Farm Horizons, February 2007

Gravel is gold

Many people do not give much thought to gravel, but as supplies decrease and demand increases, we may have to think more about it.

Development is one of the factors that is driving demand, and, to make matters worse, it can both increase demand, and at the same time reduce supply.

McLeod County Engineer John Brunkhorst said that new development creates demand for new roads, and some of these same developments are being built on gravel deposits, thereby reducing supply.

The covering up of aggregate deposits is also a concern for Wright County Engineer Wayne Fingalson, and the new jail site illustrates this.

“At one point, a million yards of gravel was going to be covered up. Now, that figure is down to about half a million,” Fingalson said.

He worked with the county board and KKE Architects to get the jail/law enforcement facility moved within the site to limit the amount of gravel that was covered up.

“People don’t want to build a building in a hole,” Fingalson said, explaining why projects are sometimes built over gravel deposits. He also said it sometimes comes down to economics, noting that it costs more to remove the gravel and bring in fill for a construction site than the gravel is currently worth.

Harris Duininck, of Duininck Bros. in Prinsburg, Minn., has been in the gravel business for decades in McLeod, Wright, and Meeker counties.

Duininck said that in addition to building homes and cities over aggregate deposits, increasing development can limit access to gravel.

He explained that people sometimes move into areas adjacent to aggregate deposits, and then complain about the noise generated by mining, or place limits on the mining and processing of the material.

Land planning in rural counties is critical to the preservation of gravel supplies, Duininck said.

Brunkhorst said that in addition to development, another factor that has increased demand is that some of the newer bituminous products and concrete mixtures are using larger amounts of high-grade aggregate, leaving the more mediocre material for other applications, such as township roads.

The newer products are in demand because they improve the durability of the roads.

“The new products have a higher initial cost, but they have more longevity. Instead of lasting 20 years, they might last 30 or 40 years, Duininck said.

How has the cost of gravel changed?

Brunkhorst said that he has seen the price of gravel double in the last decade.

Fingalson shared similar information about the increase in the price of gravel.

Fingalson said Wright County paid $2.47 per ton for Gravel in 1980. By 1989, the cost increased to $3.87. In 2000, the cost was $6.31 per ton, and by 2005, it had risen to $8.53 per ton.

Cost increase for gravel in Wright County

Year Cost per ton

1980 $2.47

1989 $3.87

2000 $6.31

2005 $8.53

Duininck said that the quality and availability of the material, as well as fuel costs and regulatory factors, are among the things that are causing increases in the cost of gravel.

In the past, gravel pits were sometimes abandoned once the gravel had been removed. Today, mining activities are regulated. Producers must apply for permits for mining operations, and bonds are required to ensure that sites are restored when operations are complete.

Duininck said that in Minnesota, gravel mining operations typically run from May through October or November.

Where is the gravel?

Duininck explained that gravel is a limited resource and is found in deposits that were left either by the movement of glaciers or in the beds of what were once rivers.

He said his company goes wherever these deposits are in order to mine the gravel.

Some areas have been luckier than others, and some townships and counties have depleted their supplies and been forced to look elsewhere to meet their needs for gravel.

Brunkhorst said half of the aggregate used in McLeod County comes from outside the county.

Wright C ounty has been more fortunate. Fingalson estimated that the county probably has a 30-year supply of gravel.

“We are lucky in that regard. Having our own supply helps the prices on our transportation projects. The further you have to transport this stuff, the more expensive it becomes,” Fingalson said.

On a more local level, township supervisors and maintenance staff are dealing with the same issues.

Bob Bakeberg is in charge of maintenance in Victor Township. He said the township is getting gravel from a pit north of Howard Lake.

At one time, three townships were getting gravel from that site, and now there are six, Bakeberg said.

Woodland Township Supervisor Jim Trombley said the township is getting gravel from a pit that will meet the township’s needs for five years.

Woodland Township Board Chairman Ken Pawelk said that the township purchased a tandem truck that reduces costs by allowing them to haul their own gravel.

Hollywood Township Supervisor Ron Kassulker noted that gravel “is getting to be expensive and hard to find.”

Camden Township Supervisor Virgil Stender said the township has enough gravel on hand to last “a couple of years,” but acknowledged that finding gravel is an issue.

There is nothing glamorous about gravel, but as demand continues to increase and supplies decrease, this commodity is becoming more and more like gold.

This concept is supported by a 2002 US Geological Survey report that stated that “natural aggregate is the most valuable non-fuel mineral commodity in the world.”

In fact, according to the report, the estimated value of natural aggregate, including sand, gravel and crushed stone, that was produced in the US in 2001 amounted to $14.5 billion, compared to $5.5 billion for gold, silver, and copper combined.

Perhaps even more important than the monetary value is the role natural aggregate plays in our daily lives.

The roads that we drive on, the homes that we live in, and many of the products that we use, all depend on the availability of aggregates.

“Gravel is essential to our quality of life. It is an important and vital part of our lives, and yet, many people don’t understand the role that gravel plays,” Duininck said.

He explained for example that people want good roads to drive on, but some people never stop to think about where the roads they drive on every day came from.

It is estimated that Americans use an average of nine to 10 tons of aggregate per person per year. This is a dramatic increase compared to the estimated .5 tons per person we used annually at the beginning of the 20th century.

In urban areas, a typical family home requires 330 tons of aggregate (this figure includes a share of roads, schools and other infrastructure).

The US Geological Survey projected that we will use as much gravel in the next 25 years as we did in the previous 100 years.

A May 2000 report on the seven-county metropolitan area, funded jointly by the Minnesota DNR, the Metropolitan Council, and the Minnesota Geological Survey predicted that “With the continuing expansion of developed areas, possible zoning restrictions, and other factors, aggregate supplies may be exhausted as early as 2028.”

The report went on to say that “local and regional decisions will have important implications for future supplies and costs of aggregate materials.”

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