Security Shredding & Storage News

Las Vegas DirtWorkz, Inc.: Using the City’s wood waste to farm the desert

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Courtesy of Security Shredding & Storage News

Ray Becerra knows a thing or two about recycling, reusing and repurposing waste materials. You might even say it’s in his blood. Becerra has spent his entire life around landfills and farming operations, and he wears his passion for recycling waste materials on his sleeve. His enthusiasm for dust, dirt and debris, says Becerra, comes from his father, an avid recycler who was involved in the construction of several landfills – including California’s Chiquita Canyon, Lopez Canyon and Bradley landfills. “I watched my dad bury garbage year after year,” he explains. Becerra says his father taught him the importance of being environmentally responsible. It was a lesson that would lead him to explore ways to keep waste out of landfills in his own professional career.

Becerra has been in the soil remediation business for eighteen years. His consulting firm, Las Vegas DirtWorkz, Inc., which he runs with his wife Hayley Stimson, helps its customers find affordable, environmentally friendly solutions. The firm focuses on consulting with independent companies in the construction, tree trimming and landscaping businesses as well as golf courses, roll-off trucking companies and big businesses who want to take small, cost efficient steps toward going green. “It’s a challenge,” says Becerra. “We come in, slow them down and make sure they’re doing things the right way. We’re always telling people, ‘Get away from the fertilizers. Get away from the fossil fuels.’”

Las Vegas DirtWorkz also collaborates with demolition and recycling companies to turn waste wood that would otherwise be sent to the landfill into viable mulch and soil products. The firm routes approximately 300 tons of waste wood every three or four days. The material is taken from building demolition projects in and around the City of Las Vegas. They are sorted at the job site except in cases where high volume or time constraints necessitate delivery to a material recovery facility. Contaminated materials such as creosote-coated mudwall, railroad ties, telephone poles, ADF board, particleboard and other laminated woods are separated and sent to the landfill. Materials that are deemed organic are sent to diversion sites where they are inspected for a second time. This second inspection, says Stimson, helps ensure that whatever small amount of commercial wood products are left in the material are removed. The commercial wood products are then ground down to 3-inch chips and set aside. Meanwhile, the organic materials are ground to 1-inch minus mulch.

The materials that are leftover from this process are screened and then combined with the commercial wood products. This wood waste mixture is then sent to a cement kiln where it is burned to power another kiln were cement is made. The cement kiln where the burning takes place is equipped with a bio-filter that reduces emissions and prevents fly ash problems. According to Becerra, the cement kiln is the key to keeping this part of the operation green. “Cement kilns burn hotter and cleaner, and with the bio-filter there is no exhaust.”

Once the commercial wood waste is sent off to burn, it’s up to Las Vegas DirtWorkz to find new homes for the remaining organic mulch. The mulch, which is very high in carbon content (about 90 percent), has not only proven to be beneficial to farmers growing in Nevada’s desert regions, it has also helped Las Vegas DirtWorkz clients reduce their carbon footprints and generate additional revenues.

The Moapa Pauite Indian Reservation
The Moapa Band of Paiutes’ ancestral lands once covered a large area that in the present day encompasses Southern Nevada, Southern Utah, and parts of Arizona and California. President Ulysses S. Grant established the Moapa Pauite Indian Reservation in Southern Nevada’s arid Moapa Valley in 1873 by Executive Order. Originally, the reservation encompassed 2 million acres, but in 1875 it was reduced to a mere 1,000 acres. It wasn’t until 1981 that a portion of the original acreage – 70,565 acres to be exact – was restored to the Tribe. Today the reservation totals 71,954 acres.

After the reservation was reduced to 1,000 acres, the majority of the remaining land was utilized for farming. In 1941, the Tribe drew up a constitution and bylaws, establishing a Tribal Business Council (TBC) as its governing body. Because the individual allotments of the Tribe’s once communal lands were too small to farm economically, ownership of the plots were given over to the TBC for use in cooperative farming. But shortages of water and money, coupled with a lack of modern equipment, made the challenge of cooperative farming exceedingly difficult. Out of frustration, the Tribe eventually decided to lease its farmland to a White-owned dairy company. They closed their greenhouses and sold their water rights to the Nevada Water Authority. The Tribe’s fields were abandoned for years and soil nutrients were depleted through erosion and neglect. The days of farming on the Moapa Pauite Indian Reservation seemed to have come to an end.

Difficult circumstances have compelled Native American tribes in other states to turn to gambling enterprises to generate revenues. But for the Moapa Band of Pauites, the close proximity of Las Vegas makes it unlikely the Tribe will be able to generate significant revenues through a casino any time soon. They simply can’t compete with nearby Sin City’s big casinos. Instead, the Tribe generates revenues through the Moapa Pauite Travel Plaza, situated off Interstate 15 about 45 miles north of Las Vegas. The Plaza, which is operated by Moapa Tribal Enterprises (MTE), includes a café, gas station, fireworks store and a convenience store where the Tribe sells food, cigarettes, liquor and handicrafts.

Currently, the Plaza is the Tribe’s main source of income, but that could change. In 2009, the Tribe hired Las Vegas DirtWorkz to consult with them on a new business venture – commercial farming. DirtWorkz helped the Tribe plan and roll out a multi-phase restoration project that could eventually provide them with a significant stream of income. The first phase of the project involves rejuvenating the Tribe’s 20-year-old greenhouses, which were vandalized and had fallen into a state of disrepair. The greenhouses will be used to grow seedlings of native trees, sago, fan palms and potatoes. The seedlings are grown in potting soil made from organic wood waste and manure. The plan, says Becerra, is to sell the seedlings to farms in Utah this spring.

For the second phase of the project, Las Vegas DirtWorkz coordinated the restoration of 200 acres of the Tribe’s farmland. A challenging task, says Becerra, as the land had become bereft of nutrients from years of inactivity. “Years ago,” he says, “the Tribe flooded their fields, washing away earthworms, microbes – all the good stuff you need for growing. When we started, the nitrogen levels were low. We needed to get all of that good stuff back into the soil.”

To that end, Becerra coordinated heaps of carbon-rich wood mulch made from the scraps of Las Vegas demolition projects to be brought to the reservation. The material was ground-up, processed, screened and plowed into the Tribe’s fields along with nitrogen-loaded manure from a nearby dairy farm and the pH of the soil was adjusted to optimal levels. The fields were then treated with wood waste mulch and a drip irrigation system was installed. Drip irrigation systems, says Becerra, are perfect for dry, desert regions as they’re more efficient than sprinkler systems, plus they’re generally inexpensive to install. In addition, they can reduce the frequency of diseases association with high levels of moisture for some plants. They work by applying water slowly through a drip tube, directly onto the soil. Since the water is only applied where it’s needed, waste is minimal. The soil soaks up the water before it can evaporate or run off.

With help from Las Vegas DirtWorkz, the Moapa Band of Pauites is now growing alfalfa and organic produce on land that was once given up to switchgrass and tumbleweeds. If everything goes as planned, the Tribe’s long-range goal is to restore 2,000 acres of farmland. The reservation restoration project, says Becerra, is prime evidence that with the right approach you can grow organically in any climate. “We’re perfecting the field,” he adds. “If you do things the right way you can grow anything out here.”

Two Hawk Ranch
Recently, Sandy Valley, Nevada’s Two Hawk Ranch (THR) hired Las Vegas DirtWorkz to help them cut back on their water usage and to reach their goal of increasing their crop yields from seven yields to twelve yields annually. THR has been growing alfalfa since 1968 and growing alfalfa continuously for more than twenty years. The ranch produces alfalfa hay cubes and alfalfa hay bales for livestock farms. THR supplies livestock farms from Southern Nevada to as far away as Japan – where their alfalfa hay cubes are fed to the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, otherwise known as Kobe beef. Alfalfa hay is especially attractive to livestock farmers for its high protein content, and because it can be more easily stored and handled than straw. Tightly compressed alfalfa hay cubes produces less dust that straw bales, meaning farmers and animals inhale less airborne particulate.

In the past, says Becerra, TRH’s owners had always used chemical fertilizers on their fields due to the ranch’s remote location and a lack of organic waste materials in the surrounding area. They approached Las Vegas DirtWorkz, he adds, “Because they were looking to get away from using chemical fertilizers. They wanted to go organic.” The firm provided a pipeline to plenty of organic material – in the form of wood waste, naturally – to help the ranch cut back on chemical fertilizers. Like they did for the Moapa Pauite Indian Reservation, Las Vegas DirtWorkz coordinated the delivery of heaps of organic wood material. The wood was ground, screened and plowed into the fields, which were also treated with mulch mixed with composted manure. Nitrogen was added and the pH levels were adjusted to an optimal level for alfalfa growing.

Years ago, THR invested in drip irrigation and electrical wells – much needed water-saving measures in the dry climate of Southern Nevada. By going organic, Stimson adds, THR was able to achieve several goals. First, they reduced their chemical fertilizer and electrical costs significantly. Second, they cut back on water usage, because the organic materials added to the fields hold moisture and retain optimum pH levels for longer periods. According to Becerra, these days THR is using 50 percent less water. All of this ultimately equates to more profits for THR, and another happy client for Las Vegas DirtWorkz.

Waste Not, Want Not
Las Vegas DirtWorkz big project for 2010, says Becerra, is a collaboration with Lunas Construction Clean-Up – a family-owned Las Vegas-based company that handles demolition, clean-up and recycling projects – to demolish old and abandoned buildings for the Federal Housing Authority. Between 80 – 90 percent of the demolished materials will be hand sorted and diverted for various organic materials reuse programs. “We’re doing something unprecedented,” says Becerra. “By being responsible on the front end, we’re diverting the maximum amount of materials from the landfill and reducing our carbon footprint.” It will be Las Vegas DirtWorkz job to coordinate applications for this mass of materials, a challenge that excites Becerra. “What can I say?” he exclaims. “I love this stuff.”

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