Georgia is No. 1 in many categories, but there's always one ranking that gets buried -- cat litter production.
More fuller's earth clay, the chalky white mineral in cat litter, is mined in Georgia than any other state in the country.
But don't expect to see that achievement publicized on posters and pamphlets at the visitors' center. And don't expect to see signs at the state line that say "Welcome to Georgia: Cat Litter Capital of America."
The state's cat litter industry, though it creates several hundred jobs and pumps millions into the Georgia economy, seems to be of little interest to average folks.
"You have to put it in proper perspective -- it's dirt in a bag," said Clark Fisher, Wrens plant manager for A&M Products Manufacturing Co., one of the state's seven companies producing cat litters and oil absorbents.
Cat litter may not be a glamorous business, but it's still a business. This year A&M is on target to bag and ship $16 million worth of litter to consumers in 37 states.
It makes Jonny Cat and Everfresh brand litters for California-based parent, The Clorox Co.
The Peach State's two major fuller's earth deposits (one in Wrens, the other spread across south Georgia) yield more than 750,000 tons of the chalky white clay each year, more than twice the output of No. 2 state Mississippi.
The combined sales of all seven producers make Georgia a $100 million player in the $1 billion-a-year absorbents market.
But the industry doesn't expect that figure to grab headlines or catch the attention of state officials and business leaders swooning over Georgia's growing high-tech industries.
"We're taking clay out of the ground, processing it and putting it in bags. It's not very sexy," said Wayne Lawson, spokesman for Sud-Chemie's Meigs plant, which makes Glamour Kitty brand litter.
The `other' white clay
Mention clay mining to most Georgians, and they'll assume you're talking about kaolin, a valuable mineral that makes paper glossy and toothpaste white.
Fuller's earth shares many kaolin characteristics (white, chalky, chemically inert), but it is useless in most industrial applications because it will not form a fine slurry.
But what it lacks in solubility, it makes up in absorption. The mineral can soak up more than 95 percent of its own weight in liquids.
Fuller's earth is named after the 18th-century English sheep shearers, called fullers, who used the clay to remove natural oils from the wool before it was spun.
"Rumor has it that it was illegal to export from Great Britain because they considered it so vital to their wool industry," said Lee Coogan, executive vice president of the Absorptive Minerals Institute in Washington, an industry trade association.
The color and texture of the mineral varies slightly in the 11 states where it's found, causing slight regional differences in cat litter.
For example, Jonny Cat, and most other litters sold on the East Coast, are whitish-gray, the color of Georgia's fuller's earth. But out West, Jonny Cat is dark gray because that's the color of the mineral mined at A&M's Taft, Calif., facility.
Digging in the dirt
"How many minerals do you know of that can be sold in raw form at retail stores?" asks Lee Lemke, executive director of the Georgia Mining Association.
The answer is not many.
Fuller's earth may not be worth a lot (its retail value is just less than $220 a ton) but it is one of the least expensive minerals to produce because it requires little processing.
Here's how it works:
Companies remove the clay, usually found 10 to 20 feet below the surface, and haul it to a plant where natural gas-fired dryers reduce moisture content from 50 to 10 percent.
The clay is then filtered through a series of screens to separate dust and large particles from the standard 1/6-inch granules.
The clay is bagged immediately if it is to be sold as unscented, or treated with oil-based fragrances and other additives if it is to be sold as scented litter.
Most of Georgia's fuller's earth producers are based near the epicenter of the massive Hawthorne deposit in Thomas County, near the Georgia-Florida state line.
South Georgia soil is rich in a versatile type of fuller's earth called attapulgite, which can be used in cement, bricks and drilling muds and as filter material during production of cooking oil and jet fuel.
The older and smaller Twiggs deposit in Wrens forms an elliptical oval running through the city east-to-west and is primarily of the montmorillonite variety of fuller's earth, whose main use is in absorbent products and filler material in animal feeds.
Mr. Fisher said some of the finest clay he's seen is under the city of Wrens.
"I'll pull off the road whenever I see workers digging a water line just so I can look at the soil samples," he said. "There's some really nice looking clay under there."
Somebody's got to do it
Companies have been tapping into Georgia's fuller earth deposits since traditional clay cat litter was introduced more than 50 years ago.
Production has grown in step with the popularity of cats, Mr. Coogan said.
"The cat has passed the dog as the No. 1 U.S. household pet," he said. "The average family owns more than one cat. The litter market continues to grow because it's an inexpensive way to control animal waste."
Wrens is home to two producers, A&M and Georgia-Tennessee Mining Co., both of which mine clay within a mile of each other just east of town on Georgia Highway 88.
A&M has been in Wrens since 1990 but traces its roots back to the company founded by the California man who introduced Jonny Cat in the late 1940s. The company was bought in 1994 by First Brands, the maker of Glad Wrap and STP products, and later by Clorox in 1999.
Georgia-Tennessee Mining, which mines kaolin in other areas of the state, has pulled fuller's earth from Wrens since the 1950s and currently produces litter for New York-based pet products company Hartz Mountain, which markets everything from tick and flea collars to fish food.
Both operations are similar in size and sales.
South Georgia producers, however, are a little more diverse in size. The group includes big mineral companies like Engelhard Corp., a $4.4 billion giant in the kaolin industry, and Oil Dri Corp., a Michigan-based company that markets Cat's Pride litter and manufactures Fresh Step brand litter on a contract basis for Clorox, A&M's parent company.
To clump or not to clump?
The cat litter business, as most people would expect, is fairly staid when compared to most other industries.
Like most consumer products, the cat litter market has historically consisted of many regional players and a few big national brands like Clorox's Jonny Cat and Ralston-Purina's Tidy Cat.
But a major shake-up occurred 10 years ago with the introduction of scoopable litter.
Many pet owners switched from traditional clay litters to scoopables because the primary ingredient, a sandy aggregate called bentonite, formed easily disposable clumps.
The cat litter market still grows between 5 and 6 percent a year, but nearly all growth is in the scoopable segment. Today, scoopable litter accounts for 55 percent of all litter sales.
Though twice as expensive as traditional litter, scoopables are most popular with female consumers, who don't mind spending a few extra dollars on their cats.
In this respect, the robust economy hasn't helped erode traditional litter's market share, producers say.
"Times of prosperity may not be the best time for traditional litter," Mr. Fisher said.
The migration to scoopables has caused a slowing in Georgia's fuller's earth industry. Production at A&M, for example, has dropped 20 percent during the past 18 months.
Most large litter makers now produce both kinds. Some traditional litter producers, such as Sud-Chemie, have tried to stay current by making their own version of scoopable litter with smaller fuller's earth particles and additives that help form clumps like bentonite.
Market share may get even thinner in the future, but traditional litter makers believe there will be a place for their product as long as cats remain finicky.
"People buy whatever their cat likes best," said Mr. Fisher, who reads all letters from Jonny Cat and Everfresh customers. "If their cat won't use scoopable litter, they're not going to buy it."
Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.