Crawford Tree’s plant health care (PHC) van was researched, developed and built in-house. It’s a representation of the company’s approach to PHC.
Jon Welch is excited about having built a better mousetrap.
Welch is president of Crawford Tree & Landscape Services, Inc., an accredited, 42-year TCIA member company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and serving the surrounding suburbs. His company has 29 employees and a fleet of 19 vehicles, including a two-year-old plant health care (PHC) van that his team is very excited about.
That’s their mousetrap – although this mousetrap carries tanks, hoses, pressure gauges and sinks, and is wrapped in advertising that creates what Welch describes as an eye-catching exterior and a clean, professional look. During the past two years, it has become a staple in his fleet, one he says he hopes bolsters the care and commitment made by those practicing in the commercial tree care industry.
“I would love to see the industry stay focused on plant health care and the care of trees,” Welch says. “Over the last few years, with emerald ash borer and with the direction of equipment development and how difficult it is to find staffing, there’s been a lot of talk and movement toward removals. Removals are a demolition game; it’s not quite tree care. It is property care and it’s caring for the residents by keeping the property safe and all that, but it’s not quite tree care. In fact, I’d say it can be the result of a deficiency in our tree care industry. Those clients need to have their trees cared for to avoid removal when possible, and I feel we’re getting to clients too late in some respects. I mean, it even starts with tree selection and planting.
“This van was birthed from the idea that we need, as an industry, to stay focused on tree care and proactively care for our clients’ trees, not just arriving to remove them when they’re too far gone.”
The van also serves as an example of how to overcome an obstacle many tree care providers face in their efforts to develop a sustainable plant health care offering to clients. For many companies, the idea of adding a typical tank truck to their fleet is as unappealing as the look of those trucks – tanks mounted on a flatbed truck.
“This is a trend,” says Randall McDonald, CTSP, owner of The Nature Zone, a tree care consulting business and 14-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Butler, Pennsylvania, who does Accreditation auditing for TCIA. “No one wants to see old (exterior-tank) rigs near their homes. Even if you’re spraying water, they see deadly pesticides. Hoses, white-powder residue – it’s all deadly, whether it is or not. The cost of the upgrade (to an enclosed vehicle) stops many from doing it, but the rewards seem to pay for themselves. Clean, professional, ‘safe’ – and it’s all under cover. Built in (Crawford Tree’s van) are several empty tanks, which keeps the applicator from having to apply simply what’s been mixed, instead of what is required.”
Some have found that buying an outfitted and enclosed PHC vehicle can come with a little sticker shock. When Crawford Tree went shopping for a new van, they, too, had this experience. A comparably equipped PHC van from one vendor cost $94,000, and that did not include a van wrap ($4,500). It was more than they wanted to pay. It also represented the low end of pricing for similar vans, something Welch believes has kept some owners from investing in that area of the industry.
Instead, Paul Bertoni, Crawford Tree’s mechanic, and Dane Connolly-Nelson, CTSP, its PHC division leader, put together their own version. They ordered some parts, built a few others and decided on the best configuration for their type of business, servicing suburban homeowners. The van has four tanks and a system of valves, flow meters and hoses, plus a remote fueling system and pull-out hose reel that are all accessed from the rear while standing on the ground. The side door opens, allowing an operator to enter an interior lab, complete with a hands-free sink and mixing counter. In two years of service, Welch says, while it has proven efficient and profitable, the ergonomic benefits to the applicator have been the main benefit. And the cost, before tax and including 180 hours of fabrication labor, was a relatively inexpensive $69,331.88.
Getting into vans
The company’s unique and cutting-edge approach has paid off for Crawford Tree, an established business that was founded in 1969. “This van addresses price point for PHC equipment, recruitment and career longevity,” says Welch, adding that the van’s capacity is more than adequate for his company’s needs. In fact, he says, they generally don’t fill the four tanks on the van, which can hold a total of 505 gallons, because they don’t need to.
“We usually put 300 to 400 gallons in there,” Welch says, “because we are only going out for the day and that’s all we will require. Although, if needed, and with the permission of clients and an onboard airgap system, on site we can be filling one tank while applying from another.
“If you’re a company in Florida and you’ve got an entire gated community to make an application to, you’re going to need 1,000-gallon trucks,” Welch concedes. “(Crawford’s van is) not a cure-all. If you’re doing municipal work or anything like that, you’re going to need more capacity, for sure. This (van) is suited more for our estate-care approach.”
As Welch sees it, there are three main hurdles companies need to navigate in order to offer plant health care services, beginning with knowledge and certification.
“You need to have somebody who understands the species, stressors affecting each species, the products that address each stressor and the regulation of those products,” Welch says. “So that’s hurdle number one. Hurdle number two is pricing. During my time in the industry, I’ve spoken with a lot of companies and have been to a lot of conferences where they talk about how to price your plant health care and how to sell it, and the ‘how to’ goes on and on. ‘Do I price by diameter inch? Do I price by gallons applied? Do I price by time? What’s the going rate? What can I get for it? How do I measure my applications?’ The third hurdle, which this van addresses, is the company’s financial investment.
“A lot of people go to these trade shows – I see it all the time at TCI EXPO – and walk around and see all these rigs and, until this year when vans dropped below 100K, the barrier to entry was the 120 to 140 grand for some of the plant health care rigs. I think a lot of people look at these three hurdles and think, ‘Ah, forget it. I’m just going to get another set of chain saws and cut more trees.’ They look at the knowledge required, then look at the cost of entry and just stick with what they’re familiar with. I feel it is up to us in this industry to move ourselves forward, not just my company but the whole industry.”
Welch provided TCIA with pictures of the van, a one-page backgrounder and a build sheet that lists all of the equipment – and its costs, including labor – that was used in creating the van, from dry-erase utensils ($20) to a hose-reel/hose/guide-bar unit ($1,170) and the $4,500 van wrap (including materials and installation). One feature that might go overlooked is that all operational components are contained within the van, which keeps the equipment safe from tampering and protected from the elements. With no plans to use the van for anything but plant health care, which is not always possible in the green industry, the van is expected to be in operation longer than the traditional flatbed tank truck.
The versatile and practical use of the van allows Crawford Tree to approach plant health care in a much more sophisticated way, says Welch.
“Here’s what many companies used to do and some may still do. They’d take a flatbed truck and throw one, maybe two tanks on it,” Welch says. “They’d go out to make blanket fungicide and insecticide applications to a client’s entire property with no diagnosis or inspection. Well, you need 500 to 1,000 gallons to do so when you’re applying that irresponsibly. (He notes that, although this approach would not have been considered “irresponsible” years ago, many companies have made this change already.)
“Here’s the beauty of our program – what we call our Plant Health Monitoring and Treatment Program, or PMT Program, that we sell to clients. They get six stops throughout the year. We tank up in the morning, and we have a variety of fungicides and insecticides with us. Instead of going out with two or three products, we can go out with six or seven. We go to the property and a certified arborist walks the property and assesses everything, from ground cover to shrubs to ornamentals and even larger trees.
“They take their observations back to this mobile lab, decide what products to use – because now I can use different products on every property I go to – and pour that product into one of the smaller, 50-gallon tanks you can see in the pictures. Then, just like you would put gas in your car at the pump, they grab the corresponding valve and fill only what they need, to the tenth of a gallon if desired. You can’t change what you don’t track, right? They can agitate it, then make an application just for that (need), and then they can move on and mix a different product for another part of the backyard. And if that’s all the property needs, they leave.
“So the difference is, we show up and apply 20 to 30 gallons total on a property to address three different and specific issues. Company B shows up with 1,000 gallons of pre-mixed product and hoses down what’s on the list, with no variety and no prescription. We simply don’t need that capacity.”
Welch compares Crawford Tree’s method to “a repetitive surgical strike, as opposed to a nuclear bomb.”
Setting an example
In introducing others to the van, the plan is not to get into the retrofitting business; there are great firms that do that already. But, he says he’s proud of the price point and wants to share this knowledge with others, to spark other ideas within the industry and show you can create it.
“This is something we’re proud of and would like to promote, and we’d like to empower other companies by saying, ‘Hey, look what we built for 69 grand,’” Welch says. “I got a text from a friend of mine who has a tree care company similar in size. He watched this van’s video on our YouTube channel and said, ‘Our truck is literally a fraction of (the capability of) yours, and I paid 95 grand for mine.’ He followed up with, ‘That sink really take s the cake.’”
Welch talks at length about the applicator experience using his van and the benefit to clients while on the job site. He says what’s most important, though, is a shift in attitude toward “chemicals” he has seen in their client portfolios, which is reinforced by educators in the industry. “For consumers, our program allows for a healthier ecosystem with less-invasive treatments of insecticide and fungicide, not to mention trees that live longer and healthier lives!”
For some (tree care providers), it may be growing a new income source, one that Welch wants to see as a foundational part of our tree care industry in the future. He says that, while he’s making more money with the van – driven and operated by a single worker – than with his production crews, profit is not the driver.
Welch says he knows proactive tree care and tree longevity need consumer buy-in, but part of the shift in consumer behavior will come when tree care companies lead them to it, providing more responsible PHC services.
“This (van) is that change, and it doesn’t have to cost you 140 grand or even 100 grand to enter the arena. The education hurdle is something companies like my own would love to work with others on, and work on pricing with, even outlining how to sell it commercially versus residentially. There are many companies out there that will help you overcome the knowledge and pricing hurdles. I hope our van helps inspire people to invest in the equipment arena, because for 69 grand, you can set a better example and make a lot more money using a PHC van like this.”
Take a video tour of Crawford Tree’s PHC van in the digital version of this article online. Go to tcia.org and, under the Publications tab, click TCI Magazine and go to this issue.