Pennsylvania farmer Jim Saunders pitched his idea for a vinyl wrap to protect tree trunks from deer to U.S. processors in five states but no one would go out on a limb to manufacture the first small run of his patented product.
Called Tree Armor, the spiral-shaped, spring-loaded plastic hugs tree trunks from the ground up to 4-feet high, deterring deer that eat bark and bucks that are hungry for, ahem, doing that wild thing.
Every September, testosterone-fueled, white-tailed bucks start rubbing their antlers on trees to clean off the summer layer of velvet and mark their territory. They’re leaving a calling card for does and warning away the breeding competition. They also cause deadly damage to young trees in the process.
This mating period, which can go through winter, is known as the deer rut. It takes a costly toll on yards, orchards and professionally landscaped grounds as Saunders, a crop farmer growing corn, soy beans and wheat near the Poconos Mountains, can attest. A few years ago he planted 60 ornamental trees to make his acreage look nice and ended up attracting a lot of bucks.
“We have a lot of sycamores, crepe myrtle and maples,” Saunders said. “In the winter the deer come through in herds and they just rip up our trees. We tried everything from ace bandages to wire mesh and they just demolished everything. After they rip the bark, within six months the tree is dead.”
Saunders and his daughter, Jill, began experimenting at home with ways to solve the problem with vinyl. They used a tapered candle because, like a tree trunk, it has a wide base that narrows toward the top. They had a break through using a candle that had been in the freezer.
“We took a strip of plastic and we heated it up and we wrapped it around the frozen candle,” Saunders said. “It was cold on one side and warm on the other. We found we created a spring-like quality to the plastic. That’s how this started.”
That spring-loaded quality gives Tree Armor a tight wrap against deer antlers yet expands as the trunk grows. The Saunders added perforations to limit mold and mildew and wound up with a product that’s quick and easy to install and provides years of protection. They figured a competitive sales point would be $6 retail.
The father-daughter team hit the road in search of an extruder. County by county, they struck out in their home state then Maryland, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Some businesses wouldn’t meet with them let alone give them a quote. The others offered little more than cost estimates of $8 to $12 each, which Saunders said the market wouldn’t bear.
“We got the same story from everybody,” he said. “They were willing to make us prototypes but they weren’t interested in a 30,000-piece order. They thought it was too labor intensive. They said you better take this to China because labor isn’t an issue there and they’ll make it at the price you need to sell it for. The American industry convinced us to go overseas. It was really something. It was disheartening.”
From offshore to Ohio
Still, Saunders felt strongly about his idea, which he said offered added benefits compared to other products, starting with a brown color that makes it almost invisible. Also, other wraps leave gaps of exposed bark when they expand and the tubular kinds of guards cost more and have to be replaced as the trunks grow, he said. As for the metal guards that protect a lot of urban trees, they tend to be costly and more decorative than functional against predators.
Saunders heeded the advice of the U.S. manufacturers and turned to China. He was satisfied with the first batch of 30,000 Tree Armors, which sold out in 2011. Sales are online only with the No. 1 destination being Ohio followed by Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan.
“Michigan is a huge market for us,” Saunders said. “I’m told the natural predator — the mountain lion — is gone and that used to keep the deer population down.”
He placed another order to China but ran into several problems. Saunders said the quality of the shipment wasn’t consistent, the color wasn’t right, the tension wasn’t as good, the price had gone up, and the order arrived late. He was frustrated again.
Then, while delivering Tree Armor to one his big customers, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., Saunders was referred to the College of Business and Economics, which matches entrepreneurs with U.S. manufacturers. Its database search led him to Greg Hiltebrant, owner of GSH Industries in Strongsville, Ohio.
Surprisingly, Saunders said his product was met with immediate enthusiasm. Hiltebrant, who had lost automotive work to China, got his research and development staff involved. They came up with both automated and manual ways to manufacture Tree Armor.
“It was a long process but we custom manufactured a material for Jim that gives us the same qualities he was looking for and meets all U.S. guidelines,” Hiltebrant said. “We automated it and believe it or not, the manual method is faster and more productive. I hate to say too much because it’s really kind of a trade secret. It’s a little more labor than we’d like but it has been successful.”
Reshoring and rejoicing
Sales of the U.S.-made Tree Armor started in November. GSH can make 500 to 1,000 pieces a week, depending on how many of the 30 employees are assigned to it. Saunders maintains an inventory and places new orders giving 6-8 weeks lead time. He is selling 60-100 a day in the off season but that’ll soon jump to 200 a day.
“It helps fill the pipeline and it’s saving a job or two,” Hiltebrant said. “When Jim gets some big-box business it will be even better. Now that we’ve got the system down we’re really proficient. Jim hasn’t had one reject out of 40,000 pieces. He hasn’t sent one back and we haven’t had one complaint.”
GSH also won a major project — “it’s another twisted part” — that had been manufactured in Russia, Hiltebrant said. He is optimistic the United States is on the verge of a manufacturing renaissance.
“We’re all red-blooded Americans here at GSH,” he said. “Everybody obviously wants to do as much as we can for this country.”
Saunders said sales have picked up since has been able to advertise that Tree Armor is made in America.
“We wanted to make it here from the beginning,” he said. “The American product is just so professional. I’m sort of a side project for Greg but they make schedule, they don’t charge more than they say, there’s no language barrier. They’re Americans and they’re delightful to deal with.”