Contractor of the Year Finalist: Roger Greenawalt

Not long before he retired from teaching shop and vocational agriculture classes in 1999, Roger Greenawalt was asked to fix the pitching machine his high school used to throw softballs. It was not an unusual request. As a part time farmer and shop and ag teacher Roger had a reputation for being able to fix things.

But as he studied how the unit worked Roger had a feeling he might be able to use the principles behind the design in a different application someday. So Roger filed the pitching machine concept away with all the other ideas he’d collected in his 27-year career as a teacher.

In 1998 Roger, along with his son Dana, started Sweet Meadow Farm Drainage, not as a construction company, but, as his business card says, a “conservation company.” His wife Terri runs the office (in addition to teaching at the local kindergarten) and his son Ben joined the firm full time six years ago.

The company got its start doing farm tile drainage jobs on weekends using their own custom-built tiling machine. Later, they also put in ponds and erosion control waterways for local farmers. And when someone mentioned the difficult time they were having trying to rehab old underground gas pipelines, Roger had the solution on file.

Leaking profits
For years pipeline contractors had struggled to come up with a way to productively slip new plastic pipe inside the miles of old rusted, steel pipe that lay under eastern Ohio’s oil- and gas-rich hills. “We were losing 50 percent of the gas due to deterioration in the pipes,” says Mark DePew, a customer and owner of the oil and gas company Petrox.

Rising oil and gas prices had awakened interest in Ohio’s long dormant fields, but digging up the old pipe was too expensive. The best alternative, using a backhoe boom and chain to yank short segments of new pipe into the old, was slow going – 500 to 1,000 feet a day.

That’s where the pitching machine came into play. Working in their shop Roger and his sons built a similar device that, instead of tossing softballs, pushed plastic pipe in a continuous stream using high torque auxiliary hydraulic power from a compact excavator.

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Nothing fancy, just four riding mower tires mounted sideways on top of hydraulic motors and a welded frame to hold it all together. Crank it up and the tires propel the pipe forward off the reel, enabling a two-man crew to push 5,000 to 7,000 feet of pipe a day.

The productivity of the pipe pusher impressed the local oil field service companies and helped get the Greenawalts additional business preparing sites for new oil wells. This is more like traditional construction and earthmoving work – leveling the drilling rig site, building roads, digging containment ponds, installing new pipelines and site reclamation. They’ll also do emergency pipeline repairs and spill containment when called on.

The farmer and the oilman
While the oilfield services work has been good, farmers and oil companies don’t always see eye to eye. Farmers nurture the land. Oil companies often storm in and out again in a hurry leaving a lot of compacted soil and torn up ground.

But the Greenawalts, with their farming roots, construction experience and machine shop ingenuity have been able to bridge the gap between the two and keep satisfied customers on both sides of the divide. And Roger’s connection to the community runs deep. He was Beloit’s mayor for 16 years and served as a county soil and conservation board member as well. “They know what ticks the farmer off and they know how to repair the drain tiles if they need to,” DePew says.

To make sure the oil and gas pipes they install don’t interfere with a farmer’s drainage system, Roger puts his pipe 4 feet deep even though the spec only calls for 2 feet.

“At first, some of the oil company guys complained ‘you don’t need to go that deep’, but I wanted to make sure the farmers’ interests were protected too,” Roger says. “Any future drainage systems must be on grade to function so gas lines need to be placed out of the way. If the farmer is not already a customer of mine, they might be someday, or they might recommend me to one of their neighbors. So I started charging the oil field service companies by the linear foot. I told them ‘I won’t charge you any more to put it 4 feet deep as I will to put it 2 feet deep, and if I put it 2 feet deep, eventually one of us is going to get a call for a broken line. So it’s going to be 4 feet deep. Take it or leave it.'”

As a result, some local farmers have told the oil company guys that they’ll only agree to an oilfield lease if the oil service company hires the Greenawalts to do the site prep and pipelines.

Trenchless preservation
Eastern Ohio has some of the oldest farmland in the country, with ancient stands of hardwood trees, century-old houses and hand-laid stone walls. The Greenawalt’s own house was built in the 1860s. To keep their construction activities minimally invasive in this much beloved landscape the Greenawalts bought a horizontal directional drill.

“When we decided we needed this, we had no idea how these things worked,” Dana says. “We found our first directional drill at an auction in Florida and just hauled it up here, stuck it in one of our own fields and started playing around.” True to form the Greenawalts even fabricated some of their own down-hole tools. Now whenever there is the least excuse to pull out the HDD, they don’t hesitate. Even without the aesthetic considerations, Roger says the HDD saves them time and money compared to open trench methods when crossing any kind of built surface or structure.

Speed trenching
The major part of the Greenawalt’s business has been putting in drain tiles in the low-lying areas of farmer’s fields. Trouble is, as with any work done on a farmer’s fields, the work usually has to be done after fall harvest and before spring planting.

In 1998, while a student in high school, Dana built a custom drainage plow dubbed “The Mole” for use on their farm. It began life as a school shop project in his Dad’s class, but after an article in the local “Farm & Dairy” newspaper, the phone started ringing. The Greenawalts soon started the drainage business with a school shop project, a farm tractor, and a rented compact excavator.

But when Roger and his sons realized they needed more capability they did what they’re best at – improvise and improve. The kind of machine they needed, a self-contained drainage plow, is rare and manufactured in Europe. New, these machines run upwards of $275,000, but the Greenawalts found one going to the bone yard for $20,000. “We called the only dealer in the United States and asked about weak points or design problems with the original machine, so we could improve on it,” says Dana. Then they put $30,000 of parts into it to create exactly the machine they needed using components cannibalized from a variety of machines and sources. They replaced the final drives with two from a Cat 320 excavator, put in a splitter box that divides the power train into two drives, installed two hydrostats, put in new sprockets, hydraulic pumps and controls. They also made a new parts book to go with the original written only in German. This year they’re building a custom cab for the unit. As far as productivity, the Greenawalt’s 260-horsepower custom drainage plow cuts to a depth of 5 1/2 feet and runs 80 to 90 feet a minute. “You can get up to 120 or 130 feet a minute with it,” Roger says, “but you start to outrun the laser machine control.”

A growing business
Today Sweet Meadow Farm Drainage has eight full-time employees and one part time. Dana concentrates on farm drainage and directional boring while Ben specializes in oilfield construction and pipelines. They rent machines on occasion but prefer to own most of their equipment so it’s available 24/7. Given the inventive approach they take to construction challenges it isn’t easy to find workers. So Roger says he looks for young people with limited experience but great attitudes and learning abilities. “We train them to be problem solvers and accept new ideas and technology,” Roger says. “We look for people who want a career, not a job.”

Business for the firm has been brisk this year. They’ve added two full time employees, bought a new compact excavator and two more trucks. Roger estimates they’ve put in 850,000 to 900,000 feet of drain tile and completed 21 oil well jobs.

The HDD business is also picking up, Roger says. “We’re doing more of that for other contractors now,” he says. “They’re calling us when they’re doing sewer/water hookups. We do the directional drilling and they do the rest.”

Long-term relationships
Dan Mastropietro, owner of Mastropietro Winery says the Greenawalts’ first job for him was to put drain tile in his vineyards. “Then it kind of snowballed from there,” he says.

Roger designed a skid steer attachment for him that helped Mastropietro efficiently plant some 25,000 vines. He also designed a tool to help drive end post anchors and built a 1 /-acre lake for the winery. And true to the farmer ethos, the relationship doesn’t end when the check is cashed. “They’ve helped me a lot,” Mastropietro says. “When I had a bunch of grapes to get in and didn’t have enough trucks, the loaned me an almost brand new 1-ton truck and trailer. They do a lot of things they don’t have to. They go out of their way.”