Company blends landclearing expertise, re-use of materials into successful business

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Broad range of equipment and techniques helps Southwest Florida firm take landclearing to the next level.

Landclearing, particularly that in which aesthetic considerations can come to bear, such as clearing for a golf course or housing tract development, is far from the 'cut it all' process which the very name implies. Many successful landclearing professionals have honed the business into something of an art by selectively clearing, using existing foliage, and recycling or re-using cleared material. Doing so allows them to maintain the highest levels of customer satisfaction, streamline costs and maximize profitability. One such company, Dave Foote Environmental Construction, Inc., has taken landclearing to this next level through a combination of expertise, attention-to-detail and wise equipment purchase and use. The result is a demand for the company's services by many of the larger, most prominent developers in South Florida.

Florida: The Golf Course State

A trip down I-75 from Tampa/St. Petersburg southward might lead one to believe that, left unchecked, Florida could soon become one contiguous link. New courses seem to begin development almost daily and the sight of several under construction from a single vantage point is not uncommon. Getting these courses - and the upscale housing tracts that invariably accompany them - into shape has become Dave Foote's area of expertise. In the last year alone, the Fort Myers-based company has cleared for no fewer than a half a dozen courses and has at least five more on the books for the coming months.

'There are a number of reasons why I feel we've done so well in addressing this market,' says owner Dave Foote. 'Foremost among them, I believe, would be the degree to which we work to keep the developer on schedule. In this business, a single event - a last-minute permit approval for example - can change a project's direction at a moment's notice. When that happens, we have to be ready to get clearing and make every effort to ensure that schedules are maintained. To do this we've developed a number of techniques that allow us to effectively clear without slowing down other areas of development onsite.'

Such techniques, says Foote, include the use of modified end dumps with extra-high sides for additional payload capacities. On larger projects particularly those in which they are using only one grinder, the trucks area loaded and take material to a central staging area. There, material is ground and screened in one pass.

'With the volume of work we have going on, some of it at the same time, availability of machinery can occasionally be a problem. However, using these end dumps can be like having another grinder or two. If, for example, I'm working one project and have another one getting ready to start up, I will send the end dumps ahead and use them to move piles of cleared material to a central staging area, thereby freeing up workspace and, more importantly, allowing the contractor to move forward. Then I simply bring my equipment in to do the grinding and screening. On a typical golf course project, we might move our grinder 10 times a day. Keep in mind that, by the time the unit is idled down and moved to the next pile, the average move takes about 12 minutes- that's two hours of production per day we'll have lose. Factoring in 20 work days per month shows a full week's production lost over that period. So by using the end dumps in the manner we do, the grinder grinds a full 10 hours a day. By year's end we've gained three months worth of grinding simply by staging the material and leaving the grinder in place. We ran the numbers and not only have the trucks paid for themselves, they've helped maximize the use and value of our grinder.

The Right 'Stuff'

The equipment which Foote's company relies upon to get the job done is an extensive, versatile fleet which includes a John Deere 653 excavator with a sawhead and a Hydro-Axe 721E for felling trees; a pair of John Deere G2 and G3 log skidders; Volvo loaders with high-tip buckets to allow loading of 100-yard trailers without ramps, the modified end-dumps mentioned above and a solid lineup of machinery to handle the debarking, and subsequent processing of the wood and green waste.

'We differ from a lot of other land clearing companies in the fact that we have markets for virtually everything we clear. A lot of companies simply send the material to co-generation plants to be burned. Others rely solely upon a single source for the disposal of their waste - a disastrous situation should that source dry up in mid project. Still others have no connections through which they can get rid of the material at all. By comparison, we have a number of different sources for most everything we clear - one source gets the logs, another gets the chips, another is slated for mulch and so on. As a result, our grinding, chipping and recycling operation is as important to us as the clearing itself.'

Foote says his current inventory - specifically those units which constitute the backbone of the recycling side of business - consists of all equipment from Morbark, Inc. (Winn, MI). They use Model 1000 and Model 1300 tub grinders, Model 727 and Model 737 trommel screens, assorted stacking conveyors, a Model 1848 flail chipper and their latest addition, an N-Viro Mulch colorizer.

'In an operation I managed prior to starting this company three years ago, we also ran Morbark equipment and it made me realize the value of well-built, well-supported equipment. So when I left to start my own business, the decision of which processing equipment to buy was really a no-brainer. Their product offering is perhaps the broadest in the industry, yet many of the parts are interchangeable. Many parts from a tub grinder can be used on a whole tree chipper; a hydraulic motor can be used as a swing motor on one unit and auger motor on another, and so on. That versatility allows me to minimize my spare parts inventory costs'.

In Support of Support
Foote says performance is, of course, key to his operation's success and the equipment has provided all the production he has needed and then some. However, he adds that support can be equally critical and, in the past, Morbark has stepped to the plate without fail, to keep him satisfied.

'In those rare instances when a problem with the equipment is identified, Morbark is quick to address the issue either through service or through modification to ensure the problem never happens again. I realize that any company can't be expected to create a product that does all things for all people - that's simply not feasible. So I value the level of support they provide and, more importantly, the value they place on feedback from users in the field like me. '

Clearing the Area

A typical landclearing operation for Foote's company entails selective cutting and clearing both in accordance with the designer or architect's plans and according to what Foote and his people have learned over the years. 'The designers flag most of the trees they want removed but also leave room for judgment calls on our part. If we see a tree that shows a lot of character - a corkscrew pine, for example - we will try to keep it. We have people on our crews who have gained the respect and trust of the architects and designers; that's a valuable asset for us as a company.'

At a new site, Foote's crew will use its track-mounted cut-down machines with saw head to do the initial cutting. They will grade out the pine and using the skidders, move the logs to logging trailers. From Foote's perspective, that material represents the cream of the crop. The balance of the pines - the remaining 30-40 feet - will go to the firm's debarker to be debarked and chipped. At that point, everything from the cut pine has essentially been sold as either saw logs or pine chips.

While the work done by Foote and his crews is, unmistakably, landclearing, the term Dave Foote uses to describe it, 'surgical removal' seems far more accurate. For example, the company places a great deal of emphasis in taking an area seemingly overgrown with Melaluca - a tree imported form Australia decades ago in a misguided attempt to dry up the Everglades - and making it attractive once again.

'Areas are often grossly overrun with Melaluca trees but contain as many as 100 pristine pine trees. In such cases, we will go in with a saw-equipped track loader and selectively cut the area and restore it. If we don't remove the stumps for processing, we will chemically treat them. Before long the palmetto will once gain start growing and the area will be back to looking as it did before it was overrun. It's not what most people envision landclearing as being, but it's a big part of what we offer as a service.'

Sitting on Stumps

Generally, Foote subcontracts out the stump removal portion of the project then segregates the stumps from the remaining waste - the palmettos, the cabbage palms and so on - and stockpiles them for later grinding.

'Our reason for doing so is very basic and sound. Landclearing wood that has been through a grinder has a tendency to darken as it sits in a pile due to the bacterial action taking place. We will either primary grind it using large 4-inch by 6-inch grates or leave stumps whole. Doing so allows us to store that material for a longer period of time - often as long as six months. When the material is eventually sent through the grinder, it will still be blond on the inside when broken open and the lighter material definitely takes color far better than the dark.'

To meet a growing demand for colored mulch by area landscapers and suppliers, Foote recently took delivery on a Morbark N-Viro Mulch Coloring System. 'We've run some 5,000 yards of material through the unit the first few months we've had it and see it as playing an increasingly important role in our operation as the demand for colored product continues to rise in this area.'

Depending on volumes, material removed from a clearing project is either processed at a site's designated staging area or hauled back to the company's yard.

'If the project in question is a 200 or 300 acre golf course it just doesn't make any sense to transport that volume of material back here,' says Foote. 'A typical landclearing from a golf course project can easily yield 25,000 tons of wood product. In such cases we will take the screens and process material onsite. For smaller jobs - say 10 to 15 acre clearings that will give us about 20 loads - we will bring it here and stockpile it. Then, every couple months or so we purge the yard and start all over again.'

Marketing the Mix

Foote's Fort Myers facility, the site at which most of the screening is done, features Morbark 727 and 737 trommel screens. Set for 1-inch to 3/4-inch minus removal, the primary screen is used to pull heavy material out of the wood and green waste stream. Screened material is conveyed to a secondary screen, a Morbark Model 727 set for 3/8-inch removal, which will essentially remove all the dirt from it. Material off the first screen - viewed as poorer quality - is sold as fuel wood.

'We've got material that is sold as a potting mix from which the small 'overs' chip has already been screened. Those overs will be run through again, more dirt will be removed and we will be left with a nice wood chip that is sized to a 3/4-inch minus to 3/8-inch. Much of the Cyprus we get is ground and then reground to make a material suitable for use by mulch blower trucks. We even have markets for the dirt.'

As if to underscore its capabilities, Foote adds that they are one of the only processors in the area successfully selling material from felled Melaluca trees. 'The Melaluca is a problem in that the paper-like bark ruins the quality and value of the wood. It is very evident when mixed in with other woods as a mulch - so evident that many customers were refusing anything that contained it. I knew, however, that the wood of the tree itself is excellent quality - only the bark makes it inferior. Now, using a Morbark flail debarker, we remove the papery bark, send the Melaluca wood through the tub grinder and sell it for fuel.'

Getting What You Pay For

Foote says that, on more than one occasion, a potential customer has looked at a price he's quoted and commented that one of his competitors was cheaper. He counters with his strongest argument: the fact that those companies simply don't offer the level of service that his company does. 'When a customer walks onto a job that we've completed, it is ready for him to go work. Because I have markets in place for all the material I will recover, there are no issues such as onsite waste disposal that have to be dealt with before he can start. A company can have all the grinders and all the chippers in the world but if they can't get rid of the product, all they've done is taken an existing problem and changed its appearance - they've changed a pile of stumps into a pile of wood chips. I recognized early on that while others looked at a pile of waste as a liability, I saw it as an opportunity. The demand for all this material is there if a company can produce good quality product - and we are doing just that.'

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