Land-Clearing Contractor Busy Serving Orchard Growers, Vineyards in California
By Tim Cox
Timberline Magazine, https://www.timberlinemag.com/
REEDLEY, California — The Liebelt family has carved out a successful land-clearing contracting business by serving growers in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley. They do it with the help of Peterson Pacific grinding equipment.
Liebelt Inc. was founded in 1979 by Myron Liebelt. The company is located in Reedley, California, where it has a 10-acre wood yard and three shop buildings. Reedley is about 25 miles southeast of
Fresno, which puts it in the heart of the agriculture-rich San Joaquin Valley. They have a small office in a shop, and Myron also has an office at home. His wife performs some of the administrative tasks for the business, like payroll. The Liebelts have been living in the area for nearly 50 years although Myron originally is from North Dakota and his wife is from Kansas.
The company has averaged about $300,000 per month in revenues in recent years. It currently has 23 employees, not counting the three family members. Ryan, 40, their son, has been involved in the business since he began driving a tractor as a teenager and began working full-time after high school.
Myron, who is turning 73, continues to work full-time six days a week, and has no immediate plans to retire. He bids on new contracts and sets up and oversees the start of a new job, but he enjoys driving, so he spends most of his time driving one of the three semi-tractors and hauling equipment around on one of the low-boy trailers. “He loves to drive,” said Ryan, who discussed the family business with TimberLine.
Ryan devotes his time to maintaining and repairing the trucks and equipment. “Anything that breaks,” he said. His work includes changing oil to changing tracks. “We try to do as much in-house as possible,” he said. He spends a lot of time driving from job to job to service the machines.
At the time Ryan was interviewed for this article, the company had 10 jobs under way; some required three or four pieces of equipment, and some as little as one.
When Myron came to California, he was a welder by trade. He soon met the owner of a small contracting business who wanted to sell his company and retire. Myron aspired to have his own business, and he bought it. The company had one Cat D7 bulldozer and one semi-tractor with a low-boy trailer, and two clients. It was his introduction to excavating equipment. He worked the business by himself for six months, then partnered with another welder, a former colleague. They invested in a second bulldozer and tractor-trailer, and the two men worked together for the next eight years. The business was named Liebelt & Wald after Myron and his partner, John Wald, who died about 13-14 years later.
Virtually all of the company’s contracting work is related to agriculture: the business is hired to remove trees in various orchards — for growing deciduous fruit, citrus, or nuts — and prepare the ground for planting new trees. They also prepare ground for planting new vineyards. In recent years the company also has begun doing a few land-clearing jobs for a home builder who develops subdivisions.
For orchard growers, the company removes existing trees, grinds all the wood on-site, and hauls away the grindings. Then it rips the soil from 3-6 feet deep in order to remove any remaining roots and clears away that wood material. The last step would be disking the site to help prepare it for replanting. Another contractor would finish preparing the site by using laser technology to level it for proper water runoff.
A fruit-bearing tree may have a productive life span of 12-14 years, noted Ryan, and a nut tree, like an almond tree, 10-18 years. However, sometimes farmers replace their orchard with a different species depending on market demand for their crop. “It’s all based on the fruit market,” explained Ryan, “whatever is hot at that time.”
“We’ve been working in this industry a long time,” said Ryan. “Most clients are individual farmers,” and the company mainly gets new business by word of mouth.
The company has steered away from clearing land for subdivisions until recent years. There were two reasons. The company has had plenty of agriculture contracts, and residential land clearing involves more steps and compliance with more regulations. “We weren’t that interested in doing it,” said Ryan. However, contracts for clearing land for residential development generate substantially more revenue because of the added administrative costs associated with complying with regulations. About 80 percent of the company’s business remains agriculture-related and about 20 percent for residential construction.
For grinding, the company has four Peterson horizontal track machines: three 5710D models and one 6710D. In addition, it has one Diamond Z model 8000 tub grinder.
Other equipment includes three Cat D10 bulldozers and a Cat D8 and Cat D9, nine Cat excavators, and 10 Cat wheel loaders. The company has three low-boy tractor-trailers for moving equipment and a fleet of 17 service trucks.
A typical job to remove trees at an orchard and prepare the land for replanting would require one to three excavators, depending on the number of acres. The machines are used to push the trees over, then complete the process of digging them out of the ground. They are arranged in rows with the root balls facing in the same direction and left for several weeks to allow the wood to dry.
Then a loader is brought to the job site to stack the trees while still arranging them in rows. Finally, a grinder is brought to the site and begins the process of grinding all the trees, complete with the root balls. A Cat excavator, typically a model 320C or 320E, is used to pick up the trees and feed them to the grinder.
Wheel loaders are used to scoop up the grindings and load it into trucks. The company uses trucking contractors to haul it to cogeneration plants that use it for fuel. One plant is in Fresno, only 25 miles away, while another is in Stockton, a 2-½-hour drive one-way to the north.
Once a field is cleared, the company comes back with a bulldozer equipped with a ripping shank to rip the soil. “Most Cats come standard with a ripping pocket in the back,” noted Ryan. The bulldozers ordinarily use only one ripping shank in order to penetrate deep.
The ripping process brings more roots to the surface. Depending on the amount and size of the root material, a crew of laborers may go through the site, picking up by hand small pieces of wood. Finally, the field is disked to even out the grooves and furrows left by the ripping. Another contractor levels the site with a bulldozer so that runoff will flow in the right direction.
The agriculture land-clearing jobs vary from as little as 5 acres to 100 acres. “Every job is different,” said Ryan. The company typically takes on work within about a 100-mile radius.
The company does not merchandise wood from the trees because they are of little value, according to Ryan. It merchandised logs in the past, but the revenue was so little it was not worth it, he said.
Residential land-clearing jobs usually average 50 acres or more. The process essentially is the same, although the existing trees are not already in neat rows. One difference is the grindings are blown directly into trailer vans because regulations require the ground to be completely free of debris and foreign matter. Ripping is done down to 3 feet to remove roots, and loaders with rakes arrange them in piles, which also are processed by grinding. “We go back with a hand crew and pick up every single stick,” said Ryan, anything left over that is larger than ½-inch to 1 inch in diameter.
The Liebelts bought their first Peterson grinder, a used machine, in about 2005. Since then the company has purchased one more in used condition and four new machines. The Liebelts directly with Peterson, which is based in Oregon.
“They seem to be the most honest company,” said Ryan. “And they build the best machines from what I’ve done research on. They are the best all-around for parts, service, reliability…Hands-down…The company is just run very well.”
Ryan performs routine service and repairs on the Peterson machines. If the Liebelts need service or support for a Peterson machine, they deal directly with factory personnel. For issues like an electrical or technology problem, he will call for Peterson support. “They’re usually very quick to respond and within a day or so have someone here.”
Each of the company’s Peterson grinders is set up to be operated by remote control. The excavator operator who is feeding material to the grinders controls the grinder from the cab of the excavator.
Peterson Pacific Corp., a subsidiary of Astec Industries, Inc., is a leading manufacturer of grinders, disc and drum chippers, flails, screens, stackers and blower trucks. The company has a factory in Eugene, Oregon, a distribution center in South Carolina, and maintains a global network of dealers and representatives.
The Peterson 5710D Horizontal Grinder is a track machine designed for high-volume production and able to meet demanding specifications for end products. It is powered by either a Cat Tier II or Tier IV 1,050 hp engine. It has a feed opening of 60 by 40 inches. Combined with Peterson’s high lift feed roll, the 5710D can process a wide range of material, including stumps. The three-stage Peterson grinding process with an up-turning rotor and large grate area enables the 5710D to consistently produce materials to exact specifications.
The 5710D is equipped with an IQAN control panel that features a large LCD display to provide the operator with the information needed to operate the grinder. System pressure transducers and remote monitoring capability simplify set-up and provide complete engine and system parameters. The 5710D can be operated by wireless remote.
Peterson grinders feature urethane cushions and shear pins to help protect the machines from catastrophic damage that would be caused by the severe impact from contaminants, like rocks.
An optional tow dolly makes highway transportation between jobs easy. A quick-change multiple grate system makes it easy to customize grate configurations to produce a wide variety of finished materials.
In his spare time Ryan does some off-road motorcycle racing and also attends races in which his two sons, ages 7 and 12, compete. In fact, the company sponsors a racing team. They participate in races in the Mojave Desert, which is 3 hours away, and even in Mexico. “Almost every weekend we’re off someplace racing,” said Ryan.
As for Myron, “My father’s hobby is work,” said Ryan. Myron got his work ethic from being raised on a dairy farm; he worked on the farm until he married. Although he did have some hobbies and enjoyed vacationing in the past, “He likes to work,” said Ryan. “His main enjoyment in life is to work.”
Employees have two weeks of paid vacation and another paid week for sick days or rain days. The company offers a group health insurance plan and pays half of the premium.
Something that distinguishes Liebelt Inc. from other contractors is that it is family-owned and operated, and the family owners are hands-on in running the company and dealing with customers.
“Our company is owned and operated by the actual owners,” said Ryan. “We’re the ones that are there every day — hauling, supervising. Other companies, the owners are somewhere else, a different town, a different state.”
“We watch our company and control it ourselves, all aspects. If something goes wrong or if a customer has an issue, we’re personally there dealing with them. There are no middle men. You deal with the owner with all aspects of the job.”