MicroChipping is the Answer: As Florida company changes gears, specialty chippers make the difference

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When Jerry Sapp looked around in the late 1990s, he was more than 20 years into a thriving logging business in the Florida panhandle and decided it was time to back off a bit — which he did. From early 2003 until 2007 his logging operation was essentially put on hold. However, demands from others in the area changed all that, and an operation that had seven employees as recently as 2011 now has nearly three dozen; and two Morbark 40/36 Whole Tree MicroChippers that weren’t even in Sapp’s plans are now among the driving forces behind the company’s success. He never saw it coming.

Logging Has a Hold

Jerry Sapp’s first business venture was a logging company started in 1978 called Jerry Sapp Timber, but in 2003 he added Sapp’s Land & Excavating to accommodate residential and commercial development in the region. According to Sapp, logging was always in his blood — it made perfect sense to start out there.

“My father, Richard, was a logger so I grew up with wood harvesting as a big part of my life,” he says. “In fact, I worked with him for seven years before starting my own business. I operated both of my companies for more than 20 years, but in 2000 we decided to cut back and focus on land clearing rather than logging. We did that for several years, building subdivisions, clearing lots, constructing lakes and fish ponds, and so on. We were staying really busy with just a three- or four-man crew.”

In a perfect world, Sapp and his small crew would have enjoyed continued success tackling those clearing projects. But the late 2000s showed us that the economic world is anything but perfect, the housing and commercial development industries fell on some horrific times, and Sapp was once again turning to logging to keep the ship afloat.

“We still had an old Tigercat skidder we bought in 1996, picked up a used feller buncher and loaded trucks with our excavator for some time before we even bought a loader,” he says. “We really got back to our roots.”

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Really Going Green

During their initial logging effort, Sapp worked with a company that served as a clearinghouse of sorts for logging activity in the area. Upon re-entering the market, it made sense to contact them and re-establish their working relationship.

“That worked fine for several years,” says Sapp, “but as we grew, we saw that most of the wood we were clearing was going to a few select sawmills. It made more sense for us to work directly with those mills, so we started really focusing our efforts on doing just that. Soon we were clearing and logging for only a couple of companies, one of which was Green Circle Bio Energy. We didn’t know it at the time, but aligning ourselves with them would change things dramatically for us.”

Green Circle Bio Energy, Inc., is a major producer of fuel pellets, which are sold to the European power-generating industry for co-firing in coal-based power plants. Opened in 2008, the Cottondale, Fla.-based company generates upwards of 580,000 tons of fuel pellets per year against a maximum production capacity of 600,000 tons/year. With those kinds of volumes, a steady flow of specialty chips into their facility is key; the company secured that flow — and capitalized on an opportunity — with a call to Jerry Sapp.

“In late 2012 Green Circle contacted us asking us to tackle a number of roundwood tracts of timber that they needed to get cut by a certain date, apparently to take full advantage of an impending tax situation,” says Sapp. “At the time, we were doing 40 to 45 loads of roundwood a week. By early 2013, a new agreement with Green Circle quickly got us back into large-scale chipping, doing as many as 150 loads a week. We were a totally different company, but we were happy to be growing at a time when a lot of other companies were still struggling to recover from the downturn. We were really blessed.”

Micro Managing

To meet Green Circle’s needs for a specialty chip — one that is generally ½-inch to ¾-inch in length and width and about â…›-inch thick — Sapp contacted the Thomasville, Fla., branch of Tidewater Equipment about a Morbark chipper. Discussions with both Tidewater and Morbark directly steered Sapp’s toward the purchase of a pair of 40/36 Whole Tree MicroChippers.

Recently developed from Morbark’s popular 40/36 Whole Tree Drum Chipper and designed to meet the needs of the rapidly growing pellet market, the 40/36 MicroChipper offers the company’s Advantage 3 high-performance chipping drum, which is designed to both significantly improve chip quality and reduce maintenance demands. This model also includes an enhanced 16-knife drum (that uses standard hardware), an operator-friendly slide-in forestry grate system to reduce oversized chips, and a mechanically driven chip accelerator to fully load vans with the microchips.

“The Model 40/36 does an outstanding job on the microchip,” says Sapp. “We adjust our anvil periodically — every few sets of knives — and that keeps performance and production up. Right now we are running three chippers: two crews are using the 40/36 MicroChippers and one has a Model 40/36 fuel chipper. We typically get about 110 loads of microchips a week between two crews. When conditions are ideal, however, I’ve seen a crew get more than 80 loads a week with a single chipper.”

Sapp’s third machine, the Morbark 40/36 Whole Tree Drum Chipper (which he purchased in late 2013) is currently generating about 50 loads a week of 1-inch to 1½-inch product at thicknesses of â…›- to ¼-inch thick, but they are working at getting those numbers up even further. “The fuel chip is only one-third of our overall volume, but it is still an important part, and the Morbark unit is ideally suited to that operation. The thing that initially attracted us to Morbark, in addition to its reputation for durability, was its simplicity. We have another brand of chipper in our fleet and sometimes all the bells and whistles on that unit are just more things to go wrong. The 40/36 chippers give us everything we need in terms of productivity but are so much simpler to operate.”

Part compatibility also played a big role in Sapp’s decision to keep the chipper selection uniform across manufacturer and model lines. “Most of the parts on the MicroChippers and the fuel chipper are interchangeable, which helps us reduce our spare parts inventory,” he says. “If we had three totally different chippers, we’d need to stock three times as many parts and have three times the knowledge of what to do when we have an issue of any kind.”

Loyalty Runs Deep

On the logging and clearing side of things, Sapp’s equipment loyalties to Tigercat are as strong as they are for Morbark in chipping. The company currently owns and operates a fleet of Tigercat machines: five feller bunchers (four Model 720Es and one 720D), four skidders (one Model 620E and three 620Cs) and five loaders (three Model 240Bs, one 230C, and one Model 244).

“I need my equipment to be productive and durable,” he says. “That’s why we went with Morbark. Well, over the years, I’ve gotten that same level of confidence in equipment from Tigercat; it’s reliable and outperforms anything else on the market today. It didn’t hurt that we were able to work with the folks at Tidewater Equipment for both the Tigercat and Morbark equipment; they are a great, knowledgeable group.”

Not long ago, because it of a deal he felt he couldn’t pass up, Sapp says he purchased one skidder that was not a Tigercat. “I probably should have passed it up,” he says. “We sold it as fast as we got it.”

Making it Better

The obvious fiscal gains of shipping 150 loads of chips per week aside, Jerry Sapp sees what they do as benefiting the forest industry in their area both now and into the future.

“A good portion of the acreage we’re cutting is land that people first cut 15 years ago and let sit,” he says. “A lot of people have really good intentions to clean it up and replant, but often end up taking the money they got for the timber and forgetting to get back to the land. As a result it gets overgrown with junky material up 30 feet tall that is not of any interest to a logging company. In cases in which re-planting is the goal, the land owners need to get that product off site just to see which areas are even worth being sprayed with an herbicide and re-planted. They have a couple ways to do that: they can pay someone to come in take it down with a dozer or have us come in and clean it up for nothing.”

Left alone, says Sapp, most of the land they deal with would look like it does for another 15-20 years until anything of value could be pulled from it. The alternative they offer is much better: clean it up, replant and in 10 years get a good income from it.

“Everyone benefits from what we do,” he says. “It gets a lot of acreage that would otherwise just be wasted back into production and eventually ends up yielding a higher-quality product as well. There’s a lot of land like that within the 40-mile radius we work, so I can see us being busy for quite a while. My wife, Sherry, has been with me from the beginning and works in the office for us, and my son, Jeremy, is active in many areas for the company, so this is definitely a family affair. We are grateful for everything that we have and the equipment to make it all happen.”