Compost/landclearing firm keeps pace with St. Louis area growth

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While many metropolitan areas in the country's midsection are experiencing something of a population exodus, with people either seeking new economic opportunities or just the benefit of warmer climes, St. Louis and its surrounding areas have instead seen a resurgence of growth. Today, St. Louis County boasts a population that is one-fifth of the state's overall total, a health care industry that is literally exploding and a growing number of corporate and divisional headquarters for major manufacturers, contractors and suppliers. All that growth is fueling a robust housing market, a situation that suits St. Louis Composting and its AgriCycle offsite grinding division just fine. In fact, the Valley Park, MO-based firm has been riding the area's wave of growth since its own inception in 1992. Today the company, armed with a productive fleet of grinders - including seven Morbark horizontal and tub grinders - and an equally impressive inventory of support equipment, clears better than 500 acres a year for development. It has also become the largest composter in the St. Louis region, annually recycling more than one-third of all yard waste generated in St. Louis County.

Legislating a Change
Originally a landscaping company, St. Louis Composting made the move to grinding and composting - as did many in this line of business today - because of changing legislation. According to Patrick Geraty, the firm's co-owner (along with wife Becki), the law in question, Missouri Senate Bill 530, mandated a 40 per cent reduction in solid waste disposal by 1998. One of the ways it sought to achieve that goal was by banning yard waste from area landfills.

'That part of the bill really changed things for us,' says Geraty. 'We were suddenly challenged to find a way to dispose of all of the green waste and wood waste material from our jobs. I knew that other firms in the area were in the same situation, so, while it was definitely a pain to make such an adjustment, I also saw it as an opportunity to take our business in a different direction.'

To make it happen, Geraty says he spoke to a local landfill owner and made arrangements to subcontract to him, grinding incoming yard waste.

'I purchased a small grinder, one that could process material up to 8-inches in diameter, and did that for about three years. In that time, I had accumulated a small mountain of material that was too big for the grinder and, to get rid of that material, rented a larger tub grinder, a Morbark Model 1250, for what we thought would be a short-term arrangement. That short-term ended in 2004 - almost 11 years later - with a trade in for a newer model.'

Growing Up in the Valley
Seeing the potential of his steadily-growing grinding operation, Geraty says he purchased the 26-acre site at which he had been working. Today, that location, in the southwest St. Louis suburb of Valley Park, serves as both the company's headquarters and a retail site.

'As more and more contractors from the area heard we were grinding yard waste and wood waste, the volumes really started to go up,' he says. 'So it made sense to have better control of our business and allowed us to take it to the next level; that happened in 1995 with the establishment of our offsite clearing division, AgriCycle.'

Forming and growing that division has allowed Geraty to take a broader approach to dealing with yard waste in the St. Louis county area. Today, the company operates three separate locations: a dedicated composting site in Maryland Heights, MO and two others - one in Millstadt, IL and the main site in Valley Park - that are open to the general public and offer a variety of soils and mulch products.

'The composting and mulch operations started out fairly simple but have themselves evolved over the years. We now offer several different varieties of compost and compost/soil blends, as well as better than half a dozen different types and colors of mulch. Our success in these endeavors has been the result of equal parts good planning, excellent people throughout the company and reliable equipment, and there's no denying our grinders are at the heart of the whole operation.'

Playing to Strengths
Geraty says they currently operate seven Morbark grinders, four Model 6600 horizontal units and three Model 1300 tub grinders. No machine is ever solely dedicated to one location or one type of operation, a by-product of the company's knowledge of, and familiarity with, its equipment.
'Each type of grinder has its own strengths,' he says. 'Tubs are great for stumps and larger wood chunks, while horizontals can handle the longer material. Even that's not etched in stone, however. On a smaller clearing project - anything in the three-acre or less range - we feel a tub alone will do just fine. But once we get into larger tracts that need clearing, we will generally bring both a tub and a horizontal unit onsite and that really keeps production levels up.'

That dual machine capability was at work in a project AgriCycle recently wrapped up in the far-western suburb of Chesterfield. A new development called the Villages at Kendall Bluffs, the 60-acre site was originally heavily wooded, and featured both rolling terrain and a fairly deep ravine. That layout offered its fair share of challenges, yet Geraty's crews were in and out of there in record time, hauling off better than 48,000 cubic yards of chips in the process.

'We really have it down to a science at this point,' he says. 'Once we have all the good logs removed and the rest of the material on the ground, we have Cat dozers to push the material to each grinder where it is either fed using a grapple-equipped excavator, as is the case with the Morbark 6600, or self-fed with the knuckleboom-equipped Model 1300 tub. Each machine is extremely productive and reliable, two big reasons we've chosen to rely so heavily on Morbark's equipment.'

Picture of Success
The one-two punch of St. Louis Composting and AgriCycle has proven a textbook business model for effective yard waste and wood waste recycling. An endeavor that started out modestly, processing 18,000 yards per year in the early 1990s, has grown to one that does 400,000 cubic yards of green waste a year in support of the composting effort, and generates almost an equal volume of wood chips in its clearing operations.

'We've benefited from the fact that this area is seeing some unbelievable growth,' says Geraty. 'There are areas being developed in and around St. Louis County that I never would have thought would attract any attention even five years ago. That's really driving both parts of our business and we've done well to have the equipment, particularly our grinders, to sustain those levels. Grinders play a key role for us, and we've looked at some of the new equipment that's available today - including newer, bigger models from Morbark. Impressive as they are, we still feel we have exactly what we need right now.'

And given their current status in the St. Louis area, whose to argue with them?

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