Contractor Profile: J. Wayne Backhoe
By Randy Happel Oct 29, 2013
Having adopted HDD in 2005, Amish contractor is relying on HDD to keep pace with the significant increase in pipeline installation demand.
It’s unlikely that Jason Miller, a humble, mild-mannered pipeline and utilities installer from Walnut Creek, Ohio, will ever view the Web-published version of this article as it appears on the Internet. That’s because Miller is Amish … and the Amish fellowship views things like electricity, automobiles, television and bright print fabric clothing as distractions that promote pride, envy, vanity, sloth, dishonesty and many other undesirable traits.
The Amish faith is governed by a largely unwritten set of rules known as the “Ordnung,” meaning order. But since the Amish lack the central governing authority present in the many other religious sects, all governance is local. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that apply to all Amish.
“A lot depends on where you’re located and the group of Amish you belong to … and what members of that group — at the direction of the bishop — decide is allowable,” says Miller. “It can differ a lot from community to community … even within a community. What is acceptable in one place may not be accepted within another group.”
Reconciling Tradition and Technology
The Amish way of life is still deeply rooted in agriculture, so it’s not surprising that in addition to being caretakers of the land, most Amish are also skilled craftsmen and visionary entrepreneurs. And Miller is no exception. When he was 18 years old, Miller started a trenching company, J. Wayne Backhoe; and in the years that followed, the business has grown exponentially under his leadership. Officially, J. Wayne Backhoe is a subsidiary of Trail Plumbing — the family plumbing business Miller’s dad started at the age of 16 — and serves as the primary installation subcontractor to the plumbing business.
“When I was in my early teens, I started digging,” Miller says. “Later, when I was older, we bought a used backhoe and I eased in to some residential plumbing work … mostly water and sewer lines, and some stormwater drains. Later, I got more into the utility installation side of things. All this time Dad and I were also still farming, even though I’d begun to focus more on expanding the trenching business. That’s when I got interested in horizontal directional drilling (HDD).”
Amish order allows for adoption of new technologies — but only for business or practical purposes. Anything even closely resembling indulgence, personal desire or entertainment is forbidden. Despite the common perception that most Amish are stuck in an 18th Century time warp, many new technologies — after passing rigorous examinations — have been accepted and adopted by most Amish, including the entrepreneurial Miller.
While Miller has remained true to his order of Amish ancestry, he has also departed from the pre-technology, anti-individualist orientation of the Amish that rejects labor-saving technologies for more labor-intensive approaches. His adoption of HDD and use of mechanized backhoes, trenchers and directional drilling equipment is permissible, given its practical business motivation.
“There came a time when more and more of the utility work was being specified as an HDD job,” Miller says. “I could see we’d miss out on a lot of projects because I didn’t have directional drilling capabilities. If I was going to continue growing, I had to be competitive; and incorporating HDD was the only way to do that.”
In 2005, Miller bought his first HDD equipment — a used Vermeer D16x20 Series II Navigator directional drill he’d seen advertised for sale by a contractor in New Jersey. Miller made the trek east for a visual inspection, bought the drill, and headed back to the Buckeye State, directly to the Vermeer Northern Ohio dealer, located in Findlay, Ohio, to have it checked out.
“I honestly didn’t know a lot about directional drilling when we bought the Vermeer D16x20 Series II drill,” Miller says. “I’d talked with some people who knew horizontal drilling fairly well and they recommended Vermeer, so that’s what I went with. When I arrived in Findlay with this used drill, the people there just took over and started a thorough inspection. They serviced the rig and replaced a couple worn parts … and just like that, I was in the HDD business.
“What really impressed me, though, was guys at Vermeer Northern Ohio didn’t stop with just the inspection. They knew I didn’t know all that much about drilling, so they offered to come out and get me started. They spent a lot of time showing me how to operate the drill; explaining what all the levers and buttons controlled. They also showed me how to use locating equipment; the whole works. It was definitely a humbling learning experience and without their guidance, I don’t know where I would have ended up.”
Streamlining Natural Gas Delivery
The recent natural gas boom in the Northeast United States has not only been a boon for the Buckeye State, but also for Miller’s business. While natural gas has long been a staple fuel used by most Amish to operate appliances and small machinery that would otherwise be powered by electricity, no underground natural gas lines were allowed to connect directly from pipelines to Amish homes and farmsteads.
“If Amish people were lucky enough to have a natural gas well on their property, they were allowed to get gas from that,” Miller says. “But others were just out of luck. Then, there was this specific group of Amish that decided to allow direct hookups to the main pipelines. After that, there was this mini gas boom right in our area — and that worked in our favor. Pipeline connection work has really been booming ever since and it’s all really close, right here in our back yard.
“With the big increase in small-diameter pipeline work I needed another drill rig. So I bought another Vermeer model — a D20x22 Series II Navigator horizontal directional drill — because the work was there to justify the purchase. The D20x22 is a little bigger and it’s ideal for the types of jobs we do most often. A lot of people want us to drill all the way to the house, rather than just do crossings. Right now we have several small-diameter jobs of mostly 1-in. and 2-in. diameter lines, and maybe a few 4-in. lines, as well.
Having HDD capabilities has certainly given Miller a leg up on his competition, especially in Ohio Amish country. Yet the competitive advantage is his main motivation.
“I like being able to provide HDD as an option for my customers,” he says. “Sure, directional drilling has allowed me to further grow my business. But if we complete a successful bore and the customer is happy, and I can charge a fair price, I think everybody is going to be happy at the end of the day. Directional drilling has allowed me to make all that possible.”
Randy Happel is a features writer at Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.