Ash Grove Cement Helps Bind Its Community Together

Published Thursday, July 19, 2018

Most Oregonians probably are unfamiliar with Ash Grove Cement Co., even though there’s a good chance they have walked into a building or driven on a road that used its product during construction. That makes Ash Grove typical of many Oregon manufacturers. They make essential products that often are overlooked while contributing to the economy through well-paying jobs and investment in plants and equipment. They also are innovators and actively participate in the communities in which they operate.

For all of these reasons, Ash Grove, which employs 115 people at its cement plant in Durkee, is one of Baker County’s most valued companies. This profile of Ash Grove is the first in a series of articles that Oregon Business & Industry will do over the next few months to draw attention to manufacturing’s importance in Oregon.

Since 1984, Ash Grove, based in Overland Park, Kansas, has owned a plant in Durkee. Ash Grove also has sales and administrative offices in Lake Oswego and an import facility at the Port of Portland. The company was founded in Ash Grove, Missouri, in 1882. Its Durkee facility is one of eight plants where Portland cement is made. (The name of the cement has nothing to do with Oregon’s largest city.)

Few products are more basic or essential than cement. It has been one of the most common construction materials for centuries. Builders will continue to need cement even as other building materials and practices evolve. The only question is where and how that cement is produced and which companies will produce it. Ash Grove’s commitment to make cement in Durkee benefits Oregon in many ways.

Ash Grove is Oregon’s only cement producer. The 115 employees at the Durkee plant manufacture 1.08 million tons of clinker (Portland cement before it is ground up) a year. The company’s annual payroll totals $13 million, and it pays $726,000 a year in local taxes. Those economic contributions, as well as community involvement and investment in equipment and processes to increase environmental stewardship make Ash Grove one of Baker County’s most respected employers.

“The Ash Grove Durkee plant has been an outstanding business and philanthropic partner in our community for many years,” said Fred Warner Jr., City Manager in nearby Baker City. “As one of the county’s largest employers they add significantly to our local economy.”

Warner said over the past 10 years Ash Grove has donated almost $300,000 to projects such as renovation of the historic clock tower at the Baker County Courthouse, improvements to parks and sports fields and contributions to arts programs.

Ash Grove also has been an environmental leader in Baker County, Warner said. “I worked with Ash Grove over the last 15 years as they initiated a highly successful mercury reduction system, air quality controls and significant energy reduction programs,” he said. “It is gratifying to have a company that is proactive environmentally and a great community partner. Baker County and all of Northeast Oregon are fortunate to have the Ash Grove Durkee plant as a partner.”

On any scorecard, Ash Grove grades out as the type of employer that a community wants to keep. But, like other manufacturers, the Ash Grove Durkee plant faces competition, in particular imported cement. A project manager in Portland can get cement shipped from China cheaper than what Ash Grove sends cross-state from Durkee. The difference reflects lower production costs in China.

The difference between the cost of cement made in China and Oregon also illustrates one of the dangers of setting emissions and other environmental standards at levels that Oregon companies cannot achieve and remain competitive. Chinese cement manufacturers have a higher carbon footprint than the Durkee plant. The cement is shipped thousands of miles farther, creating more emissions. Measured on a global basis, policies that decrease Oregon production will increase the carbon footprint of an essential product. More than two-thirds of cement used in Oregon is imported. Decreasing that number would benefit both the economy at the environment.

The next time you see a construction project, which probably will be sometime today, ask yourself where the cement came from. Oregon is better off if it came from Durkee.

Photos courtesy of Scott Helper with Helper Photography.