Climbing might be the most challenging part of the tree care profession, and diagnosing diseases might be the most scientific, but there are other tree-related niches that are often overlooked. One of those is tree removal/land clearing, and that’s just what caught the attention of Matt D’Amico and led him into the tree services business.
Matt, still in his early 20s, now runs Central Forestree, LLC, based in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, with his younger brother, Tony. After attending school for construction management, Matt saw a big company in town using large forestry equipment to clear trees for a housing development. “I asked them for a job, but they didn’t have any openings. I figured the only way to get the chance to be around that kind of equipment was to do it on my own,” he recalls. “I really liked the idea of working with the big specialty equipment.”
Like many, his start in the tree care business was modest. “We had a Dodge Durango and a small, four-wheeler trailer that we built plywood walls on,” Matt says. “We started just cutting down trees, cutting them up and putting them in the trailer. Then, we would take them to certain places to dump them. From there, we got a larger job, so we bought a used dump truck.”
At that time, chain saws were still doing all the cutting, and the company was taking on only residential work and dead trees in small park areas. “We did a little tree trimming, as well as tree removal,” says Matt. The goal was to get into larger-scale tree removals and land clearing, “but we figured we had to start somewhere to get to that point,” he adds.
As the operation grew, Central Forestree began renting stump grinders and chippers from Alexander Equipment, a local Morbark dealer. “They were really great about helping us,” says Matt. “We were renting multiple times a week, and it got to the point where they said, ‘Why don’t you just put some money down and for half of what you’re paying us every month for rentals, you can actually own the machine. So, we saved up some money and put it down to purchase the chipper.”
The next big equipment purchase was a whole-tree chipper and a remote-controlled, tracked stump grinder, a dump trailer and dump truck, and finally, a purpose-built, rubber-track skid steer with a mowing head and a tree shear attachment.
Just as Central Forestree was gearing up, however, the economy was grinding to a halt, and with it, the construction industry slowed to a crawl. The market for large-scale, residential land clearing more or less dried up. “There’s not too many of those jobs out there right now, and the prices have gotten so low that in many cases, it doesn’t even make sense to bid on them,” says Matt. What few construction-related land clearing jobs there are often go to larger companies with established connections, he explains.
With his own company to support and equipment payments to make, Matt set out to develop new markets for Central Forestree. “This whole winter we’ve been working with counties, forest preserves and conservation districts doing a lot of habitat restoration projects,” he explains. “We’ve really converted over to that market.”
The jobs are typically different from land clearing that’s done for construction purposes. For starters, they tend to be smaller jobs — say 30 or 50 acres, rather than the hundreds of acres that sometimes need to be cleared for development. “And, there’s usually no stump removal required on the conservation jobs. It tends to be more cutting and brush mowing,” Matt explains. “We cut it down and burn it or chip it.”
These types of government-funded projects are usually undertaken to help restore overgrown grasslands, or to remove invasive species such as buckthorn, black cherry, box elder, etc. “The current project we’re working on we’re clearing out 54 acres and we’re taking out all the cherry and box elders because there’s a gypsy moth problem. We’re preserving all the oaks and hickories,” he explains.
The company’s existing equipment proved to be adaptable to the conservation-type work, as well as the residential-scale projects that Central Forestree also continues to take on. “We do have the capability to be flexible. We can do pretty large jobs, but at the same time we can show up at someone’s residential backyard and just clear a small area, if necessary,” says Matt. “Some other companies are only geared to cut one or two trees, and other companies are geared only to work on hundreds of acres, but their equipment is too large to get into a backyard, and everything we use is really low ground pressure.”
Central Forestree has relationships with a number of residential tree care companies who pass along clearing work when it’s beyond their scope. “Whenever we have tree trimming, climbing or bucket truck work that needs to be done, we sub it out to them,” says Matt.
Currently, during its busy season, Central Forestree has about nine employees; during slower times that number drops to five. Matt spends much of his time on the road in search of new projects. Because of its specialized land-clearing expertise, the company services a much larger area than a typical tree care company that might be able to find enough work in and around a single city. “We service about a 200-mile radius. We service Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa and lower parts of Michigan; we might even be shipping a few guys down to Missouri towards the end of the summer to maintain quite a few acres for one of our close clients,” says Matt.
To help create additional revenue, Central Forestree takes all the good logs it takes down on jobs, brings them back to the yard, and processes them to sell as firewood. “We usually try to give our chips away to someone close to where the job is, just to get rid of them,” says Matt. “We are working slowly but surely to get a tub grinder and start processing and selling our own mulch.”
Matt also hopes to hire an in-house mechanic in the near future to keep the equipment properly serviced and running. “The equipment takes a lot of abuse in this business. Things can break down pretty regularly,” he explains.
The most recent—and important—addition to the equipment fleet was a cutting-edge Mustang tracked skid steer with an FAE mulching head. It was designed specifically to stand up to the rigors of land clearing. “It was souped-up by SuperTrak,” Matt explains. “It has aftermarket cooling systems and radiators and a bigger drive pump for the hydraulics. I think it will really improve our workload. We saw an ad in a magazine and then went down to the company’s facility in Florida and the owner walked us through the entire SuperTrak factory.” Seeing the machines in production with all the modifications helped convince him they would stand up to the rough forest environment, he says.
Matt considers himself fortunate. “We’ve been busy six days a week so far. The jobs are a lot cheaper than they were, but at least we’re still paying the bills,” he says. Part of that success, he adds, has come from branching out into new markets. “When I got into land clearing, I really only thought of land clearing for construction, but the more I learned, I realized that in a tight market, there are other markets out there.”