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Florida Company Says Coping With Economic Change is “For the Birds”: M.A. Rigoni, Inc. Uses Morbark Machinery

M.A. Rigoni, Inc., a Florida Company, Uses Two Morbark Chipharvestors for Land clearing – Niche market for thinning private acreage to improve bobtail quail habitat.

By Staff
Date Posted: 10/1/2009

            In challenging economic times, resourceful companies find a way to increase their value to their customers. Some diversify their efforts, some broaden the range of products they can create, and some cut back in certain areas to focus on other, more profitable ones. In northern Florida, one company, M.A.Rigoni, Inc., has carved out a niche for itself thinning acreage on large, privately-owned tracts to improve the habitat for bobwhite quail. Using a pair of Morbark Model 30 Chipharvestors, the company ships the newly-created chips to area mills for fuel. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved (except, perhaps, the quail). For the landowner, it means a more bountiful quail population for hunting during the summer months. For M.A. Rigoni, Inc., it means a way to weather these tough times and avoid the massive layoffs that have hit so many of its colleagues.


Areas of Expertise

            While M.A. Rigoni has undoubtedly benefited from the thinning expertise cited above, by no means is it a one-dimensional company, according to Rodney Schwabb, co-owner with longtime friend Gary Brett.

            “We are really a logging company, but we also do harvesting, site prep, mowing and grinding and some other specialty work,” he says. “Last year, for example, when the area was hit by grassfires, we had contracts with the state to create fire breaks. However, the majority of our work right now is in logging and chipping. The company’s founder, Matt Rigoni, started doing the thinning work for local plantations quite a while back. When I purchased the company from him in 1996, we kept it going. It has really turned out to be something of a lifesaver as things have slowed down around here.”

            The economic slowdown has also prompted the company to pull back plans for even further broadening its business base.

            “We were starting to do a decent amount of business adding ponds to people’s properties as well as turning unused land into horse ranches. That’s all had to be put on the back burner until things turn around again.”


Improving the Habitat

            M.A. Rigoni’s tree thinning expertise benefits greatly from the popularity of quail hunting in the southeast U.S. The sport is a draw for hunters from all over the country, resulting in the bobwhite quail being designated the official game bird of both Tennessee and Georgia. Schwabb says the area in which they work — generally southern Georgia/northern Florida — is home to scores of large plantations on which quail hunting is extremely popular and quail hunting courses are commonplace.

            “This area is home to massive 10,000+ acre plantations owned by the heirs to some of the biggest companies in the world. The families who run these plantations want to shoot wild quail rather than pen-raised birds, so anything we can do to improve the habitat and by extension, the quail population, is a good thing for them.”

            Doing so, says Schwabb, includes removing most of the hardwood encroaching upon the pine. Because of the beauty the owners feel it lends to the surroundings, very little pine is ever cut. The firm has a window of opportunity that runs roughly from the last week in February until the first week in June, during which time quail hunting is stopped. 

            “We remove the hardwood: essentially three different kinds of oak, cherry, gum, and hickory. This allows more sunlight to filter through which promotes growth of grasses and lagoons. That, in turn, attracts insects — an excellent food source for the birds and their hatchlings. Thinning the hardwood also removes many of the oak snake nests found near oak trees. Since the oak snake is the biggest predator of the quail, removing them increases the quail’s chances for survival.”

            To some, improving the quail’s environment simply to hunt them might seem contradictory. Yet doing so can actually be seen in a pro-conservation light. For years now, the continued population shift to the southeast — and the loss of quail habitat that comes along with it — has been seriously hampering the bobwhite quail’s very existence. Federal and state agencies are already at work trying to help replenish the bobwhite’s numbers. By calling upon M. A. Rigoni, the private landowners are, in fact, right in step with those efforts.


Little Goes to Waste

            M.A. Rigoni has worked hard to establish itself as the go-to source for this type of work, ensuring that the sites it works are thoughtfully cleared and left in such a way that they can quickly return to their former pristine state. It is also one of only a few firms of its type to chip the material onsite.

            “By running our material through either of our Morbark Model 30 chippers, we not only gain a marketable product, we also eliminate several steps for each plantation’s land manager. When hardwood loggers work an area like that, they generally create a huge pile of waste, tops, etc., which need to be removed and disposed of. We are putting all that ‘waste’ in the chipper. In addition, we recover a usable material — in roughly 15-20 foot logs— which yields some excellent veneer material or, as an alternative, is sent for use as pallet wood. Very little goes unused when we work a piece of land.”


Sticking With a Winner

            Schwabb says they have been using Morbark equipment for their operation for better than 25 years now, a choice based on a number of factors including parts availability.

            “In our business, when you find something that works for you, you stick with it. That’s been the case with Morbark for us. In addition to the pair of Model 30s, we also have a Model 22 Chipharvestor and a Model 2755 Flail Chipharvestor. The performance and dependability of each has always been outstanding, but we really like the fact that we have a number of options available for parts. Nothing is worse than being down waiting for a part — that’s never been the case for us. We can either order from Morbark’s Florida parts terminal or have it overnighted from the factory. In either case we are generally back at work the next day.”

            To avoid even having to resort to those measures, Schwabb says they have taken to stocking an inventory of wear parts and replacement parts of their own. “Our customers count on us to be there when they need us — and when we say we will be there — so we want to be ready for anything.”


All About the Clean

            Material gathered from M.A. Rigoni’s clearing projects is immediately sent to one of several paper mills in the area for use as boiler fuel. Standing contracts for material help alleviate fear of the unknown.

            “We have two markets for the boiler fuel, one in Whitman about 40 miles from our office and another in Perry, about 85 miles away. There is always competition from other companies trying to get their material into these mills, but the quality of our product ensures that won’t happen. In fact, I’ve heard one plant refer to our material as ‘gasoline,’ it is so easy to burn. I really think that’s a result of the way we process it. Other companies use a grinder, which, while effective, tends to also generate a product that is higher in dirt and other contaminants. By running our material through the Morbark chippers, we are giving them a far superior product.”

            That tendency toward higher quality has helped Rigoni keep production levels at a steady 12 truckloads a day or 3,000 tons a week. Schwabb says that’s a far cry from the state the business was in just a short while back.

            “Up until about two years ago, we were definitely growing. We ventured out with a new mower/grinder; we were seeing success with the pond building business, and so on. That’s all but dried up now, putting us in something of a survival mode. However, we are fortunate to have solid relationships established with the landowners who choose us to clear their courses for quail hunting, and equally lucky to have good equipment to help keep us ahead of the competition in finding and keeping such work.”


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