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When Ecology And Economy Meet in a Business

An Oregon entrepreneur makes garden products using environmentally friendly materials

JOBS versus the environment.

Is it possible to protect nature while creating employment and turning a profit? Or are economy and ecology - which have their root in the same Greek word meaning ``house'' - always to be in conflict?

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The question is as old as the stripping of Mediterranean shores for timber to build ships or the Industrial Revolution, as new as the latest quarrel over saving endangered species in the Pacific Northwest or reauthorizing Superfund toxic-waste legislation.

For Gary Schrodt, part of the answer at least is found in bird feeders and other wildlife garden items made from recycled redwood and other environmentally friendly materials. Co-owner with his wife, Rosalind, of Schrodt Designs in Ashland, Ore., Mr. Schrodt has found a way to do good environmentally while doing well economically. And vice versa.

The story starts about 10 years ago in New Mexico, where the Schrodts were environmental activists and artists (Gary was a sculptor, Rosalind a dancer and dance teacher). Gary conducted workshops in ecology and ethno-botany (the use of plants by native Americans) at the University of New Mexico. As head of the Taos Environmental Association, he led a fight against the use of pesticides in national forests.

``A good portion of my work as an environmental activist was obstructionist by necessity,'' Gary recalls. ``But I reached a point where I saw that if environmentalists didn't play a key role in building the economic structure globally, we could win battles but lose the war. And that's because as long as people have to make a living, they'll take from the environment.''

The Schrodt family moved here to southern Oregon, where Gary gave himself a year to succeed as an artist. But in the back of his mind was a desire to merge his craft with business, his environmentalism with something that would benefit the community as an expression of ``right livelihood.''

``Something,'' as he says, ``that would bring it together in one nice, sweet package.'' The Schrodts started making bird feeders and birdhouses, selling them at Saturday markets and crafts fairs. Gary engaged in what he calls ``guerrilla marketing,'' driving to West Coast cities to peddle his wares to store owners and at trade shows.

Eventually, they bought a meat-packing plant at the edge of Ashland, and with loans from a local bank and the Small Business Administration turned it into a factory that now covers 30,000 square feet.

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Today, with about 30 employees (50 during the busiest seasons) they turn out 500 and sometimes as many as 800 items a day: gracefully designed bird feeders and houses, birdbaths, hummingbird feeders, edible (to birds) baskets and wreaths, and garden fountains. Schrodt Designs Inc. now has about 5,000 accounts all over North America and some in Europe, Japan, and South America. ``Ninety-five percent of them are mom-and-pop,'' Gary says.

Sales grew 100 percent the year the factory and attached Wildlife Gardens Gallery opened in 1991, 40 percent the next year, and another 16 percent in 1993. The products also are sold through such outlets as the Nature Company, Smithsonian (the designs are part of the permanent Smithsonian Collection), Natural Wonders, the National Wildlife Federation, and in about 40 catalogs including Harry and David and Plow and Hearth.

All the redwood used here comes from recycled mill trim ends that normally would be scrapped. Toxic materials are avoided. (The feeders are finished with linseed oil, for example.) The stands for the copper bird feeders are made of scrap steel purchased from the Oak Street Tank and Steel Company a few blocks away. Items are wrapped in old newspapers, and whenever possible packed in used cardboard boxes for mailing. At times, the Schrodts employ special-education students from the Ashland High School to gather the newspapers.

``The principal issue from the beginning for me has been to work with materials formerly defined as problematical waste,'' Gary says, ``to take material with a low return and create a high return.'' By ``high return'' he means products that retail for an average of $35.

While the operation is designed to be as ``green'' as possible, he worries about some aspects. Are the bamboo baskets they buy from China (to decorate with dried native plants) made by prisoners or is the harvesting of the bamboo harmful to pandas?

``I really have some questions about the use of copper,'' he says. ``Copper-mining is horrible. It puts out sulfur dioxides. But it's also one of the best candidates for sustained recycling of materials.''

Then there's the redwood itself, which is at the center of a political and environmental controversy over protecting old-growth forests in California. Everything made here comes from small pieces of scrap, which the more traditional wood-products industry increasingly is using for finger-joined boards, chip board, and energy generation.

``More power to them,'' says Gary, who has about a year's supply of redwood in his warehouse. Meanwhile, he's investigating the use of Western red cedar as a substitute. ``I don't want to betray the environmental integrity of what we do by just sticking with redwood,'' he says, even though it's ``more classy.''

Gardening is the No. 1 outdoor activity in the United States today, according to federal government surveys, and bird-feeding is right behind it. One in 5 people in the United States feeds wild birds. Americans purchase a total of $2 billion-worth of seed each year, a figure that has doubled every five years for the past 15 years.

While the Schrodts' business is succeeding, there's more to the operation than attractive products and a healthy bottom line.

``For many people, it's the entry into a life-long interest in ecology,'' Gary says. ``It's the first step in realizing that the environment is not `out there,' that it's your own backyard.''

When she's not busy helping run the business, Rosalind operates a dance studio attached to the wildlife gallery. Gary stays active as an environmentalist working to protect wetlands nearby. While he never did return to being a full-time artist, Gary finds that ``the combination of designing products and building a business is very creative.''

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