“Waste not, want not.” “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Take your pick. Both these sayings provide the answer to the question of what to do with woody debris in the tree care industry. Rather than simply dumping the wood waste, many are looking for more productive, and profitable, uses for these resources.
At Jones Road Tree Service, CEO David Mauk has turned to firewood as an avenue to bring in extra income while getting rid of wood waste. “For us it’s a big deal,” he says. In that part of Texas (the greater Houston area and beyond), many tree care companies bring their debris to mulch producers and are charged tipping fees. Finding ways to generate revenue with that material while avoiding disposal costs is essential from a business standpoint, says Mauk. With that in mind, last year he purchased a specialized self-loading truck from Southco Industries that would enable him to handle firewood more easily.
Mauk explains, “It can easily pick up the oak logs we produce. It saves us a lot of money in manpower; we’re able to have a machine loading the logs instead of five people.” In the past, it would take a crew to manhandle the logs onto liftgates on the trucks; now an Epsilon loader handles the task. “It’s going to take a few years to pay the truck off, but at the end of the day it’s keeping my guys fresher, and it’s probably saving me $300 or $400 a week in dump fees, so I’m worlds ahead,” he notes. “That $400 can be used on diesel or chain saws or supplies, or net profit for my company.”
Mauk delivers the logs to a yard where his father processes them into firewood. There’s extra revenue for the family, says Mauk, and “for us, the biggest thing is not having an expense – not having to pay that $100 dump fee. I think the whole industry is going in this direction – trying to find different ways to use their [wood] resources, whether it’s a lumber mill or biomass chips, people are trying to make some profit off of it, or at least not have an expense.”
Milling and mulch are the two methods of choice at Dincher & Dincher Tree Surgeons in Williamsport, Pa. There, 15 to 20 employees generate a lot of wood waste, most of which is brought to the company’s large lot and recycled into profitable products.
Bernie Dincher says the 64-year-old company got into the mulch business in 1991. “Before that we were doing a lot of firewood, and firewood just got too costly to process. So we switched out into doing some sawmilling,” he explains. (The company still sells some log-length firewood, and makes enough firewood to heat its own facilities.)
He bought an old circular sawmill and was mainly producing low-grade lumber for shipping material at first. “That went on for about 15 years, and now we do more high-end lumber for hobbyists, home woodworkers,” notes Dincher.
In 2010, he bought a large Log-Master band sawmill, which has improved efficiency and can handle logs up to 36 inches in diameter and 25 feet long. “We’ve been doing a lot of ‘fledges,’ which is leaving the edge on the log and just cutting slabs, for use in rustic furniture,” he explains. He says that ads in local papers and word of mouth have helped to market these products.
When crews are removing more desirable species, such as walnut or black cherry, they are careful in how they choose to cut the logs on the job site in order to preserve their lumber value. However, that doesn’t require a lot of extra effort, because the company prefers to bring everything it cuts out as large as possible rather than cutting everything up in order to save time on the job. The addition of log loaders has sped up the process. He says, “We used to have to cut everything up into pieces; that took a lot of hours and a lot of people.”
If the company takes on a land-clearing project or ends up with large volumes of higher-quality wood – red oak or cherry – those logs are sent to a mill to maximize their value. “They have better markets than I do to turn it over to larger manufacturers of furniture or flooring,” says Dincher.
Much of the remaining debris is stockpiled in the yard, and Dincher & Dincher rents a tub grinder from the county, usually twice a year. “We use that to process mulch, which we sell,” explains Diane Dincher. The company sells the mulch wholesale to landscapers, as well as retail to homeowners. “It’s been amazing how many people like mulch. I never imagined 10 years ago there would be a market for it like there is. I can’t even tell you how busy we are in the spring! We have a good product – we double-grind it and take care of it so it looks good – and people love it.”
The company opts to produce natural mulch, as opposed to dyed product. Another benefit, she notes, is that the mulch business brings in the public and helps to market the company’s tree services. “A lot of times they’ll say, ‘When you come to deliver the mulch, could you take a look at this or that tree in my yard.'”
Jones Road Tree Service had this specialty self-loading truck built by Southco Industries, so now logs that will be used for firewood production can be loaded on job sites.
She says that the income from selling mulch and lumber adds up, and by the end of the year makes a noticeable contribution to the company’s bottom line. “It’s been a real plus for us,” she states.
Five years ago, Jeremy Jahn, owner of JT Arborists in Hartland, Wis., was dumping all of his woody debris. Then he found a site to rent and opened his green waste recycling center. “In addition to mine, I take in waste from 10 to 15 other tree care companies – brush, chips, wood – and turn it into a usable mulch product,” he explains. Last year, he sold 2,700 yards of mulch to homeowners and landscapers.
Not everything that comes in goes to mulch. “The good wood we turn into firewood,” Jahn adds. Lower-quality chunk wood is sold to customers with outdoor wood boiler heating systems.
His goal wasn’t so much to reduce his own expenses, but rather to generate additional income. “It was really just another business venture,” states Jahn. He’s tried to keep the operation of the green waste recycling center simple. The other companies that drop waste there buy an annual pass based on the quantity they’ll be dumping. “They get a pass and a key so they can come in, dump themselves, and get back on the job quickly,” he notes. “I’ve had a great response from them.”
In the beginning, Jahn hired a contractor to come in and process the mulch, but he says that proved too costly: “It took a lot of money out of what we could make.” Last year he rented a horizontal grinder. “We learned a lot and made some additional money,” he says of the process, which he plans to follow again this year. “We try to do it twice a year, but sometimes it only happens once,” he states.
In addition to the grinding process, Jahn turns over the piles regularly. One employee is required to load residential customers, and he has two trucks to deliver mulch. Landscapers get access to a skid steer to load mulch themselves. “They just keep a running tally,” says Jahn.
At Vermont Arborists in Stowe, Vt., owner Michael Roche doesn’t make mulch, but he’s started to charge for his chips. Roche has a few different nurseries and composting operations where he can dump for free; and even though he doesn’t make money by doing that, if it saves his crew significant drive time, he feels it’s financially advantageous to just dump them. “To me, the key is to have several key dumping sites throughout your working zone,” he states. Beyond those convenient facilities, though, he charges everyone else (anywhere between $100 and $300 for a 20-yard load, depending on driving distance) for the chips.
“We have several places that will take our chips for free, but everyone else should be paying,” Roche emphasizes. “I probably sold about $4,000 worth of chips last year.” Every little bit helps out, he notes.
For a long time chips were considered waste. “A lot of people still expect them to come for free, because that’s the way the marketplace was, and tree care companies were just trying to get rid of their chips. Now, with all the composting operations in need of chips, the ability to turn chips into mulch, [and] the use of chips in power generation plants, free chips are pretty much going away,” observes Roche. “I still have people looking for them for free, but I say no. They’ve gotten them for free for so long that they don’t value them, nor do they value the time and expense of driving a dump truck to their property. Now, by giving away your chips, you’re just preventing yourself from making some additional income.”
Vermont Arborists has developed other markets for the wood it generates. The company sells log-length firewood. “The labor costs are so high and we don’t have enough bodies, so I don’t want to get into cutting and splitting, and we don’t do enough volume to justify buying a processor,” explains Roche, but log-length firewood fits into his business model nicely. He’ll even rent a skidder when necessary to pull out larger quantities of logs.
The higher-quality logs are sent to sawmills. “We also stockpile pulpwood and sell that to different transfer stations, and it gets turned into paper,” Roche adds. On every job he takes stock of the trees to determine the best use for the wood. “I’m always on the lookout and always asking around: Who’s looking for chips? Who’s looking for wood?” he explains, adding that the sales of all of these products can really add up.