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MULCH ADO ABOUT COTTON: Father-Son Team Turn Gin Trash Into Hydromulch

MULCH ADO ABOUT COTTON: Father-Son Team Turn Gin Trash Into Hydromulch
May 22, 2007 |

He may have come from a long-line of farmers and risk-takers, but Andy Ellis isn’t taking any chances these days.”It’s locked up like Fort Knox around here,” laughed Ellis’s son, Wae, as he fumbled for the right keys to unlock door after door on a recent tour of their Cherokee County processing facility, Mulch & Seed Innovations LLC.Of course, Wae was only joking. But the modest ranch-style brick building that sits alongside a stretch of Highway 9 named after his grandfather is home to some pretty heady secrets these days — secrets that the Ellises hope will one day bring in cash as green as the stuff they’re spraying on lawns, right of ways and hillsides throughout the country right now. That green stuff is Geo-Skin and Cotton Fiber Matrix (CFM), newcomers to the erosion control industry, which sells 22,000 tons of mulch annually. These two new hydromulches (those applied with water) are just different enough — and efficient enough — that the Ellises have applied for patents on their innovative process. “We’re still kind of protective around here because we’re the only ones crazy enough to ever do this,” joked Andy Ellis. “We sure don’t want all of our secrets to get out.”But it’s no secret what makes the Ellises’ hydromulches different — it’s cotton. Or, more precisely, cotton gin trash. Unlike most wood- or paper-based hydromulches, Geo-Skin and CFM use gin trash — the nutrient-rich debris left behind in the ginning process — to create an erosion control product that better holds seed to promote rapid grass growth. Naturally porous, absorbent and biodegradable, the cotton helps create a crosshatch seal over the soil much like damp cotton gauze. Of course, there’s more than cotton in the mix. There’s also straw and a blend of additives that help the mulch cling to the soil. Sound simple enough? Andy Ellis thought so when Tom Wedegaertner of Cotton Incorporated approached him with the idea in 2003. Of course, the Ellises seldom shy from opportunity.It was here, in a small farming community called Ellisville, that Andy’s grandfather ran a sawmill, farmed cotton and soybeans, and raised cattle. It was here, too, that Andy’s father, W.A. “Dub” Ellis, and uncle Jim Ellis, not only continued those enterprises but also started the Sure Grow cotton seed business in the 1950s and built the first-ever cotton delinting plant using Cotton Incorporated technology in the 1960s. And it was from here that “Dub” worked to reestablish the cotton industry in Uzbekistan.”When we started (the mulch business), I thought I could do it for nearly nothing,” says Andy, “but ‘nearly nothing’ hasn’t worked very well. … It’s been a hundred times more difficult than we thought it would be. There hasn’t been anything easy in this.”A huge processing plant and warehouse now sit next to the Ellises’ EZ Flo plant, which re-gins cottonseed into cattle feed. The new facility is a towering, concrete-and-metal reminder to Andy of just how difficult it really has been. He doesn’t talk about how much it costs, only that he sees red ink wherever he looks.”We had to pretty much rebuild it three times to figure out how to process the cotton,” says Andy. “Everybody in the cotton industry has always tried to make cotton (fiber) longer for quality, but we had to go in the other direction — we had to shorten it without it coming back together as cotton will, because it clings to itself.”Finding the right combination of materials that wouldn’t clog hydroseed pumps was among the first challenges. That’s why the Ellises settled on sorghum Sudan grass which, when harvested, is a pulpy straw that soaks up moisture but doesn’t float to the top of the tank the way a reedy wheat straw does.There were also a few chemistry lessons along the way as the Ellises learned about ionic charges, polymers and tackifiers. “You don’t have to be a chemist, but you’d better have one on staff,” says Wae, a third-generation Auburn graduate with a degree in ag economics. “It takes about four years to understand what these ionic charges are doing.”Working in cooperation with the USDA and Cotton Incorporated, the Ellises put their products through almost 900 different tests. In one such test, Auburn University researchers determined that Cotton Fiber Matrix outperformed competitor products (double-net coconut fiber, straw and wood blankets) by as much as 225 percent in soil loss and 189 percent in grass growth.Still, Andy said, marketing has been a challenge. “People don’t like to change from what they’ve been doing, and this is something new, totally different than what most of the hydroseed applicators have been using,” he said. “They’re used to seeing wood on the ground, they’re not used to seeing ours on the ground. Ours is a different color than theirs — ours is more of a natural green, a turnip green color, when it’s sprayed out.”Nevertheless, Wae hit the road to convince the erosion control world that the Ellises had built a better mousetrap. Armed with the test results and scientific data to support their claims, Wae drove more than 55,000 miles and flew countless more last year.Now, he has distributors in South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Mississippi. He’s working toward national distribution with an eye toward winning approval from state departments of transportation that could be the big payoff they need.Retail prices vary by region, but on average, homeowners, landscapers and erosion control companies will pay around $10.50 per bag for Geo-Skin, which is used for flatter slopes, and around $35 per bag for CFM, which is for extreme sloping situations.However, because last year’s drought caused a shortage of Sudan grass, the company is only running three, 12-hour shifts a week. In one hour, they’ll crank out three tons of hydromulch, all baled and put into 50-pound bags. Currently, they employ about 15 workers.Andy hopes that they’ll be able to boost production to about 160 bags per hour — and add about 10 more workers — this month when the first cutting of Sudan grass comes in. He’s planted 1,200 acres of the grass on his own property, and contracted with local farmers to plant another 1,300 acres.”It wasn’t the easiest thing to do to talk a row cropper into planting hay,” Andy admits. “With the price of corn, we had to compete with what they could make on corn or soybeans or cotton or combination of the three. I’ve kind of had to become the insurance agent for this one year to get people to try it and stay happy because these guys haven’t grown it before.”If things go as planned, the Ellises should get about six tons per acre — or 15,000 tons on each of three cuttings. That is, if the rains come.”It’s still agriculture!” Andy exclaims with a laugh. “I don’t know anything in agriculture that’s not related back to God. Whether it’s sun or rain or hot or cold, He controls it all!” For more information, contact Andy or Wae Ellis at (256) 927-8823,
www.MulchAndSeed.com or
www.CottonFiberMatrix.com
. You can also e-mail them at waellis3@mulchandseed.com.

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