`...We're not small potatoes': Hutch salt industry a steady business

Sunday, September 27, 1987

Hutchinson's salt producers are reluctant to give figures on their production or employment levels for competitive reasons, but state figures indicate about 490 local workers take their livelihood from the industry.

In 1986, those workers pulled just under 1 million tons of salt worth about $50 million out of Reno County substrata.

Hourly wages at Carey Salt run from $7.58 to $10.37 an hour, with the average coming to about $9. Approximately 70 percent of Carey workers belong to the United Steelworkers of America.

The range at Morton is about $8.50 to $11.25, according to manager Dick Wilson, but the average there is also about $9. About 90 percent of Morton production and maintenance staff belong to the United Steelworkers.

Cargill employees are affiliated with the International Chemical Workers Union, but management declined to say what the average wage is for a Cargill employee, or what percentage of workers belong to the union.

Overall, wages and benefits pumped into the community each year by Carey, Morton and Cargill are estimated at more than $10 million.

And counting spinoff employment, the benefits are even higher _ Underground Vaults and Storage, a company that leases part of the Carey rock salt mine to store records and film, employs 100 Hutchinson residents and is expanding in other cities as well. Heavy salt shipments keep truckers and Kansas railroads busy, especially in winter.

"We're not small potatoes compared to anybody," said Keith Espelen, assistant plant manager at the Cargill operation.

Of course, none of the Hutchinson salt plants can boast local ownership anymore. Morton's operations have been directed from Chicago since 1899.

Locally founded producers Carey Salt Co. and Barton Salt Co. were bought by Processed Minerals Inc. and Cargill, respectively, in the early 1970s.

But in general, the salt business seems to have been just what Hutchinson has needed to counterbalance tough times in oil and agriculture. The salt jacks characterize their business as competitive, but steady.

"It's very consistent," said Jerry Rohlfson, manager of the Cargill plant. "We don't have layoffs. We haven't laid anybody off in five years. Employment is stable.

"But," he added, "not likely to increase."

Jim Richardson, director of administrative services for Carey, agreed.

"I would say the overall employment is probably going to remain fairly constant. There are going to be fluctuations that are seasonal (but) it would be less than a 10 percent fluctuation."

History bears them out: in 1969, the Greater Hutchinson Chamber of Commerce recorded 230 employees at Carey, 169 at Morton and 115 at Barton for a total of 514 _ essentially the same level as today.

The characteristic steadiness is easy to explain. Salt is found in many states, in practically inexhaustible supply. Shortages, international turmoil or sudden new finds will never cause the price to jump or drop drastically. And the industries that use salt either use it on a steady, year-round basis _ chemical companies, water softeners, tanneries _ or at predict able intervals, as for road salt in the winter.

Salt, Rohlfson says, is a "ma-ture" industry _ most of the uses for salt that are likely to be found have been found, and the producers are making enough of a margin to stay in the business, but not so much that a flood of new competitors is likely to appear.

"It's a very mature market," Richardson said. "We know what the demands are going to be, in general. The basic demand (for) salt is based on two factors: total population, which is very steady, and weather, and that is of course unpredictable _ but over many years is very predictable."

Historically, Hutch businessmen have made the most of their location near salt and salt miners. All of the town's major salt producers and many of the defunct minor ones at one time owned ice plants _ excess steam, condensed into distilled water, was channeled to the ice operation to make the ice. Brine, which freezes at a much lower temperature than pure distilled water, was piped through the ice plant as a refrigerant for the ice.

In 1910, New York's Solvay Corp. built a soda-ash plant on 30 acres near Chemical and 11th streets, utilizing the Solvay process of turning salt into soda ash for use in industry, particularly during World War I in explosives.

Occasionally, however, a good idea for capitalizing on Hutchinson's salt trove didn't work out so well.

City contractors used salt in 1894 to raise a section of South Main Street, hoping to help water run off and keep the street dry during flooding. The project ground to a quick halt when it killed the trees lining the road. Cinders, also from the salt plants, were used to finish the project. But South Main is treeless to this day.