Where to CASH IN YOUR CHIPS

“The biggest challenge in tree work is to make wood-chip disposal modern and efficient, on the same level as the tree work itself,” says Lucas Carr. Photo of Urban Timber Tree Care in Portland, Oregon, courtesy of ChipDrop.

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck …?

While the answer to that old tongue twister of a riddle may not be clear, the answer to how much wood a tree care company chips is easier – too much. This is according to the operators of some tree care companies who shared their concerns about a lack of disposal options for wood chips and other debris from their tree work. But some also offer at least partial solutions.

Strategies for dumping wood chips include dropping off debris at gardeners’ homes for mulch, using an app to find dump spots near the job site, creating a wood-processing affiliate and so on. Also on the list are green-waste facilities, compost-processing plants and energy companies. While facilities that produce biofuel, i.e., wood pellets, and biochar are larger targets, use of these sites often presents obstacles, from red tape to travel time to required chip quality.

Lucas Carr, president of Pathfinder Tree Service, an 11-year TCIA member company based in Norwood, Massachusetts, is concerned about the lack of wood-disposal dump sites in his state. He thinks it would be useful for TCIA, or some other entity, to put together a list of regional sites or provide some guidance on what other tree businesses do.

“There are multiple companies with two or three cranes doing tree removal. That right there generates 10 to 15 times the amount of wood chips being processed and disposed of (at a typical tree care company) 25 years ago,” says Carr. “It has changed the outcome of everything a tree company does for disposal. You can get rid of only so many wood chips to process for bark mulch these days.”

You can get rid of only so many wood chips to process for bark mulch these days. Photo courtesy of ChipDrop.

Burning plants and paper mills have been shut down or restricted as to what they can accept, Carr notes. “That puts a burden on the homeowner or the company that is trying to do a simple tree-removal project,” that in the past was more straightforward.

The biggest challenge in tree work is to make wood-chip disposal modern and efficient, on the same level as the tree work itself, Carr says.

“On the flip side, if you are a tree-company owner who owns your own land, where do you draw the line on sitting on so much material? If you are a tree company that is renting, when does your landlord draw the line? The question will arise, ‘If I keep doing removals, what happens when I don’t have a solution?’” poses Carr. “The world might have the coronavirus on its plate, but the tree industry as a whole has its own pandemic of sorts,” with a growing glut of wood chips.

Carr’s company spreads chip drop-offs over multiple locations to handle volume. But looking forward, one suggestion he has for tree companies is to diversify into other concerns that don’t involve generating chips. “What is going to happen one day, when we can’t do tree removal because we can’t get rid of the chips and wood? These companies are going to have to diversify into other areas that don’t generate a certain amount of wood chips per day. One truckload versus two-and-a-half truckloads per day makes a huge difference,” he says.

ChipDrop – and one or two other apps like it – is designed to provide tree care companies places to dump chips near wherever they are working. Photo courtesy of ChipDrop.

ChipDrop, a Portland, Oregon-based company that makes an app to connect tree companies with locations looking for chips, has become one good option for tree care operators, Carr notes. “It’s been very useful. We have done well with them. But that seems like a very temporary solution to a growing, permanent problem. So if somebody can get a group of people together who have some good ideas, to form a plan for the future before people are out of a job, that would be ideal.”

There’s an app for that

ChipDrop – and one or two other apps like it – is designed to provide tree care companies places to dump chips near wherever they are working, thus reducing truck use, fuel expense, equipment downtime and the labor costs involved with lugging chips out of the work site to what is often a distant dump site. Addressing the last item is key to keeping arborists doing what they do best and are getting paid for – tree work, according to Bryan Kappa, ChipDrop owner.

Kappa launched the app several years ago in Oregon and Washington and has now expanded across the U.S., Canada and even into the UK, where the biochar industry pays well for wood chips, he says. Kappa, who has a background in engineering and software as well as tree care, developed the prototype and started using the app while working in the industry.

The app helps arborists find inexpensive, local drop-off sites for wood chips and logs by looking at a map on their phone. It costs $20 per drop. There is no subscription or monthly fee, and the app even has a few free drop-off sites. Gardeners or landscape contractors add their location to the map so the tree companies can see the locations. The list is instantly updated when a drop is made. The more users on both ends, the more momentum and the better the app works.

If a customer was paying for wood chips, “There is a little more of an expectation,” says Jacob Busiahn, which might include complaints about the mulch’s content or yardage. Photo courtesy of Tettegouche Treecare.

“Once the user base is established, arborists use the app at will. They don’t have to plan ahead. The crew can be out in the field, the truck fills up, they click a couple of buttons, we give them the address, they drop the chips; it’s as simple and easy as that,” says Kappa.

“It’s always changing. When they start using the app, they are not sure where the next place is, and there is some uncertainty. But once they use it, they get a good sense of where the drop sites are.”

Note that ChipDrop does not have a native app in the app store. The app is accessible as a web application on the company’s website, getchipdrop.com.

The ideal would be selling the chips and logs, but that can be a job in itself, according to Kappa.

“The practicality of it is, it does not make sense to manage that. Arborists are in the business of working on trees, not selling mulch,” Kappa notes. If arborists truly crunch the numbers, they will find they are breaking even, not making money on it, after managing and storing it, he says. “It’s not cost effective.

“Time is the biggest cost when it comes to the disposal of wood chips. It can take one or two crew members with a truck and chipper an hour to cross town, plus the crew waiting for the truck to come back, and it is a huge expense for the company,” says Kappa.

Meanwhile, ChipDrop asks gardeners to work with a lot of caveats. “It’s the arborists who get the white-glove treatment. They are the customers and are getting the most benefit out of it and saving a lot of money. For that reason, clients have to make certain concessions,” says Kappa. For example, they have to agree to take the whole load; they can’t decide how many yards they would like, which could mean a load of up to 15 to 20 yards.

Also, the customer has to be prepared to take the load at a moment’s notice, with no warning; the site needs to be ready. That takes the scheduling hassle out of the equation, Kappa says. The customer is warned there could be leaves and pine needles in the load, up to 50%.

“The biggest issue is that the customer has just raked up their leaves, and now they are getting mulch with leaves in it,” says Kappa. “But I tell them this is going to be the best thing to amend their soil. We almost try to educate and be mulch advocates, setting people’s expectations when they sign up. I don’t want people to be upset.”

To help, Kappa has created a fun, two-minute video on his website, “Why ChipDrop Probably Is NOT for You.” (View the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ilAv8SzB_Aw&t=16s.)

“No notice, tons of chips and you might have to wait forever,” says the narrator. In response, customers respond they are OK with it because the mulch is free.

The company also drops off palm debris, as long as it has been processed into gorilla hair, a stringy, hairy material that makes really good mulch, says Kappa. Also, a lot of gardeners value an aesthetic look, where the mulch does not look dyed or store bought, Kappa notes.

Dumping in a homeowner-association parking lot after doing some structural pruning for the HOA. Photo courtesy of Tettegouche Treecare.

One area possibly fueling growth for the company is the increasing action around conservation and water-use reduction brought on by recent droughts in the U.S. Practices such as xeriscaping, which is designing landscapes to reduce or eliminate the need for irrigation, are gaining converts. For example, Southern California’s Be Water Wise campaign launched a turf-replacement program a few years ago with tax incentives to switch out of a hugely water-intensive landscape.

“In California, that alone has brought awareness to mulching,” Kappa notes, and adds that that could lead to an uptick in business.

Mark Russell, owner of 770 Arborist, a nine-year TCIA member company based in Canton, Georgia, several years ago founded abouttrees.com, a web-based service that also helps tree companies find sites to drop wood chips, at FreeMulch.AboutTrees.com. “While not an app as in downloadable through the App Store, it is an application on the back end of that URL that processes the mulch requests,” says Russell. “Technically, it’s considered a browser-based web application.

“The original functionality of the service is still up and running, but we are continually upgrading it and are looking forward to version 2.0 very soon,” says Russell.

Wood boilers and stoves

Jacob Busiahn, owner of the three-person (including himself as boss) Tettegouche Tree Care in Duluth, Minnesota, has, as others have, worked out several strategies for getting rid of wood chips and logs, including the use of ChipDrop.

Customers are getting the most benefit out of chip drops and saving a lot of money. For that reason, clients have to make certain concessions. For example, they have to agree to take the whole load; they can’t decide how many yards they would like, which could mean a load of up to 15 to 20 yards. Photo courtesy of ChipDrop.

In addition, says Busiahn, “We dump chips at a lot of different small gardens and orchards of private individuals.” He also serves people with wood boilers and stoves, popular in northern Minnesota. Typically, those loads are a mix of 3- to 4-inch wood and logs thrown into the same trailer. The wood is a lot of white pine and white spruce as well as cottonwood, maple and aspen.

Busiahn uses some sites out of town that are inexpensive and easy to drop off at, though a 45-minute drive away. But he also works with some bigger lots in town.

Typically, chip loads for Tettegouche Treecare include a mix of 3- to 4-inch wood and logs thrown into the same trailer. Photo courtesy of Tettegouche Treecare.

Some potential customers have reached out to him for wood debris, and he is planning to put an ad on his website and Facebook Marketplace where people can sign up.

While he has used ChipDrop a few times, he is reluctant to deal with new customers on a regular basis. “I don’t want to figure out what the site is and them getting something they don’t want,” he says.

As for monetizing the drop-offs, he notes he has worked with offers back and forth, “but we both realize it’s a symbiotic relationship. It helps us out, and it helps them out, so there is no money exchange.”

Besides, if a customer was paying for wood chips, “There is a little more of an expectation,” he says, which might include complaints about the mulch’s content or yardage.

“With these smaller places where we are dropping off, we are very conscious not to overwhelm them. If we have a massive cottonwood, we are not going to bring them 48-inch rounds and will take those to another site. The average homeowner would say, ‘I don’t want you dumping this stuff at my house.’”

He doesn’t want to burn bridges.

He also has looked into a roll-off company to haul wood to a processing facility for a pretty reasonable price, $200 to $300 for a 20-yard container. “I haven’t done that yet, but will try it with the bigger jobs to see how that goes,” he says.

“In town, there used to be a wood-processing facility that would pay for clean wood debris. You could dump off logs and chips there. That has closed within the past several years. I am not the only person in town struggling with a place to dump wood chips,” he says, referring to the bustling forestry business in the area.

“A good portion of people burn up here, in their homes, but everyone wants one load. I don’t want to deal with that. If there’s a facility that opens up that would take wood debris and take as much as I could give it, I would probably go there,” he says.

Start your own affiliate

Daniel Mayer, owner of Mayer Tree Service, Inc., a 30-year TCIA member company based in Essex, Mass., operates a variety of cranes and has dealt with the wood-chip dilemma by creating an affiliate company. He set up ProBark Industries in Plaistow, New Hampshire, to produce and sell bark mulch from the wood debris his company generates. As a result, he is not relying on subcontractors to truck chips and has bought his own grinders, chippers and trucks to do the work, thereby integrating his business.

One aspect that makes that work is quality chips, he says.

“Tree companies aren’t making a quality chip, and that’s the problem with the chips we all make. It’s got a lot of foliage,” Mayer says. Most tree companies are using a chipper that chips from 12- to 20-inch-diameter material, which creates a chip that does not have a high BTU value. “When you can chip whole logs or trees, that is when you will get better products,” he says.

The equipment he uses can run bigger logs and is designed to make custom chips of any size as they pass through a screen. Europe has very high standards for chips, he notes. The chips have to meet a rigid spec if you want to sell them. The better the chip, the better the value.

“Because of the quality we produce, our chip moves ahead of other people’s,” he says.

When working locally, his workers just go do a job and drop off the debris in the company’s yard. The company then uses 18-wheelers to transport the material to the big yard in New Hampshire.

“It’s hard. Real estate is expensive. You can’t tie up real estate for wood-chip piles, plus they can be a nuisance, a fire hazard and noisy to process,” Mayer says.

“It all relates – the closer you are to the urban environment where you work, the more expensive it is for the real estate to work in that area. Tree workers travel into the market. Settled areas don’t want a tree company near them.”

Where does Mayer sell wood chips? “There are lots of different markets, all cyclical, sometimes it’s hot and sometimes not. It’s heated up right now because the price of oil is high and people are using wood chips as opposed to oil. Households are burning more firewood.”

The logistics of the timing and the fuel can make dumping your own wood debris expensive. “You will pay for someone to take them off your hands because you want to get back to work, doing what we do best, which is caring for trees. Wood chips are just a byproduct that we are happy to get rid of,” says Mayer.

For selling to large biofuel utility companies, he adds, “The key to wood chips is keeping them clean. Don’t throw the sawdust and coffee cups into the load. It has to be as good as it can be. One Styrofoam cup will set off the sensors in the stacks. Stringy doesn’t work, it clogs up the machines while burning, and that source will get shut off and give us all a bad name.”

Leaving chips at a customer’s house? Mayer doesn’t want to create work for his customers, noting they don’t understand what a pain in the neck it is to move a pile of 30 to 50 yards and work with it in their yard. “Then I am the guy they will remember,” Mayer says, “and not fondly.”

1 Comment

  1. It’s worth noting that The Garden Professors have come down firmly in the “First run chips are best for plants” camp. (https://gardenprofessors.com/why-fresh-is-best-when-it-comes-to-mulch/). This group of professors insists on research-backed suggestions, not anecdotal evidence. They won’t say “don’t heap mulch against stems of trees” because there is no real research to back that, but they will say double-grind mulch creates a dense mat that restricts water percolation and first-grind chips are better (for example).

    If we can get more people to understand that commercial mulches can cause more problems than they solve, while first grind chips avoid these problems, we might find it easier to unload chips before we ever leave the neighborhood.

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