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 containment
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 materials.
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
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 other story.
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