LIKE THE TREES, shrubbery and other green waste he grinds, Dan Cristiani's processing business just keeps growing. Started when he was just 15 years old, what was once a firewood hauling business now encompasses 17 companies that handle all steps in green waste processing including collection, grinding, composting and product marketing. Combined, the businesses have annual sales of more than $20 million.
Seeds of Recovery
According to Cristiani of Clarksville, Ind., his processing business took root as early as 1970, when he was just a teenage farm boy in rural Indiana. Early on, his family instilled the belief that it is important to conserve natural resources by recycling them and using the entire product. So when a power line company came to town and leveled scores of trees, Cristiani began chopping the branches and selling firewood from the back of a 1965 Chevy pickup truck.
Then when he turned 16, Cristiani used some of his firewood sales earnings to buy a 1952 GMC dump truck for $250. Soon after, he bought a tractor with a grader on the back and began grading yards and doing seeding work for extra cash. Then, he expanded his business by excavating and moving dirt. This led to land clearing work. And by 1987, following his environmental roots, Cristiani decided to purchase grinders to process waste and began selling mulch, topsoil and compost.
“One thing always led to another,” Cristiani says, noting that wherever there has been an imaginable opportunity to expand his businesses, he has taken it.
Cristiani's compost and mulching operation, for example, begins with Dan Cristiani Excavating Co. Inc., a $13 million construction company that provides land clearing and site preparation services. For site preparation, Cristiani Excavating owns 100 pieces of equipment including John Deere, Caterpillar, Komatsu and Daewoo excavators, dozers, loaders and backhoes. The equipment helps to clear job sites of trees and brush. Once the land is cleared, Cristiani then grades sites to meet developer requirements and removes excess dirt.
Cristiani couples the land clearing equipment with two Vermeer HG525TX horizontal grinders on tracks equipped with an automated wet clutch, duplex drum and 3-inch screens to transform trees, stumps and brush into green waste. The grinders help to process long, brushy materials in areas where machine mobility is key. The machines also play double duty in his composting business.
For instance, Cristiani says he will process 75,000 to 90,000 cubic yards of green waste annually from land clearing projects. He also uses a Vermeer SC1102A stump cutter to grind stumps left behind by the dozers and excavators. Then, instead of paying another company to haul away the green waste and dirt from land clearing and site preparation projects, Cristiani handles the materials himself. His Gotta Go trucking company owns approximately 50 dump trucks, flatbeds and dump trailers, and delivers the topsoil and green waste from the construction company job sites to one of two 5-acre processing areas.
Poised for Processing
At each of Cristiani's processing areas, there is a composting pad made of limestone dust that is packed 2 feet deep and is 4 acres in size. “Our processing sites are located near a limestone quarry and the limestone dust is considered a waste product,” Cristiani says, explaining why he prefers limestone instead of concrete composting pads. “The limestone dust packs down like concrete, and when you scrape down to turn a pile or load the compost, [you do] not break up concrete. In fact, the lime dust actually enhances the compost.”
From the two sites, Cristiani produces 75,000 cubic yards of compost annually. The compost is comprised of yard and animal waste. More than 32,000 tons of yard waste is sourced from job sites Cristiani clears himself and area contractors who pay a tipping fee to dump at the composting sites. The animal waste comes from the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, local stables and dairies.
“The tipping fee covers our processing costs,” Cristiani notes. “We currently have an agreement with a local contractor that collects yard waste for the city of Louisville, Ky., to dump at our processing sites.”
Once at the processing sites, the yard and animal waste is unloaded on the limestone dust pads and moved by loader or excavator for processing through the grinders that use a ½-inch or ⅜-inch screen. Because the grinders are on tracks, they work their way down the hard limestone dust pads creating 400- to 500-foot long windrows at the rate of 100 cubic yards per hour with one machine, according to Cristiani.
Cristiani says he previously used a one-row turner, but it was just too slow, and the narrow, long windrows took up too much space. Now, dozers push up the compost into 15- to 20-foot tall windrows. “Creating a taller windrow saves time and money by allowing us to process additional materials without expanding the size of our site,” he says.
The total composting process lasts about one year, and each windrow is turned every one to two months based on temperature and cooking conditions. If necessary, Cristiani adds water to reactivate a windrow. But because the windrows are larger than normal, excavators and loaders are used to turn the piles. In fact, windrows are combined through the process and eventually end up being 30- to 40-feet tall, he says.
Cristiani's business, however, does not stop there. “Once the composting is complete, we process the topsoil from our construction jobs through a screen, grind it, then add compost to it and sell it in bulk locally to landscape contractors and residential builders,” he says. “Today, most of our compost sales are in the Louisville and southern Indiana areas.”
Road to Recovery
Cristiani's operations have thrived because of his mission to not let anything go to waste. “Our goal is to capture value out of the entire composting and mulch process,” he says. For instance, Cristiani stays busy operating a wholesale and retail hardwood aggregate and bark mulch business that processes 75,000 to 90,000 cubic yards annually. Hardwood mulch from Cristiani's land clearing business is hauled using Gotta Go trucks to a dedicated pad at one of his two processing sites.
The hardwood bark also is sourced from two local sawmills, one of which is located on Cristiani's land. The mills process low-grade hardwood into lumber for pallets, and Cristiani buys back the bark, which is processed in the grinders using a 3-inch screen.
Even the mulch fines have value. Cristiani separates the fines from the mulching operation and sells it as high-end triple grind mulch, or mixes the fines with sand and sells it in bags as organic topsoil.
Cristiani says he has a low-cost marketing budget because customers seek him out. “From day one, our reputation and word-of-mouth references have been our marketing and sales budget.”
While the majority of the compost, mulch and topsoil are sold at wholesale, Cristiani also operates Earth First Inc., a chain of four retail stores located in Clarksville and Louisville.
“Earth First sells the materials in bulk and bag, along with topsoil, aggregates, decorative landscaping stones and work apparel,” Cristiani says. “We also ship about 500,000 bags of mulch annually to Cincinnati and Evansville, Ind., using our own trucks.”
Any dirt that doesn't sell through the composting or Earth First business is sold to the Kentucky State Fairgrounds for horse and cattle shows, tractor pulls and motor crosses — “basically any event that needs dirt,” he says.
To keep his endless operations going, Cristiani says he makes waste reduction a family affair. Cristiani's wife, Anne, owns AC (as in Anne Cristiani) Equipment Rental across town. She started the business six years ago to keep herself busy while the kids were in school and her husband was working. Yet Anne now owns between 40 and 50 pieces of equipment, including backhoes, excavators, dozers, rollers and graders, which contribute to the processing puzzle.
Then, of Cristiani's five kids, the oldest daughter works in the accounting department at Earth First of Kentuckiana Inc. The oldest son is a foreman at Dan Cristiani Excavating. And Cristiani hopes his daughter, a student at Indiana University; his 14-year-old son; and his eight-year-old daughter will continue to grow the business.
Looking back on his success, Cristiani suggests the following recipe: Begin with a land clearing and site preparation business. Start your own trucking company and haul truckloads of excavated dirt and green waste from your construction business. Add a few sites that process and sell compost, topsoil and mulch, as well as offer other landscaping supplies. Use that same trucking company to transport the finished product to wholesalers and retailers. Finally, throw in farming and land development businesses on the side.
Of course, Cristiani admits, not everyone can let “one thing lead to another” and let business grow as unfettered as he has throughout the years. Nevertheless, Cristiani's path proves that it's possible — and profitable — to create a diverse land clearing, site preparation and processing business.
Writer April Goodwin is based in Des Moines, Iowa.