kiln-direct®”s MiniQuick Improves Green Thumb Farms’ Efficiency
Chad Zeman, president of Green Thumb Farms, Inc. in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, believes in diversity. His enterprises go far beyond the firewood business that’s the basis of his company.
However, since firewood is at the heart of Chad’s business, he does anything he can to make sure it runs efficiently and drives dollars to his bottom line. Recently he added a new firewood kiln—the MiniQuick from Kiln-Direct—both to improve his firewood production and increase the quality of the product he’s producing.
“Firewood is our primary income, but it’s not our only income,” Chad said. “All year long we do firewood, but we also have a produce market. We grow sweet corn, strawberries, pumpkin, squash, and all the other fall crops. We do a Fall Festival with hayrides, a pumpkin patch, and an activity area we call Pumpkin Land. It has a petting zoo for kids and a corn maze. We also handle decorative stone, different colors of mulch.”
Green Thumb Farms developed from one of Chad’s enterprises when he was a teenager.
“I started a lawn care company when I was 17,” he said. “Then I went into landscaping, and at one point I had more than 25 people working for me; I was in my mid-20s at the time. It got harder and harder to find good help, so I finally downsized that.”
From the second year he was in business, Chad said, he had a firewood operation.
“For a long time I only did it in the winter, and I just did local deliveries,” he said. “We brought in logs, cut them with a chainsaw, and split them with a homemade splitter. We did between 350 and 500 cords a year that way.”
Then in 2002, Chad bought the produce farm.
“I mostly bought it as an investment and as a place to have a shop,” he said. “Then I put up the market and started the fall festival.”
In 2004, Chad got out of the landscaping business entirely.
“In the winter of 2004 – 2005, I started doing bundles of firewood,” he said. “One of my turf suppliers from when I was in the landscape business also supplied a bundled firewood line, and one of the store managers asked me if I’d be willing to quote on the bundles. One thing led to another, and now they’re one of my biggest customers. Today I supply as much bundled firewood for them every month that I did the entire first winter.”
In March of 2005, Chad bought his first firewood processor, a Blockbuster 2220. He kept shipping loose firewood into the Chicago area for a while to give himself time to build the bundled firewood business. And build it he did.
“We did 16,000 bundles that first winter,” he said. “This winter we’re going to surpass 300,000 bundles. That works out to about 2000 cords.”
The first three winters he provided bundled firewood, Chad said, he and two employees ran the entire operation. However, it got to be too much for the three of them, and he hired a full crew.
“I have four guys who bundle,” he said. “Then I have three more guys who do the cutting and splitting.”
Chad started kiln drying wood during the summer of 2006.
“My first customer was concerned about the ash borer and gypsy moth,” he said. “At the same time, they were expanding their business into Illinois and Minnesota, and they wanted to be sure they could ship across state lines without any problems.”
In order to accommodate that customer, Chad put in his first kiln. It’s a hot water kiln that Chad doesn’t like very well.
“We put our first batch of wood in it on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006,” he said. “It works, and it does the job. But it takes a while to dry the wood, and I’m not very happy with it.”
Chad zeroed in on Kiln-Direct and Niels Jorgensen, located in North Carolina. In fact, he said, he first saw an ad for Kiln-Direct in TimberLine.
“Kiln Direct seemed to have a really good product,” he said. “The kiln takes the heat right off the firebox, and there’s no hot water system, so you don’t have to worry about it freezing.”
That lack of a water system was part of what really got Chad’s attention about the MiniQuick system.
“The price was reasonable as well, and the fact that it can get up to a high temperature quickly,” he said. “That means it brings up the core temperature of the wood quickly, and dries it out faster than other systems.”
Once Chad started talking to Kiln-Direct, he found out that the company’s customer service is amazing; he learned that even before he purchased the MiniQuick.
“I was kind of shocked one day toward then end of May when I was in my office and the phone rang,” he said. “It was Niels, and he said, ‘I’m standing by your kiln.’ I said, ‘Are you sure you have the right person?’ He started describing where he was standing, and I said, ‘I’ll be right there.’” Niels had come all the way from North Carolina, unannounced, to see Chad’s operation, find out exactly what Green Thumb Farms needed, and show Chad how a MiniQuick could meet those needs.
“That really impressed me,” Chad said. “He’s a go-getter, and I’m the same way. I’m not afraid to tackle anything.” So in October of this year, Chad purchased a MiniQuick kiln from Kiln-Direct and got it up and running. He finds it much of an improvement over his first kiln, which he is still running.
“The first system only gets up to 160 or 170 degrees due to the hard water limitations,” he said. “However, the MiniQuick will get in excess of 250 degrees due to the air to air heat exchanger design. So now we can take five cords of wood from green to dry in 24 to 36 hours, even though it’s below freezing when we put it in.”
Chad also installed Kiln-Direct’s conveyor system for feeding the wood waste into the kiln’s heat system.
“It lets us go from a four to five hour period between feeding the firebox, to ten to fifteen hours,” he said. “That way I get to sleep at night.”
Niels said that the MiniQuick that Chad purchased is what he considers Kiln-Direct’s third generation of firewood kilns.
“We only started development of the MiniQuick last December,” he said. “It was one of those things where we saw an opportunity and speeded the kiln to market. We were already testing in February, and did our first installations over the summer. What makes it different from other kilns on the market is that it runs at a higher temperature, so it’s significantly faster than anything else. It’s also fairly small, but it produces the same amount of wood as other, larger kilns. That means the upfront investment is significantly less than for other kilns.”
The other side of the coin, Niels said, is that owners need to be careful of the heat when running the MiniQuick. There’s also been a learning curve for both the company and for kiln owners, and Chad has been a part of that learning curve.
“Basically, though, for someone to get our system up and running, it will cost half to two-thirds of what it costs for other systems,” Niels said. “It comes completely assembled, so it’s a turn-key delivery. It can come as a gas-heated kiln or, like Chad has, a wood waste heated kiln.”
The wood waste version of the kiln comes with a standard seven bin loading system that can be upgraded to a 34-bin loading system, Niels said.
“That means you don’t have to feed it every three to four hours,” he said. “Now you only have to feed it every ten to 15 hours. So that gives you a good night’s sleep if you want to run it 24 hours a day.”
One thing that makes the MiniQuick different from other systems, Niels said, is that the firebox is built into the chamber rather than being an outside woodstove; the system also is very clean burning.
“Although there is no EPA regulation right now for this type of heat system, the MiniQuick already meets the anticipated emissions standard,” he said.
Chad said Kiln-Direct’s customer service lives up to what he expected.
“If I have any little problem, at any time of the day or night, or no matter what day of the week, I can call and someone will help me,” he said. “That means a lot. It’s a lot better service than I get from the company that made the other kiln I have.”
Now that he has the MiniQuick up and running, Chad said he can tell a difference in the profitability of his firewood business.
“The kiln has allowed us to ship wood trouble free to anywhere in the US,” he said. “It’s also let us keep from carrying so much inventory. We bring wood in, we cut it, we split it, and we dry it. As our demand increased, I just couldn’t justify seeing a mountain of firewood sitting here waiting to dry. Now the wood doesn’t sit here more than a week or ten days. As a result, our cash flow is much better.”
The logs Chad cuts for firewood come from local loggers.
“They all come from within 50 to 75 miles,” he said. “We cut primarily oak, as well as some ash, cherry, hickory and maple.”
Chad’s father Richard Zeman is very active in Green Thumb Farms with him, even though he has another fulltime job.
“In my dad’s fulltime job, he works all summer and then gets laid off during our busy season,” he said. “Then in the fall he comes to work with me and runs the firewood processor.”
Chad said his dad always has helped in his business.
“My parents owned a tavern for 27 years,” he said. “When I had the landscape business my dad would help me on jobs.” Chad has two children, 11 and 8, and he said it’s too early to tell if either of them will follow him into Green Thumb Farms.
Although the firewood operation generates a certain amount of waste, Chad finds ways to use it that benefit his overall business.
“We use all our short cutoffs to feed the boiler on the hot water kiln and stove on the MiniQuick,” he said. “All our scrap goes to a Rotochopper grinder that comes in during the last part of February or the first part of March, and turns it all into mulch. We sell the mulch at our market and to local homeowners; we have anywhere from 1500 to 2500 yards of mulch a year just from our scrap and waste.” Mulch that’s sold at the market is sold in bulk.
Not even the sawdust goes to waste, Chad said.
“We’re going to start adding the sawdust in with the wood that we fire the MiniQuick with,” he said. “We probably will use most of it during the summer, because we’re finding that in the snow, ice and rain, sawdust freezes and sticks in the conveyor system. So we’ll only use it during times that it isn’t freezing. During the winter, our sawdust goes to a local dairy farm.”
Over the next few years, Chad said, he wouldn’t mind expanding the business even more than the MiniQuick has allowed him to.
“I’d like to be able to go more into different areas with bundled wood, and maybe add another processor down the road,” he said.
Chad said the thing he enjoys most about his business is that he does something different every day.
“Half the time I’m the mechanic,” he said with a laugh, “and I enjoy fixing stuff. It’s a challenge. I also love being outdoors and working with equipment. I’ve always been an equipment nut, and I’m always looking for easier ways to do things with different equipment. I like to work smarter, not harder.”
Chad said he also enjoys all the things he learns from running Green Thumb Farms.
“It’s like the MiniQuick,” he said. “It’s a whole new deal, and it took a while for me to learn how to use it. There’s a computer that records and runs everything. So I wake up every day and wonder what I’m going to learn that day; when you’re working with equipment you’re always going to learn.”