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Interview 02
Compost Business Basics

Pearls From The Pile Series
Starting a Compost Business – What Does It Take?


Transform Compost Systems
(British Columbia, Canada)

On January 7, 2012, we interviewed John, from Transform Compost Systems, about his compost business. Transform Compost Systems is located in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Tranform was started for two simple reasons, John saw a need for the recycling of organic waste and our “soils need it.” As the company name implies, there is much more to Tranform Compost Systems than just making compost. Instead, Transform provides a complete set of products and services for any organization looking to design, construct or operate waste management and composting facilities.

Our interview consisted of six questions, each with the intention of providing you with greater insight into the basics of running a compost business. We hope you enjoy.

This interview is also available as a pdf – Download PDF now

Q1. Please tell us about yourself, and provide some general information for our visitors about your compost business.

A. I grew up on a dairy farm alongside Hwy # 1 in Abbotsford, British Columbia. As I would be spreading manure from our cattle onto the land and watching the cars go to and from Vancouver, I remember as a 14 year old thinking that the soils in Vancouver need this stuff as well. It took me a few years to figure out how to do this, which included obtaining a PhD in soil biochemistry from the University of Guelph in 1991, and subsequently working for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for seven years. I started Transform Compost Systems in 1998, because I saw that we need to be recycling our organic waste – the soil needs it, and we need to recycle it in a socially, environmentally and economically acceptable way.

Currently, there are a number of different parts to our compost business. One part of our business makes compost for resale. We have a contract with our local community, the District of Mission, to compost their curbside food waste and yard waste. We also work with the agricultural community to produce high quality composts for lawns and gardens for clients in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. We also have a small worm farm and sell worm castings and composting worms.

The other part of our compost business does design and supply of composting equipment for others. Designing a compost facility starts with understanding who is doing the work for you – it’s the bacteria. The rest of it involves understanding how best to keep them happy in a way that is socially, environmentally, and economically happy. The answer to that depends on what is being composted, how much, where the site is in the world and relative to the community, and the goal for the end product.

The last part of our business involves training, review of compost facilities, and regulatory processes. I authored the Compost Facility Operator Manual together with a colleague two years ago in response to our compost operator training course. This was a fun process because we got to learn about how others were composting around the world.

“Composting and recycling organic waste
is one of the most important jobs in the world.
We need to understand that life on earth only exists because
of the organic matter in our soils. We have lost 50% of this worldwide already. We need to do what we can to recycle our organic waste into the soil to maintain our soil organic matter – and life. Love Dirt!”

Q2. Who is your ideal customer? Why?

A. Our ideal customer is anyone who understands, or is willing to learn about the importance of our soil organic matter, and the role of composting and compost in that. For example, from the compost sales perspective, we have produced compost products that change the way that we manage our lawns – we can have a fantastic lawn with very little work and no chemicals. How cool is that? From the compost system and design perspective, our ideal customer is one who wants to work through the importance of the design process with us – working to achieve the solution that is right for them.

Q3. If someone wanted to start a compost business, what are five important factors they must consider during the planning stages of their business?

A. To answer this question, I am going to focus on the compost part of the business development. For someone making compost, five important factors are:

    1. Understanding that it will take time to develop and market a quality product. There is a lot of awareness and education that is required to sell compost.

    2. Understand that compost is not soil and that there is a huge range of important qualities. We can produce two different composts that look completely the same, but one will kill a plant within 48 hours, and the other will be a great growing media. The compost that killed the plant within 48 hours may actually be the best compost for lawns and turf. One of the most important qualities to understand in a compost is electrical conductivity (a measure of the soluble nutrients in compost).

    3. Understand what the market needs or is looking for. Sometimes the market needs to be developed first

    4. Understand your material sources and what types of compost they will produce. Some people build a compost business because they have organic waste that they need to process – in that case, it’s a matter of understanding how you can achieve the highest value from your particular material, and what you may need to add to achieve this.

    5. Understand that it’s the bacteria that are doing the work for you, and your job is to keep them happy without spending too much money and without causing odor, water, or air-quality issues.

Q4. When you first started your compost business, what equipment did you use? How did you originally get this equipment (i.e. had it already from other farm activities, purchased it, leased it, etc.)?

A. We started our own composting with a Bobcat track loader, breathable compost covers, and a temperature probe. We are in a high rainfall climate, so we can’t compost without covering the material. We use Compostex covers that work amazingly well.

Q5. What amount of financial capital do you suggest a prospective compost business owner have prior to starting their business? Where do you foresee this money being spent?

A. For a business getting into producing compost, it’s always good to start small to gain an understanding of the business. Composting is a combination of art and science.

Depending on your size and where you are located, you may need upwards of $200,000 to get started. The temptation for most composters is to purchase or lease a windrow turner – it’s the easiest way to get into the business, and windrow turners make fantastic compost. It’s how we first started when I worked for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

It’s also important to learn the environmental and regulatory limitations of the technology choices. So, although outdoor windrow composting may be the least cost way to get into the business, let’s say you want to expand to a 100 acre site. If you live in the rainy west coast, you may need a 100 acre asphalt pad, and the requirement for an 80 million gallon leachate collection pond – so suddenly the costs go up. On the other hand, a five million dollar, completely enclosed composting facility may not be the appropriate solution either.

The key is to understand the composting process, understand the environmental and regulatory limitations in your area, and move forward from that.

Q6. What is unique about Transform Compost Systems?

A. For us, composting is not just about waste diversion from landfills, composting is about how best we can enhance our soils by recycling our organic waste. We approach composting from the perspective of the end product that is going to benefit the soil. We also have a great understanding and appreciation for the microorganisms that are doing the hard work of creating the compost, and strive to provide them with the best environment in a socially- (minimize odors), environmentally- (minimize negative impacts on ground and surface water) and economically-acceptable manner.

Composting is not just the active composting process; it includes the receiving and mixing step before composting, the active composting process, and the curing and screening process.

The composting solutions are site specific and the most important work is at the beginning – working with our clients to understand their waste and what can be produced, how the process can best occur given the waste types and amounts, the environmental and regulatory conditions, and the end goals.

We see so much fantastic potential in the area, so much creative room for new ways to do this better, faster and with less cost.

We are also excited about the whole area of heat recovery and using the heat energy to supplement heat requirements in other parts of our businesses.

We would like to add one more thing that we feel is unique about the Transform compost business – They have fun at work! Check out the two pictures they sent us. “Hey John, is this what lunch looks like every day at Transform?”

Anyone up for a romantic dinner beside the ol’ compost pile?

compost santa

What’s that Santa,
you’re a Compost Junkie too?

That concludes our second interview in our Pearls from the Pile Series on Starting a Compost Business. Once again, we want to thank John and all of the support at Transform Compost Systems for making this interview possible. If you would like to learn how Transform can help you get your composting business off the ground, please contact them directly. We hope you found this interview beneficial and look forward to our next interview in the February.

If you missed it, here is our interview with Tim, from Humble Acres Organics, sharing his wisdom on running a composting business.

Do you have a question for us or a compost producer, please contact us and let us know so we can ask it in our next interview session.

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Until next time…

Peace, Love, and Happy Composting!