I visited the slate quarry area of New York/Vermont 2 weeks ago and feel it’s important to give a perspective of the slate industry. It’s a 5 hour drive from Philadelphia, PA and the last hour is through small towns, population 2,000, like Argyle and Hartford before getting to Granville. The big city of Granville, 6,000 people, is home to slate producing quarries such as Sheldon, Evergreen, & Hilltop. 5 minutes away is the border of Vermont where more quarries exist in the Poultney and Fair Haven area such as Newmont, Greenstone, Camara, New England, and Taran Brothers. In this 30 minute radius is the slate producing area of the United States
What’s unique about the Vermont slate region is that it produces colors. Whereas in Spanish quarries you’ll see mostly black slate, Vermont produces black, green, purple, and red colored slates. This unique attribute makes these types of slate highly desirable because the patterns that can be produced are captivating. Looking deeper into this area, you’d see that the amount of effort involved in removing stone from the ground in order to get rectangular pieces is immense. It begins with a blast, then stone is moved to the mill where it’s cut, trimmed, and punched. Let’s not forget getting the slates on a pallet and selling them. Many quarries in the area have amassed large inventories of off sizes that don’t carry the same demand as the 18″x12″ or 20″x12″s. Every area of the country has varying tastes on what they prefer. Try telling a quarry that they need to produce 36 different sizes of the same type of slate. *groan*
The natural slate industry is currently experiencing a labor shortage. Quarries are operating at 65% capacity because of lack of man power. This is a blue collar job and when you’re pulling from small populated areas, it’s difficult to find people to do challenging, manual labor. Slate is heavy and the processes involved in breaking it down are laborious. With this shortage, the demand is exceeding the supply. Deliveries are going out weeks and the projects are not slowing down for this durable roofing material.
There is also a consolidating effect in place among the quarries. Many of the owners of the quarries are in their 70’s and 80’s and it’s not always the case that a succession is in place. Many of the children of quarry owners have found other professions to pursue. This has left a gap of newcomers in the industry. Quarrying isn’t the sexiest profession but it’s good, honest work that has provided for this region for over a century. What you’re seeing is a shift away from hard labor which is a bit worrisome. Combine that with the rigid governmental oversight of the quarries and you may have a better understanding of why it’s so difficult to maintain a slate quarry profitably.
With all that information out there, what do we do with it? This is not an easy question to answer because there are still thousands (ok, maybe many hundreds) who depend on slate as a profession. It’s known as the finest roofing material known to man. It’s the American spirit at heart which is being lost on future generations. The material delivers quality and longevity for generations to come. It’s difficult to think that the hurdles of business are too difficult to overcome for a region that has provided for so long.
Fortunately I’m optimistic that slate will continue to have it’s place in the market and quarries will continue to meet the demand. Perhaps I will take some time and interview a few of the quarry owners who may disagree with every bit of info I’ve written from my own personal opinion. I just hope that we continue to spread the word about a hard working industry that deserves a place in the roofing industry. They are hard working, honest people who are doing their best to make a living. Let’s hope the slate industry provides for them for generations to come.