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Milk Runs Got Vermont Mulch Business Started

Continental Biomass Industries 4000 Hog processes sawmill waste.

By Diane Calabrese
Date Posted: 6/4/2002

DERBY, Vermont — Milk and mulch do not seem to have much in common. But the two products form an important link in the chain of Rodney Barrup’s professional life.

Rodney started Green Mountain Mulch in 1978 largely because of milk, or at least because of the information he gleaned while moving milk. "We had a milk transport business," he explained, "and farmers were asking for sawdust for animals."

Knowing the sawmills along the Canadian border north of Vermont accumulated a lot of sawdust and wood waste, Rodney offered to haul it away for them. In that way, he began selling sawdust for animal bedding. And soon he was also selling mulch as well as grinding wood to make mulch.

Today, Green Mountain Mulch (GMM) sells mulches made from virgin wood. About half of the company’s product line is colored before it is sold. Rodney’s son, Kevin, began tending to the day-to-day operations of the family owned business six years ago. At the time, Rodney, now 68, planned to retire, but he continues to work in the business. Kevin is vice-president of GMM. Rodney’s wife of 47 years, Marilyn, also is involved in the family business, serving as secretary and treasurer and performing various duties in the office.

Late last year GMM added a new Continental Biomass Industries Inc. (CBI) 4000 Wood Hog grinder to its equipment line-up. "We’ve run the CBI since Christmas," said Rodney.

Although Rodney anticipated the CBI grinder would be important to GMM, he did not know how important. The CBI grinder had only been in service a few days when GMM suffered a devastating fire on Dec. 28.

Besides the new CBI grinder, a HogZilla grinder and a 20-year-old Jeffries hog mill survived because they were outside and some distance away from the 28,000-square-foot building that was destroyed in the blaze. Just about everything else, including trucks and tools accumulated over a quarter of a century, was destroyed.

Just three days after the fire, GMM was operating again. The new 4000 Wood Hog grinder from CBI, a firm headquartered in nearby Newton, N.H., was a key player in the quick recovery. The CBI grinder took on the work for which it was slated, and it also helped replace another grinder that was destroyed by the fire. Rodney is considering investing in another grinder and is planning to add a second CBI 4000.

Rodney has known the founder and president of CBI, Anders Ragnarsson, for years, and he had long been interested in the technological advances Anders introduced. In 1988, for example, Anders launched CBI with his patented design of an off-set helix rotor. Rodney cited his great respect for Anders and said it influenced his decision to buy from CBI.

When Rodney was considering new grinders, he looked at economy of scale as well as cost. Consequently, he looked closely at the CBI grinder, which he said had evolved over the years from a machine used by land-clearing operations to one that could be used to produce fine ground mulch. "We’d always wanted one but didn’t feel we could afford it at the time," he said.

Ultimately, Rodney decided the high volume and quality production of the CBI grinder made it a good investment, but safety factors also gave the CBI an edge over other grinders he considered.

Rodney particularly likes the horizontal feed of the CBI 4000. The infeed conveyor is 16 feet long by 60 inches wide, and the infeed has high trough sides. The discharge conveyor is 30 feet long by 60 inches wide, and it tilts up at a 20-degree angle from the horizontal. The hammer mill, which is 40 inches in diameter and 60 inches wide, has 24 bolt-on hammers and 24 bolt-on tips.

There are a number of other features he likes, too, including the need for just one loader-operator. The machine is radio-controlled, so the operator can load with a grapple or dozer and keep the grinder running. The CBI hog is very "user-friendly," Rodney added, making it "easy to work on and do daily maintenance."

Rodney has been impressed with the CBI grinder because it is "doing what CBI said it would do." He gets about 250-400 yards per hour of mulch from the machine. Since March, he has been running the CBI at the same pace he runs his other grinders in peak season, 14 hours per day, six days per week.

The CBI 4000 series Wood Hog weights 37 tons and is road legal. It can process yard waste, brush and trees from land-clearing projects, although GMM makes its mulch exclusively from mill waste, such as bark and slabs. CAT grapple loaders and dozers are used for incoming wood and moving mulch around the yard, respectively.

By deploying the CBI grinder alongside the HogZilla grinder, which is 10 years old, and the Jeffries hog mill, Rodney is able to subdivide the mulching and coloring at GMM to maximize production. Rodney described the HogZilla as a "good, good machine." The Jeffries hog mill was purchased in the early 1980s; Rodney has made many modifications to the original machine, including making infeed and out-feed conveyors for it.

All the mulch produced by GMM is sold to wholesalers, garden centers and landscapers. A small amount is sold retail from the Derby headquarters of GMM. Sixty percent of the mulch is cedar and the remainder is spruce, pine, hemlock or fir.

GMM uses some of its own trucks to pick up mill waste from the Province of Quebec, and Rodney also hires Canadian trucks to pull GMM trailers. The latter arrangement is easier because of permits and regulations required in Canada.

The CBI grinder is used exclusively for grinding cedar, spruce and fir. All the mulch that is going to be colored red or black comes from the Jeffries hog, which also runs 14 hours per day in the peak months of March to July. The HogZilla is used to grind chips and stands as a back-up to the other machines.

Two coloring systems are in place at GMM. A Becker-Underwood mulch coloring system has been in place about five years and is paired with the HogZilla. Since last fall, the Jeffries hog mill has been teamed with a coloring system from Interstar, a company in St. Elie D’Orford, Quebec.

The Interstar system uses a dry, granulated colorant that requires no water and is easy to use. It also allows GMM to bag finished colored mulch immediately. Interstar is known widely for its research, development and manufacture of pigments to color concrete and mortar and the production of admixture fibers. The company emphasizes novel approaches, and the dry coloring process for mulch constitutes a recent innovation.

Bagging the finished mulch is an important aspect of GMM’s operations because the company sells about half of its mulch volume in bags — about 2 million bags per year. In March, GMM added an automated system to complement its ongoing manual arrangement for bagging, a labor intensive approach used to package about 10,000 bags per day.

"We now have a state of the art bagging system," said Rodney, referring to the Premier Tech FFS-200 series equipment he recently added. "You put plastic in one end," he explained, and it makes the bag, fills it with mulch, and seals it. Premier Tech Packaging is based in Riviere-du-Loup, Quebec.(FFS is an acronym for form, fill and seal.)

At optimum speed the FFS-200 bagging system produces 20 filled bags per minute, according to Rodney. The FFS-200 can be set for size two or size three bags. Only one man is required to fill the hopper, but the system’s high-speed production keeps two forklift operators busy moving pallet loads of finished, bagged mulch.

When Rodney spoke with TimberLine, he was working with CBI to link the Interstar coloring system to the CBI grinder. About 50% of the mulch sold by GMM is colored, usually red, brown or black. Rodney said black has taken off as a particularly popular color in New Jersey and New York. He infers it is because people consider black to have a deep, long-lasting color.

Thirty employees work year around at GMM. The number increases to 60 during the peak months of spring and early summer, when many truck drivers are added to make deliveries. "We serve all of New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania," said Rodney.

GMM’s fleet of trucks includes 15 tractors, a mix of Kenworth, International and Peterbilt, and 38 trailers. Business is so brisk in spring that tractors are hired for trailers. Rodney said the seasonal hiring works well; spring is the time when logging operations slow due to poor ground conditions, and the lull makes log hauling drivers and tractors available.

Ever since the December fire, Rodney has been working to replace what GMM lost. "We’re still replacing equipment," he said. And in an understatement borne of necessity, he summarized the experience by noting, "The fire was a big headache."

The community rallied to help Rodney and his business, and by Monday morning GMM was back in business. Other companies loaned him trucks. A contractor promised a replacement structure in four weeks and built it in two. Now, instead of one structure, there are three buildings, an office complex, a bagging facility and a maintenance shop. The company occupies five acres.

GMM does all its own truck and equipment maintenance. "When you live up here where we do," explained Rodney, being able to do it in-house is the only way to get it done. Derby, a town of about 4,500, is located on the Canadian border, adjacent to Quebec Province.

Rodney was en route to his winter home in Florida when the fire occurred. He returned immediately to Vermont. "All our people said they’d help rebuild," he said. "We’ve been here a long time. We have good people."

Still in the process of replacing equipment, Rodney said it is easy to take for granted a rich array of tools accumulated over years — until they are gone. When a particular repair calls for a specific tool, the absence is suddenly noted and the worth of the tool fully realized, he explained.

GMM aims to sell all the materials that a garden center, landscaper or related wholesaler needs, even mixing loads on pallets for smaller customers. Mulch is still the major component of the business, or about 90% of sales at GMM. Other sales come from topsoil, composted mixes, peat moss, water lilies and related plants, and cedar barrels and planters. The barrels and planters are purchased from a manufacturer in Maine and resold.

Rodney belongs to the Vermont Loggers Association and other wood products groups in New England. The Derby native worked as a dairy farmer and an International Harvester dealer before getting into the mulch business, an endeavor he thoroughly enjoys. "It’s fun," he said. "It’s a challenge. Everything we’ve had, I’ve built it."


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