California firm clears orchards for development, re-growth

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Although it is hard to tell it at first glance, many of the rural parts of north central California — those areas traditionally covered with full, lush orchards — are disappearing. A combination of agricultural economics and good old-fashioned real estate development are teaming up to turn land that was once invaluable for the crops it could yield, into land that is perhaps more valuable just as is. And while clearing such orchards is not what Randy McLaughlin set out to do when he established Old Durham Wood, it is a niche that the Durham, California-based processor has established for himself and one which has served him well for better than 15 years now. In that time he has seen the demand for increased productivity grow and, thanks to a concerted effort to continually upgrade his grinding equipment, he has met it and grown with it.

Durham of Old
McLaughlin says that, despite where he’s at today, his operation didn’t start out as a wood waste grinding company but rather as a company that harvested trees to create packaged firewood.

“We began clearing and harvesting trees for firewood for sale locally as well as for some in-state shipment — in fact, we still do a fair amount of that kind of work. That, of course, generated a good deal of wood debris, so we purchased a Morbark 60-36 whole tree chipper which served us very well. However, during the course of that work, I began to realize what a problem roots were to process and knew we needed a tub grinder. We purchased a Model 1200 — again from Morbark — and later traded that in for a newer, more powerful Model 1300 which we still operate today.”

Creating Spaces
McLaughin says the processing facet of the business grew rapidly, eventually becoming the primary thrust of his operation. During this time, Old Durham relied exclusively on its chipper and tub grinder to handle all its wood waste processing. Material generated from various operations — wood chips and mulch — was and still is readily accepted by two area co-gen plants. A change in economics coupled with steady growth in the area eventually changed the direction Old Durham was taking.

“We had already begun to establish ourselves as a good resource for orchard clearing,” he says. “Orchards are continually in need of thinning, clear-cutting for crop rotation or disease elimination, and so on, so our business really grew in that area. However, we’ve really seen things take off in the last few years. A number of economic factors — rising taxes and insurance rates, a change in import/export quotas, for example — have had us clearing huge tracts of orchards at levels we never would have imagined as little as five years ago.”

McLaughlin adds that clearing orchards for commercial growth has also exploded of late as the move to develop once seemingly-untouchable rural areas progresses. “We’ve recently been involved in some really huge clearings for one of the country’s largest home builders. And many of those clearing projects are in areas in which the risk of debris exiting a tub grinder became a bit of a concern for us. We thought we should look into a horizontal hog-type grinder and called Steve Johnson, the local representative for Morbark equipment.”

According to McLaughlin, their needs were simple: they wanted a powerful grinder that could handle a wide range of material, particularly the troublesome trees they encountered; it had to be mobile and, most importantly, it had to be fairly light in weight.

“Many of these sites can become extremely soft, particularly in late winter, early spring — our rainy season. A heavy grinder, while capable of doing the job for us, would be constantly getting mired in mud. Given our tight schedules and tighter profit margins, we simply couldn’t afford to have that happen.”

Durham’s Route: 66
Morbark’s Steve Johnson’s met with McLaughlin to discuss his options, most notably the company’s Model 5600 and 7600 Wood Hogs. McLaughlin feared he would have some trouble getting the more difficult material through the 5600, yet knew the 7600 “Boss Hog” was far too heavy for his needs.

“At that time, Steve said Morbark was introducing a Model 6600 which he thought would be perfect for us. He felt it could deliver the power we needed yet it weighed about 9,000 lbs. less than the 7600. I respected Steve’s knowledge of machinery and he understood my needs, so if he felt the 6600 would be right for us, that was good enough for me.”

The Model 6600 to which McLaughlin refers is Morbark’s latest addition to its Wood Hog line of horizontal grinders. Powered by a high horsepower Cat engine, it offers a 66” X 50” feed opening, a 40” wide stacking conveyor.”

“That discharge conveyor is an important feature to us,” says McLaughlin. “Our operation centers around grinding and loading material directly into large, high-side trucks for shipment to the co-gen plants, and the Model 6600 fits into that scheme well. Each truck, when full, can weigh as much as 24 tons, depending on the moisture content of the material we are grinding. The manner in which they are loaded can be critical and Steve Johnson helped us in that regard as well. He saw that adding a simple metal deflection plate at the top of the discharge conveyor, made the load spread out smoothly and evenly. Material just seems to spread itself out in the truck making loads fairly uniform.”

To put the productivity of McLaughlin’s machine into perspective, he offers a comparison: “When we first started out in this business, we really felt we had an extremely productive day if we got seven or eight truckloads. Today, we get a minimum of 12-13 truckloads a day. It’s just a whole new ballgame.”

Orchard Today — Field Tonight
Clearing an orchard, McLaughlin will be first to admit, is not a scientific process. It does, however, take a fair amount of planning, and execution. And, getting the trees down is truly just the start of the process.

“We use one of two techniques for removing trees from an orchard. In some cases, we bulldoze the area, a technique that, while it is good for large blocks of trees, tends to break off and leave behind some of the root. The other way is to use an excavator to claw around the tree, expose the root ball, grab it and, using the excavator, shake a lot of the dirt off. That makes the material better for use by the co-gen plant and also reduces wear on our machine.”

All processing is done directly onsite, he adds, with smaller trees like peaches and prunes, simply knocked over and fed to the 6600. “With larger trees like almonds, we use a Morbark Wolverine, saw them off at the ground, and run the top through the chipper. That works out well since the co-gen plant that’s closet to here demands a cleaner chip for their process. We will then come back with an excavator, get the rest of the tree from in the ground, run it through the grinder and send that material to the other plant. It’s not uncommon for us to get into a seven- or eight-acre orchard at 7:30 in the morning and leave behind a clean site by late that evening, and that’s due in large part to the performance of the equipment we use. ”

Feeding Frenzy
The level of work taken on by Old Durham Wood has progressed to such a degree that, in late February of this year, McLaughlin took delivery of a second Model 6600 to keep pace with the added business. Because the manner in which material is fed to the grinder is critical to the overall operation, McLaughlin considered a number of options.

“Our other horizontal unit is being fed using excavators, and that method has been very effective. However, a good dependable excavator can easily cost $150,000 — it’s tough to make up that kind of outlay. My initial thought was to have the unit configured as a self-loader with a boom and grapple mounted right on the machine, much like the 1300 tub grinder, but weight became an issue. We eventually settled on having a separate loading unit which is light, easily towable and gives us the flexibility we need. For most jobs, we simply have loaders bring material from the areas in which they’ve been felled and piled, to the loading unit, and it in turn feeds the grinder; it has really worked out well.”

No End in Sight
McLaughlin is, frankly, amazed at how busy his company is, given the peaks and valleys that many other businesses go through. He attributes that to the fact that he is equipped to handle most any type of clearing operation that comes his way.

“That’s one reason why, even after I bought my second horizontal grinder, I never got rid of my tub grinder. It allows me to do walnut stumps and large almond stumps — which are typically very large in diameter — as well as green waste. The 6600s are great for smaller almond stumps, as well as the full range of fruit trees. And, I still have the chipper in the event that I come upon a large old walnut or almond orchard and the rancher wants everything chipped. So any tree removal job that comes about I am equipped to handle.

“As the global economy has opened up, our country has started exporting more of some crops and importing more of others. For example, because we are importing plums from South America, growers have been saying there is an excess of 17,000 acres of plums; we’ve been working to take those out. The U.S. has also been importing peaches from Greece and South America, so last season we had a 70,000-ton excess of yellow peaches. To bring that number down, many of those orchards will be cleared and either replanted with another crop or, as is the case near Yuba City, sold for residential development. That site alone is over 200 acres that we are clearing in increments for homesite development. Simply put: there is always flux in the market, a need to improve tree spacing, to improve variety, urbanization. It’s kept us busy for a while now and, thankfully, there’s no end in sight.”

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