds.

And if the encouragement they’re getting from farmers and implement dealers translates into orders, their gamble could pay off in a big way.

“There’s obviously a certain amount of risk you take when you make a new product, especially in a bad economy,” Landis said. “But the goal here was to create some manufacturing jobs and produce a product that’s American made and that people want to buy.”

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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