Everyone knows salt is basic to life, but probably not many people think about where it comes from and how it gets to the table, the road or the bait box.

Ivan McPike does. In fact, while there are other salt dealers in the state, he’s the only processor of salt for bait in Maine.

Working out of a wooden building in Hampden, just up the road from the famous Dysart’s truck stop, McPike and his helpers grind rough chunks of salt mined in New Brunswick into the soft, granulated salt that preserves herring for lobstermen on docks all over the coast of Maine.

Maine Salt Company is a real Maine operation. McPike’s an entrepreneur who operated an office supply store for 20 years, then bought a slipping fertilizer business in 1997 and moved it into salt the next year.

“I started selling salt the year of the ice storm,” said McPike, referring to the weather event that brought much of Maine to a halt in 1998. “I was told salt wasn’t worth getting into, right after I had bought a lot of plastic bags. I began my research that first summer and I had no idea what I was getting into. And I never thought when I got into salt that I would learn so much about it.”

He also knows about customer service and attention to detail.

“One of my customers told a big salt company that tried to get his business, that he would only buy from Ivan because ‘If I needed salt for my potatoes tonight, he’d figure out how to get me salt before my potatoes got cold.'”

For the salt that goes to Maine bait dealers, McPike buys salt mined as road salt in New Brunswick. The difference is the process, he explains. Salt mined for table use uses a more expensive, hot water process which then requires expensive drying. The road salt is a simpler, less costly process. 

“There’s not much call for road salt in the summer,” so McPike hit on the idea of grinding road salt into a form usable for bait dealers. He opted for a one-ton blender to start. Now he owns a five-ton blender.

One of the things he learned about salt was how it can destroy equipment.  “It eats everything up. It narrows augers down to little points and rots out the bottom. It ate the battery cables on my loader. They rotted on the INSIDE. My leatherman hinges rot. Every year or year and a half I replace my computer. It’s so coarse, you can’t use PVC or plastic – it’s like running a sander down through it – it makes holes. Stainless steel helps, but you can price yourself out of business replacing that.”

On the other hand, salt can sit in a plastic bag over the summer with no harm done “because it’s not moving around,” McPike explained. 

Like all other commodities, the price of salt has been affected by soaring fuel prices. The cost of salt has doubled in the nine years he’s been in business, but during the last two or three years, “it’s gone ridiculous,” said McPike.

Since 80 percent of his business in the summer is bait dealers, and the cost of herring is affected by fuel prices to the fishermen who catch it and the truckers who deliver it, the cost of bait to fishermen has doubled in recent years.

“I think a lot of lobstermen will go out of business in this climate,” said McPike. “It comes down to economics.”

Bait dealers usually can’t store a lot of salt because their operations are usually on docks where space is limited. They may be lobster dealers as well for whom space is a premium.

He puts hundreds of thousands of miles on his vehicles, driving all over Maine to deliver salt to his customers. “A bait dealer gets a good deal on a load of herring, calls me because he needs the salt right away,” said McPike. “I drive the order down to him. He salts the herring and sells to the lobstermen. They bait their traps, the salt is completely natural and melts away into the salt water. The lobster smells the stinky bait and says ‘Yummy. I have to go in there!'”

Other dealers selling bait salt are selling evaporated, excess table salt, more expensive because the energy costs to produce it are greater. Salt prices from the suppliers are rising steadily, along with fuel prices. McPike sells some table salt products as well.

“Table salt’s been going up $20 per metric ton a year. This year, it went up in spring and will go up again in July. So far, road salt from New Brunswick hasn’t gone up again yet,” said McPike. He used to get price hikes once a year that were good through November, and a small decrease in the road salt price in summer because he’s the only one buying it then.

The salt isn’t the only thing going up. The cost of plastic bags to bag the salt is going up as well. Not only do fuel prices affecting transportation costs influence the cost of bags, they are a petroleum-based product themselves. “An 88-lb. bag used to be 18 cents, they’re big and thick. Now they’re 40 cents. The way oil prices are rising, they say now a quote is only good for two weeks.”

He sells thousands of tons of salt annually in many forms such as 2,000-lb. “super sacks,” 80-lb. bags and 50-lb. bags. He sells specialty products that contain no NaCl salt whatsoever. He sells some road salt to “guys who do driveways” and some towns in bulk. He sells bags of products to put on icy walks that won’t hurt pets’ paws. 

Some of the product names are: Never Slip (potash and salt); Nature’s Ice Melt (safe for gardens, trees and shrubs “basically a fertilizer that melts – dolomite, urea and potash”); Paws Applause (no salt, nothing that will harm pets’ feet); New England Hot Melt (a salt, potassium chloride and calcium chloride combination that keeps melting until well below 0 degrees Fahrenheit) and Melt Master (regular road salt).

“I used to pay $20 a ton for salt, now I expect to pay $80 a ton this year,’ McPike said. In July, August and November, he buys a truckload a day. In December, he buys two truckloads a day. This winter was so snowy, he was actually shut off by his supplier because their first priority is the Department of Transportation and they could barely keep up with the DOT’s needs.

However, especially in the uncertain economic times, he will still pay extra for services such as trucking from people he knows will be around next year – rather than going for a short-term, cut-rate deal with someone who might be out of business next week.

“What you hope for most, is that the accounts you took care of, you can count on them next year,” said McPike, echoing the sentiments of small businessmen everywhere. “Or will they run away for a penny?”