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BTB 38: Going for the Burn

Fleet of “seasoned” Tigercat equipment helps Sapp’s Land & Excavating meet growing demand for biomass product.

— Larry Trojack, independent writer

As the US economy continues its sluggish but steady climb back to respectability, several industries are seeing a corresponding uptick in business. One of those is the US biomass market which, in 2013 alone, added more than 230 megawatts of power to the nation’s energy grid, more growth than it has seen in four years. In addition, wood pellet exports from North America to Europe have doubled in two years to reach 4.7 million tons in 2013, with southern states accounting for 63% of the volume, according to the North American Wood Fiber Review. To help make all that happen, a growing number of loggers who had been enduring hard times are now in demand, supplying chips to mills and plants throughout the country.

A Tigercat 234 loader with a grapple full of pine trees

Jerry relies on plenty of older machines, including this 244 loader. He cites Tigercat reliability as an important factor.

For Jerry Sapp it has meant growing his business from seven people to one that employs nearly three dozen. It has also meant slowly building up a fleet of forestry equipment capable of meeting this new found demand for biomass product. Today, aided by no fewer than fourteen Tigercat machines, (some new, many bordering on vintage) Sapp’s Land & Excavating is poised to become one of the Florida panhandle’s premier suppliers of microchips for biomass use.

Legacy in Logging

First formed in 1978 as a logging company called Jerry Sapp Timber, the company expanded to offer land clearing and excavating in order to accommodate residential and commercial development in the region. But, according to Sapp, logging has always been in his blood.

“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.”

For several years, Sapp’s stayed busy building subdivisions, clearing lots, constructing lakes and fish ponds, all the while operating with just a three or four person crew. With the economic downturn, the housing and commercial development industries fell on horrific times, and Sapp was once again turning to logging to keep the ship afloat. “We still had an old Tigercat skidder we’d bought in 1996, then picked up a used Tigercat 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.”

Push for Biomass

Chipley, Florida based Sapp’s Land & Excavating is a family company by nature. Jerry’s wife Sharon has been with him since the company’s inception and son Jeremy is active on a daily basis in many parts of the operation. Upon re-entering the logging market, Sapp called upon some of his old logging agent contacts to re-establish a working relationship and secure some work. Eventually, however, he found that working directly with mills in the area made more sense.

“Soon we were clearing and logging for only a couple of key companies, one of which was Green Circle Bio Energy,” he says. “We didn’t know it at the time, but aligning ourselves with them would change things dramatically for us.”

Jerry Sapp, at right, discusses the clearing operation with one of his chip haulers.

Jerry Sapp, at right, discusses the clearing operation with one of his chip haulers.

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, Florida based company generates upwards of 580,000 tons of fuel pellets per year against a maximum production capacity of 600,000 tons per year. With those kinds of volumes, a steady flow of specialty chips into their facility is critical; 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 round wood 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. “By that time, we had grown our business, but were still just doing 40 to 45 loads of round wood a week. In early 2013, however, a new agreement with Green Circle quickly got us into large-scale chipping, doing as many as 150 loads a week. At that point, we had become 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.”

Committed to Excellence

To meet Green Circle’s needs for a specialty chip – one that is generally 13-20 mm (0.5-0.75 in) in length and width and about 3 mm (0.125 in) thick – Sapp relies upon a pair of Morbark 40/36 Whole Tree MicroChippers.

“We typically get about 110 loads of microchips a week between two chipping crews,” says Sapp. “When conditions are ideal, however, I’ve seen a crew get more than 80 loads a week with a single chipper.”

On the logging and clearing side of the operation, as business grew, a loyalty that started with that one Tigercat machine developed into a full-on commitment. The company currently owns and operates a Tigercat fleet consisting of five feller bunchers (four 720E models and one 720D), four skidders (one 620E and three 620C models) and five loaders (three 240B loaders, one 230C and a 244).

“This is a demanding environment with literally no room for downtime, so I need my equipment to be both productive and durable,” he says. “I get that with Tigercat; it’s reliable and outperforms anything else on the market today. I differ from a lot of other logging firms in that I prefer to purchase used equipment rather than new, and the folks at the Thomasville, Georgia, branch of Tidewater Equipment, have been great in helping me get the equipment – both new and used – that I need.”

He adds that the bottom line for him is a level of confidence in Tigercat equipment that has never been shaken.

“Even though a Tigercat machine is three or four years old and out of warranty, I know I can still count on it for years and years of solid performance. That’s made a huge difference for us.”

Indeed, most of Sapp’s fleet is equipment built between 2005 and 2008 with a couple of new units in the mix and that 1996 model still working today. Not long ago, because of a deal he felt he couldn’t pass up, Sapp says he purchased a competitive brand skidder. “I probably should have passed it up,” he says. “It was brutal compared to our Tigercat units – within six months we sold it and replaced it with a new Tigercat 620E.”

Making a Difference

Sapp says the push to create more and more biomass – including the pellets generated and exported by Green Circle – is prompting them to consider converting a third chipper currently used for larger, standard fuel chips to a microchipper. He says he sees the work 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 fifteen years ago and simply let sit,” he says. “As a result it’s gotten overgrown with junky material up to 30 feet tall that is not of any interest to a logging company. In cases in which replanting is the goal, the landowners need to get that product off site just to see which areas are even worth being sprayed with an herbicide and replanted. They have a couple ways to do that: they can pay someone to come in and 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 fifteen to twenty years until anything of value could be pulled from it. The alternative they offer is much better: clean it up, replant and in ten 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 60 mile radius we work, so I can see us being busy for quite a while. Our Tigercat equipment has played a huge role in helping make all this happen and will continue to do so as we move forward.”

A 620E skidder pulling a huge load of pine.

The latest addition to the skidder fleet is a new 620E.