Wood Recycler Rolls with the Changes: Peterson a Key Vendor for Indiana Company that Grinds Wood Debris into Mulch

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Peterson grinders help Brewer Farms adapt to meet challenges of changing industry.

CHANDLER, Indiana — Tom Brewer knows something about adapting a business to meet changing challenges. He has to. Located in a state known for its hardwood forests and lumber, Indiana’s forest products industry has been hard hit in recent years.

One thing has remained constant, however. “We’re in the wood recycling business,” said Tom.

Think grinding and chipping. His company, Brewer Farms Inc., has come to depend on Peterson Pacific Corp. for machines to reduce wood by chipping and grinding and convert waste and scrap material into marketable wood products.

The Brewer Farms-Peterson relationship is so strong that Peterson turned to Tom to host the company’s first-ever demonstration event for hundreds of customers from throughout the U.S. and abroad.

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Tom, 52, grew up in Chandler, just east of Evansville in southern Indiana. He earned a degree in agricultural engineering from Purdue University in 1984, then worked for a coal mining company for a few years doing reclamation work. He farmed for a few years thereafter and launched a business that produced mulch in 1989.

His entry into the forest product industry was picking up bark at sawmills and grinding the material into mulch and re-selling it. “Over the years,” said Tom, “we went directly to sawmills to clean up residuals.” Those mills had plenty of waste wood material for him to grind or chip – junk logs, slabs, edgings, trim ends and the like. Tom would bring in a grinder or chipper to process the material on site, usually leaving it for the company, which used it for fuel.

However, the number of sawmills dwindled in recent years and along with them his supply of raw material. Tom had to adapt and shift in order to obtain a stream of wood material. He began contracting with farmers to clear land and buying forested land.

Today clearing land is the bread-and-butter business of Tom’s company. He clears land for farms and also for development, removing trees and vegetation so that other contractors can come in and excavate and prepare the site for construction work.

His business, Brewer Farms Inc., employs eight people. About 45 to 55 percent of the company’s revenues are generated by sales of wood products – mulch.

The company has two locations, one in Chandler and another about 35 miles northwest in Huntingburg, where it has a 54-foot by 75-foot shop and a 66-foot by 94-foot shop and storage building.

In Chandler the company owns a sprawling, 41-acre complex with 200,000 square under roof – a former sawmill facility of Indiana Hardwoods, a testament to the struggles the state’s lumber industry witnessed in recent years. Tom purchased the property – land and buildings; the sawmill equipment was sold at auction – in 2009 and operates it as a wood recycling plant. It receives wood material, everything from land-clearing debris to scrap pallets – and grinds it at the site, working 24-7. “Rain doesn’t stop us,” said Tom. The company collects tipping fees from businesses that bring loads of scrap pallets, tree waste, chunk wood, and other wood debris. Finished recycled wood products – chips, grindings, and mulch – also are stored at the facility.

Tom bought the property when the nation’s economy was taking a nosedive. “It was either a bold move or a stupid move,” Tom recalled. “It would have been a lot easier to hunker down.”

All the company’s equipment is stored at the plant. With the vast complex of buildings, the equipment is never exposed to the rain, and wood processing operations can continue in dry conditions. A 24,000-square-foot pre-drier building is used for storing finished product.

Tom’s business is equipped with three grinders – all Peterson Pacific Corp. machines. The Peterson 5710 and Peterson 2710 are track machines, and the Peterson 2400B is a trailered machine.

“I’m kind of project-oriented,” said Tom. He prefers to use the grinders at the recycling plant when possible. When he has a machine grinding at a job site, he wants to get it back to the plant as soon as he can. “We will work our tails off to get them back in the yard,” said Tom.

The Peterson 5710 grinder is the company’s workhorse and often used for land-clearing work when not at the recycling facility in Chandler. Because of the utilization of the 5710 in the field, Tom purchased a Peterson 2400B earlier this year to stay at the recycling plant. “Just because we always have to keep running production at our yard when the machine is gone,” said Tom. “It’s kind of like an insurance policy.” When one or both track machines are out on a job, the Peterson 2400B is available to keep grinding material at the recycling plant. “It’s always there and can be used.” Tom referred to the Peterson 2710, which is a slightly smaller track machine, as a “niche grinder.”

He bought his first Peterson grinder, a horizontal machine, in 2001. It was a 2400A, with 400 hours on it. “They were probably the higher-end grinders at the time,” recalled Tom. He found the machines durable and simple to maintain. Since then he has continued to rely on Peterson because he has been satisfied with the machines and their performance as well as the company and its support. He has owned about eight Peterson machines in all. “The machines – for what we’re doing – are superior,” said Tom. “They’re well built.”

Peterson manufactures horizontal grinders, chippers and flails, screens and conveyors, and blower trucks and trailers. The company’s line of horizontal grinders includes stationary, trailered and track models as well as electric models.

Peterson developed its first wood waste recycling machine in 1990. Continuous development led to the current line of horizontal wood grinders. These models, with production rates of up to 150 tons per hour, have been well received both in the U.S. and overseas.

For example, the Peterson 5710D horizontal grinder is powered by a Caterpillar 1,050 hp engine. With a feed opening of 60 inches by 40 inches combined with Peterson’s high-lift feed roll, the 5710D can reduce a wide range of material, including stumps. The Peterson 5710D can operate in two modes to provide consistent product sizing or for a primary reduction where accurate sizing is less critical. The floating anvil mode for high production primary grinding provides added protection from contaminated feedstocks and reduces fuel consumption. Peterson’s high production Adaptive Control System and a fully adjustable feed system can be optimized for a wide range of materials. A large grate area enables the Peterson 5710D to produce material to exact specifications, and the quick-change, multiple gate system allows custom grate configurations to produce a wide range of finished products. Another major innovation is a system of urethane cushions, shear pins, and a sensing circuit to help protect the pivot shaft from catastrophic damage in the event of a severe impact.

(For more information about Peterson and its equipment products, visit the website at www.petersoncorp.com or call the company at (541) 689-6520.)

The development of tub grinding equipment and later horizontal grinding machines has brought about major changes in the residual spectrum of the forest products industry, noted Tom. The technology has made it possible to convert waste wood material into products that can be sold. “That was a big change.”

“What a grinder does is amazing,” said Tom. “You take material you can’t do anything with,” and the grinder processes it into a saleable, even value-added product.

Horizontal grinders “changed everything,” he added, making it possible to grind whole trees and other large pieces of wood and scrap pallets.

His company used to conduct chipping operations to produce biomass fuel, but that market dried up. “Two years ago I lost a one million dollar customer,” said Tom, a mill that crushed soybeans. The mill was equipped with gas-fired boilers that could be supplemented by wood fuel, and it ran wood – buying fuel chips from Tom’s company – because natural gas prices were so high. However, when natural gas prices declined to the point where it was cheaper than wood fuel, Tom lost the account. The mill was using eight loads of boiler fuel daily.

Tom’s company clears land for housing developments, commercial buildings, and farms. Most jobs range from 5 to 25 acres. If the job site contains marketable timber, he sells the stumpage, and his company goes in after the timber has been harvested and removes the stumps and logging slash. Otherwise, excavators – track hoes – are used to push trees down, and all the wood material goes into a grinder. The track hoes are either fitted with a grapple or a stumper splitter attachment. Most of the timber Tom encounters is 20 inches in diameter or less.

He had a skidder but sold it in December and now contracts for skidding when needed. The decision was in part spurred by the mobility of the Peterson track grinders. “Since we went to track machines…we don’t drag (skid) wood to a landing anymore,” explained Tom. “We just move further and further into the woods.”

His company recently cleared a 4-acre lot for a customer. The site was located near a Walmart store. Tom’s company accomplished the work over a weekend. The customer “was just shocked that it could be done that quickly,” said Tom. “That’s what this new equipment is capable of doing.”

Tom’s company produces colored mulch, too. In fact, 70 percent of the company’s mulch is colored. The two most common colors he produces are black and brown. Mulch is sold retail to customers who want a pickup truck load and wholesale to other businesses, including one company that bags the mulch and sells it in packaged form; the majority is sold wholesale.

Coloring is accomplished with a Colorbiotics system and colorants, which is now a part of BASF. It is attached either to the Peterson 2710 grinder or a Wildcat trommel screen to add color to mulch.

Tom generally stays within about 80 miles of Chandler for conducting land-clearing operations, but his company will travel up to 200 miles to deliver products. The company has six tractor-trailers and five walking-floor trailers.

When he has a grinder working out on a job site, his expectation is to run it long hours without the need to stop for service or repairs. “That’s what we love about the Petersons,” said Tom. Of course, the machines still require maintenance, but Tom and his employees are accustomed to running them long, hard, productive hours. “They’re very dependable. They’re very reliable machines,” said Tom.

He also was appreciative of the fact that Peterson’s staff makes an effort to connect him with other Peterson customers if they can help one another. “They do a lot of networking with existing customers,” he said, connecting customers with similar applications so they can learn from one another.

“We’re always doing new things with our Peterson grinders that have not been done before,” said Tom. For example, he has used his Peterson grinders as pilots for Peterson to field test specialty knives and bits. It is a relationship that has helped him as well as Peterson. “It’s worked pretty good for both parties,” said Tom. Many of the photographs and videos on the Peterson website and Facebook pages feature Tom’s grinders in action.

“It’s more than buying and selling a machine,” said Tom. “It’s got to be a partnership with a vendor. That’s what we feel like we have with Peterson.”

“We have a good sales representative who’s always easy to get a hold of,” said Tom, who buys equipment direct from Peterson. “They have good service mechanics.”

Peterson chose Tom’s company for its first-ever customer demonstration day in September 2013. Peterson exhibited 13 machines at Tom’s recycling plant and put on demonstrations for 300 customers. “It went off spectacular,” said Tom.

“Our customer base is a higher-end customer,” explained Tom. “If they expect 10 loads this week, they have to have it, rain or shine, and they don’t have storage. We would have to make it and deliver it. That’s why we have a little extra machinery.”

For example, one of his customers is a mill that cuts railroad ties. The mill is supposed to be self-sufficient, using its own residual material for boiler fuel. Last week, however, they ordered five loads from Tom “and it’s not even winter time yet.” He also supplies several furniture plants. When these type of customers call, they need boiler fuel right away.

When he bought the former sawmill in Chandler, the company began to increase the volume of pallets it was grinding because of the proximity to Evansville. About 60 percent of the material he grinds is “from the stump, up,” estimated Tom. About 30 percent of the feed stock is scrap pallets. The Peterson 2400B grinder is equipped with a specialty conveyor belt magnet to remove nails when it is grinding pallets, and the nails are recycled and sold for scrap metal.

Tom and his wife, Carolyn, have two daughters, Kathryn, 16, and Katlyn, 14, who are “sports fanatics.” The girls are very active year-round in sports, including volleyball, tennis, softball, and basketball. He works seven days a week, so between that kind of schedule, keeping up with his daughters’ sports activities, and his one hobby, deer hunting, he has little time for anything else.

He and his company have been behind-the-scenes supporters of a wide range of community activities and events, he said, contributing material for playground surfaces and donating mulch for fundraising events, and more.

Tom does everything from bidding jobs and lining up new contracts to overseeing day-to-day operations, developing business strategy for the future, and loading a pickup truck with mulch for a retail customer.

“It’s not getting any easier,” said Tom of the business climate. He was philosophic: the longer he stays in business, the more and more he faces different challenges and opportunities. He was optimistic about how things have worked out since venturing into land clearing, which “has come along nicely for us.”

One business strategy he intends to explore is establishing satellite recycling yards to expand the company’s reach. “We’re actively pursuing that now,” he said, seeking to establish a satellite yard about 50-60 miles away.