Used grinder helps North Dakota firm change gears, tackle massive green waste pile.
The old adage: “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” is one of those bits of wisdom which, while seemingly trite, is proven out every day, in life and in business. Procrastination, despite the immediate relief it offers from looming responsibility, has a way of coming back to haunt us. For the operators of the Jamestown (N.D.) Municipal Landfill, a past decision to stockpile green waste for an extended period of time, rather than processing it, resulted in a massive pile, a shortage of available space for incoming material, and a search for a company capable of grinding it. When one effort to do so failed, the city made a call to Rodd Zorn, owner of Z’s Trees. Zorn, who had recently supplemented his residential and commercial tree removal operation with a used Morbark Model 1200 tub grinder, answered with a performance that turned heads. Less than three months into the project, the pile is all but gone, and Zorn is looking at a future for his business that is dramatically different from what he envisioned just a short time ago.
Roots in Stumps
While Z’s Trees has been in business for less than a decade, a good part of which has been spent doing residential work, the family’s connection to tree removal goes back much father than that. Zorn says his father had, in fact, already carved out a decent career in the industry when Z’s Trees was founded.
“Dad started out grinding stumps in the Cooperstown area,” he says. “But when he saw the need for tree removal in the area, he jumped at the opportunity. He started out with a small single-axle dump truck and a boom truck, then added a swinger loader and kept growing from there. He grew the business until his retirement in 2003.”
The following year, when Zorn’s brother David was looking to sell a small startup tree removal business, Rodd saw it as a great opportunity, bought the business and immediately began considering ways to develop it and make it better.
Zorn says he was pleased with the type of work and volume of business they were doing after the initial startup. As is often the case in business, however, outside forces came into play; in this case, it was the devastating 2004 hurricane season on the Gulf Coast.
“We decided to head down south to help with the cleanup work from Ivan and Katrina, and set up in Atmore, Alabama; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; and Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. At that time, we were mostly focused on getting debris to area landfills. As we were doing that, I couldn’t help but see the impact the huge grinders and chippers were making everywhere we went. It really changed my thinking about the direction I wanted to take my own business.”
Zorn says he came back to North Dakota in June of 2005, made his first chipper purchase shortly afterwards, and started to grow his business around it. In addition to residential tree removal, he found a successful niche removing shelter belts (also called windbreaks—trees that protect farmland from wind and erosion) that had outlived their usefulness. He also bought a small grinder to begin generating and coloring mulch for sale to area customers.
Getting Into the Tub
Shelter belt removal proved highly successful with Z’s Trees, now running a pair of chippers, and doing as much as five to six miles of belts a single season. But a visit to a friend’s grinding operation in 2010 would change things for Zorn even further.
“At that point, I was convinced that chippers were the best type of large-scale processing equipment we could have,” he says. “But I kept remembering what I saw down at the Gulf Coast. So when I visited a friend’s operation in Minneapolis to see his Morbark tub grinder at work, it really caused me to rethink things and consider growing the mulch side of the business even further.”
Zorn let some of his contacts in the industry—both processors like himself and reps for equipment manufacturers—know that he was in the market for a used tub grinder. In the meantime he demoed a number of grinders that did not impress him and did a decent amount of further research into Morbark’s line of tubs.
“Not only did I like what I was reading about them, I was also learning that they had a great reputation for outstanding service and support—exactly what I needed. So, in early 2011, when I got a call about a used Morbark 1200 with very low hours on it, I purchased it sight-unseen and had it hauled back here to Cooperstown.”
Not long after that, Zorn says his father had stopped by the Jamestown Municipal Landfill looking for material for Rodd’s mulch operation. The elder Zorn knew the landfill had been accumulating wood and green waste for better than nine years—the size of the pile at the entrance to the site left no doubt about that—so he dropped off a Z’s Trees business card.
Rodd Zorn quickly learned that the landfill had new management in place and their focus was on getting rid of the existing pile and restarting a composting operation that had been unwisely abandoned years before. To do so, they had contracted with a local company to grind the debris.
“But we found out they’d been unable to make any progress at all,” he says. “Apparently they were getting killed with maintenance-related downtime, so the landfill operator was looking for someone who could come in on short notice and get the job done.”
Two things were definitely working in Zorn’s favor. First, he had just taken delivery of the Model 1200, replaced the teeth and had it ready to get to work. Second, an unbelievably wet spring had left the ground so saturated throughout the state that the shelter belt operation was, literally, dead in the water. He called the landfill and agreed to take the job.
Grinding Out a Victory
Starting work at the landfill site was not as easy as one might think. Zorn says the green waste drop-off area was so full (he guesses that it had to be in excess of 3,000 tons of debris) and so congested that they had to set up on the road just to grind enough material to clear out a space for the tub grinder to operate.
“That first week, all we did was clear out areas to work; it was just a logistical nightmare,” he says. “And, keep in mind, residents and commercial customers were still dropping off material while all this was going on. There were many times when I was wishing they could have suspended drop offs for that first couple weeks to allow us to really make some headway, but we still managed to make it work.”
Things at the site were made worse by the composition of the material itself. Because the green waste had sat for so long, much of the grass and brush had long since decomposed. That material, combined with the almost non-stop rains in spring, created what appeared to be wood mixed with a thick muddy substance. It all served to make grinding a real challenge. Zorn says a combination of impressive equipment performance and a different approach to feeding the material helped alleviate many of the problems that had plagued the previous grinding effort.
“The 1200 tub has been outstanding right from the moment we brought it to the site,” he says. “It was obviously built for severe-duty applications, and this more than qualifies for that. But even the best grinder in the world will not be able to handle a steady diet of nothing but muddy material, so we’ve gotten a bit creative in how we feed it. We look around for all the largest pieces of wood debris and make sure that every tubful has a decent mixture of wood and the muddy green waste. That keeps the mill from clogging up, downtime for us has been almost nil, and the customer is impressed with what we’ve been able to do in such a short time. You can’t beat that.”
While Z’s Trees now has a full-scale mulch operation it runs under the name Dakota Mulch, the material at the landfill is so wet and dirt-filled that it has virtually no commercial value. Instead, the landfill operator has chosen to use material from the grinding operation as alternative daily cover for the site. That inaugural grinding operation has, however, opened Zorn’s eyes to a whole new world of possibilities for the company.
“Having the Morbark Model 1200 allows us to tackle jobs we never could have gotten before,” he says. “For example, municipal landfills throughout the state are quickly filling up. Offering to grind their green waste—and take the material away afterwards, rather than leaving it onsite—is a huge benefit to them. Similarly, in Minot, where they’ve just seen some of the worst flooding in history, they are looking at a massive volume of trees which will have to be removed and disposed of. We are hoping to be able to come in, grind those trees, take the mulch and help them avoid clogging their own landfill.”
While some of Zorn’s chipped material goes for use by farmers in composting applications or as animal bedding, the majority of it is shipped to the Fibrominn plant in Benson, Minn., the first power plant in the U.S. designed to burn poultry litter (with wood chips) as its main source of fuel. Mulch continues to gain in popularity, however, and Zorn likes the direction they seem to be headed.
“When we started out, we were essentially just stockpiling chips on property we own. But I’ve worked hard to establish markets for the material we generate, and feel the Morbark tub grinder will now allow us to shift our focus even more. In fact, I can see us gradually moving away from the residential side of things entirely and possibly even adding a second grinder in a year or so. This is one productive machine; I don’t think there’s anything it can’t grind. And we are really excited for what lies ahead for us.”