February 16, 2006: Have you ever seen one
of those bumper stickers that says, “Compost Happens”?
Well there is some truth in that. If you have a good carbon
to nitrogen (C:N) ratio in the material and moisture in the
pile with enough critical mass and oxygen, compost does happen.
You don’t really need to do a whole lot. Sure, there
are actions you can take that will speed things up or slow
them down. But the fact is compost is a natural, biological
process that will happen on its own in some form or another.
While “compost happens,” a good compost operation
producing consistently high-quality compost doesn’t.
It doesn’t just happen on its own, that is. It takes
a fair amount of planning and, like any enterprise, good management.
The good part is a well-run operation can be financially rewarding
as well as a source of a valuable soil-building amendment.
Dick Yule in Millville, Pennsylvania is a prime example of
doing your homework, planning out your enterprise and most
importantly—generating a top-quality product. No amount
of marketing can overcome a poor product. Dick says,”If
I had one word of advice for someone starting out in a compost
enterprise, it’s to create a well-aged and cured finished
product. You’ll get and keep customers.”
Before you begin any compost operation, you should research
location criteria. By that I mean write down a list of location
characteristics. You’ll want a location that is level
or can be leveled. It should be located at least 100 feet
from any open body of water, be away from wetland soils and
have easy access for trucks and your own equipment. In some
areas, your compost site may even be need to be fenced and
gated. Be sure to check with your local municipality or state
authority before spending too much time and money developing
a site. Some areas even require a concrete pad and runoff
While there is a lot to learn about making high-quality compost,
one of the first steps is figuring out what raw ingredients
you’ll be using and where they’ll come from. These
materials might be generated on your own farm or, as in my
case, trucked in from off-site. If you are using your own
manure and crop residues, you have total control over what
you use, how you use it, when to use it, etc. However, when
you’re trucking in materials, you have a whole new set
of issues to deal with.
To start with, you need to locate or source out the materials
you want to compost. In our operation, that is municipal leaves,
grass clippings, broiler-house litter and horse manure. Other
operations I’m aware of use pre-consumer food waste,
dairy manure, fish-house waste, sawdust and many other compostable
You need to build a strong relationship with your suppliers.
They really need to understand what you need. You may want
a written contract or, like with our operation, use verbal
contracts to define what you will accept, when you’ll
accept it and in what condition. For us, dealing with municipalities
is easy. We try to keep things simple and straightforward.
I don’t charge a tipping fee, and they don’t charge
for the materials. Simple. No paperwork. The same system works
for our manure haulers. They need a place to go with their
loads, and we want the material. It’s a win-win situation.
In our operation, we don’t accept raw materials from
individuals. We tried that and found it unmanageable. We only
deal with contract haulers or municipalities. By doing that,
we have total control over when materials are delivered (almost
always during normal business hours) and what is being delivered.
If there is a problem with a load, we know who brought it.
If we get trash or unwanted items, we know right where to
go to fix the problem. With private individuals, we had no
control. Commercial and municipal haulers also generally carry
insurance in case there are issues with property damage or
Once you get a recipe that gives you a C: N ratio of about
30:1 (so the rows will heat up nicely and not give off odors),
have all your materials lined up and have an approved location,
you’re off and running. We’ve grown our operation
to the point where we now use a custom-built
compost turner. (We fabricated it with the expert help
from our neighbor John Brubaker.) But that’s a whole
Like Dick Yule, we make a premium product: rich, black and
well-cured. We don’t screen and bag ours like Dick does
for his garden-center customers, but then that’s not
our main business. Our fields don’t care if we have
a few lumps here and there.
However you compost, don’t overlook the need to build
relationships with anyone who supplies materials to you. Clear
communication, a watchful eye and an appreciation by suppliers
for what it takes to make good compost will benefit you in
producing a high-quality product and in growing your enterprise.
From One Farm to Another