By Malcolm Beck
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the February 1997 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. We republished it in 2018 in memory of Malcolm Beck, who passed away and was an important figure to Acres U.S.A. and to the world of agriculture.
When I got into the compost business, it was by accident. I made my living working on the railroad. Our farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, although it was a good place to live and raise our family. Besides the usual farm crops and animals, we raised vegetables, up to 20 acres some years, and did it all organically. Our fertilizer was lots of manure gathered from our and the neighbor’s cow pens. We always kept a few big piles around.
A visiting friend who was a landscaper spied our manure piles and pestered me until I finally sold him some. We loaded it by hand using manure forks. He paid me forty dollars for four yards. I got to looking at that money and thought, Gosh, that was much easier than spreading that manure in the field and plowing, disking, planting, cultivating, irrigating, harvesting, then going to the market and letting someone else dictate the price. Then it struck me, Why don’t I sell compost?
But I soon learned that at that time, few people, including farmers, knew was compost was. Next, the landscaper’s mother wanted some compost mixed with sand, then his uncle wanted compost mixed with sand and topsoil. Soon word got out that I had manure mixed with sand and/or soil, and here came the landscapers. I was forced into the soil mixing business. It wasn’t long before I used up all the rotted manure. Then I had to use manure that was still raw to make the mixes. I explained to customers “this stuff may be hot,” but they bought it anyway. One day, I made a delivery to a woman who operated a small nursery. She grew shrubs in big containers and I noticed her containers were free of weeds, while other nurseries always had a weed problem. I complimented her on the good job she did weeding, and she replied, “Malcolm, you soil/compost mix never has any weeds in it.”
Soon word got out that I had a weed-free soil, sand, and manure mix. Then I had to buy more trucks and tractors.
Keep it Simple
Every living thing will sooner or later die. When it dies, it is going to rot whether you want it to or not. Composting is the art of working with the decay process in an economical way. If you are thinking of setting up a large composting operation, you need to determine the best ways of making sure your product is good and your operation in set up in a profitable way.
Trucking will be you greatest expense. You can minimize those costs by using all the organic materials available in your immediate area. Find out what resources there are nearby. Is there a feedlot? Are there horse stables? Is there a food processing plant in your area? You can make compost with all manure or almost no manure. Take a close look at the prairie or the forest floor. You will learn Nature uses very little manure to help compost all the carbon materials she deposits there each year. You will never get in trouble composting or using a high carbon ratio compost. High-percentage manure composting requires a little more art.
Study Nature to master the art. Study the books to understand the sciences.
The regulatory agencies—the EPA, the water commission, or the health department in your area—will probably have rules about what you can and cannot do. Most of them will be sensible and have a good reason behind them. Some will appear stupid (and may be), but you still have to abide by them. Don’t fight the agencies; they can make your life miserable. Instead, become friends with them. They can be a big help to you, and usually will be. Many times over the years, the water commission, air quality people, or the aquifer water authorities were out inspecting, visiting or following up on a complain at my compost operation. I always answered their questions honestly and showed them more than they asked to see. I would give them a full tour. A lot of the time I would ask them for advice. A suggestion from one agent saved me more than eight thousand dollars in taxes in one year alone.
Dealing with agents was usually pleasant. Once, a new neighbor moved into the area. Even though she was a mile away, she got a whiff of some turkey manure being unloaded one evening. As soon as we opened the doors the next morning, an air quality agent was out quoting me the rules I was violating and the fines I would receive. This guy was new in the department, and he was really going to throw the book at me. I calmly invited him for a tour so we could find the problem. I explained our composting methods and all the materials we saved from landfills. After about thirty-five minutes of answering his questions (he seemed very interested), I took him back to where I figured the smell originated. I explained that the load had to sit in the truck in the heat a long time. Because of mechanical problems, the truck couldn’t be unloaded. As a result, the manure did stink when we finally got the truck working.
He said, “Mr. Beck, I don’t smell anything.” I said, “Yeah, but it really stunk when we unloaded it.” He repeated in a louder voice, “Mr. Beck, I don’t smell anything,” so I dropped the subject and started driving back to the office. The agent remained quiet for some time before he spoke. Then he said, “You know I do have to write this up.” I immediately though, “Uh-oh, he is going to get me now.” When he spoke again his words were real comforting. He said, “The way I am going to approach this is, with the standard of living we have today, all of us create a lot of waster and that waste has to b e recycled, and it is not feasible to haul it great distances to do the recycling. As a result, we all have to learn to put up with some of the unpleasantness of the recycling process.” Boy, did I ever agree with his approach. I haven’t heard from him since. And my respect for the authorities is holding strong.
Selecting a Location
Perception is reality. Try to find an out-of-sight location. People smell with their eyes and on suggestion. I spoke to a fellow who operated a compost yard for a small town. He said when they announced in their daily paper a compost operation was being proposed at that location, the very next day they were getting odor complaints from that area.
Nobody wants to smell or look at someone else’s waste. When people put out their garbage, they just want it to go away. Their reply is usually, “Not In My Backyard!” There is no way that can happen. Anywhere you go you will be in someone’s backyard.
Way out in the desert of West Texas, miles and miles for the closet neighbor, there was a court battle when a company wanted to dump a thin layer of sludge over soil that desperately needed it. It is the same anywhere you go. I visited with the sewer plant engineer of a little town up in Canada. He told me they were composting their processed sludge with yard trimmings and selling it to the citizens at a fair profit. But the town was outgrowing their little five-acre yard. They bought some acreage a few miles out of town that they planned to expand. Before they could get started, the neighbors, although none were really close, were screaming, “Not In My Backyard!” They decided to move the plant out another five miles and ran into the same thing. They kept going out and out until they were fifty miles from town and still met stiff opposition. The last I heard, they still had not found a location that wasn’t in someone’s backyard.
I know of a private composter up in the state of Washington that has a compost yard in the middle of a town with homes, apartments, and buildings all around him. He does an excellent job of composting, and foul odors are rare, even though he is composting sludge and tree trimmings. Still, when a new neighbor moves nearby, there is usually an odor complaint as soon as the new people discover what he is doing. He told me that some people smell better with their eyes than with their noses. On my first visit to that compost yard, the owner/operator was not there, so I decided to place a call to the regulatory agency in his area.
When the agent came to the phone, I asked him if he was aware of that compost operation in the middle of town. He quickly replied, “Yes, I have been watching him, and I am getting ready to shut him down,” then he hung up. I mentioned this to the operator and he got a big laugh. He told me the agent was his biggest supporter and had gotten so tired of explaining and even arguing with some citizens that he quickly cuts them off with an answer that most of them want to hear.
Cities and towns will probably set up compost operations near their landfills; the zoning is correct and neighbors should tolerate it. Private composters will have to search far and wide for a site because of the NIMBY syndrome. Start looking near your raw material supply; you may be more readily accepted there. At least try to find a location between supply and there the product will be sold because of the tremendous cost of trucking. Also try to situate downwind if there are or will be neighbors.
After the location is acquired, design for ease of operation and flow of traffic around the yard. Studying and speaking with operators of other compost yards remains tremendously helpful.
The pad is extremely important. My first compost yard has been my only real problem. It was not graded with the proper slope of 1 to 2%. We put down six inches of hard limestone base, but the soil under it was not stabilized. If I had removed the topsoil, it would have been much better. After a few years of heavy truck and tractor traffic, the limestone started sinking in areas and rising in others. Soon I had large puddles of water after rains, which we had to soak up with scarce dry sawdust or pump out. Also the uneven surface made it hard to operate loaders. They were either digging into the pad and getting limestone rock in the compost being loaded or leaving too much material remaining on the surface. This is a constant problem, and hard to correct one the operation is in business, because it would mean shutting down for a while. Do it right to start with. Highway engineers who build roads in your area can give advice on how to stabilize the soil at your location.
Plant lots of big evergreen trees around the site. Trees stop noise and dust, trap blowing trash, slow the wind, and hide the operation. They also give your yard a landscaped look and stop people from smelling with their eyes.
My newest compost pad was built by a road construction company. They stabilized the soil using lime at the rate of 6% thoroughly mixed in ten inches deep, then we topped that with three inches of fly ash, a by-product from a coal-burning power plant. The fly ash was watered and rolled the same as you would treat limestone. At first I was worried that it wasn’t setting up hard like limestone, but with time it finally did. So far the fly ash is holding up well. It was a big savings over limestone or any other surface I could have used; besides it is a recycled product that goes with the theme of our new research and recycling park.
The statement from the young air quality agent that checked on my smelly turkey manure was so correct. With our standard of living we all do create a lot of waste. We can’t make it disappear. It has to be recycled, and at a location near where it is created. The recycling has to be simple and economical and at times there will be the unpleasantness of noise, odors, traffic and dust. Most people will live a safe distance from the nuisance of their waste being recycled. However, those near enough to experience any unpleasantness should somehow be compensated. I would think cutting property taxes to the degree of nuisance being tolerated would be a fair way. And the citizens who don’t have it in their backyard could pick up the difference. Even if science did some day discover a way to just make what we consider waste, disappear, Nature would still demand that we recycle for our very survival.
Always start with a good supply of dry carbon materials. Carbons can be stockpiled, but wet nitrogen material can’t because it will smell bad and draw flies. Start the pile using two parts carbon to one part nitrogen and see how it works. From there, you can make changes—either more carbon or more nitrogen. If the pile doesn’t heat but smells and draws flies, you have too much nitrogen. Add more carbon. If it heats and doesn’t smell but works too slowly, you may want to add more nitrogen. Either way you need to keep experimenting until you get the feel for the right proportions. Remember, composting is an art, and like any art it can only be mastered with practice.
I believe in keeping it simple, efficient, and economical. Try static piles before using windrow turners or some expensive in-vessel methods. It is best to study Nature. Do what she has been efficiently doing since the beginning. The static pile is very efficient. Very little moisture is wasted.
We make our piles 10 to 12 ft. high. They can soak up our annual rainfall of 29 inches without any leaching out the bottom. We usually turn the piles after big rains. The compost reheats and drives off any excess moisture, making it ready for the next rain. We seldom have to water our compost piles. The large size retains the moisture that comes in the material being composted, so we don’t even have to water when the pile is first made. If your materials are dry to start with, you must wet them while they are being ground or mixed. You cannot thoroughly wet a really dry pile from the top. It has no capillary attraction, and the water will run straight down and puddle on the ground.
In the early ‘70s, when I decided to make compost for sale, someone told me you needed to make windrows. I tried windrows, but it didn’t take me long to learn that all I was doing was drying the material out. Once it was dry, it was always impossible to get uniform moisture in it again. Building static piles and turning them only four times has been my composting method ever since. The secret to static composting is to be sure to keep the carbon a little on the high side. I have never tested, but I believe it is around 30 or 35 to 1, or possibly higher. The next most important thing is to make sure the pile is fluffy and not packed down.
An operator from Kentucky visited me one time and said static piles would not work where he lived, although he admitted he had not tried them. He was using forced-air windrows. Two years later I was in his neighborhood. I stopped in for a visit and noticed that he had abandoned his forced-air and changed to my method. He said the static piles were much more efficient than his old way. I have never seen or heard of static pile composting failing, but I have visited or consulted with numerous windrow operations that failed, were failing, or could be doing better with static piles. In almost every case, the operators were not able to keep adequate moisture in the windrows. I know of one operator in East Texas where the annual rainfall is around 60 inches. He composts yard trimmings. He started with windrows, but has now changed to the static pile method.
I am not ruling out windrow turning machines. They do a good job of blending and drying out materials that are too wet. I even intend to buy one someday to dry out materials so they will screen faster during the wet seasons. They would also help dry materials down so we can get greater volumes on the big trucks without overloading when we ship long distances. Another place windrow turners come in handy is around some feed-lots where the manure is so caked-up in big, hard chunks that it has to be broken up. They might also be helpful in some of those areas where there usually isn’t bulking carbon material around to raise the carbon-nitrogen ration and to fluff up the pile.
Keep it simple. Don’t let salesmen talk you into buying equipment you do not need. I see this happen way too often. Visit compost operations similar to what yours will be, using the same feedstock, in the same environment, annual rainfall, evaporation, etc. Find those that have been in operation for a few years. Learn from their mistakes, they usually like to talk about them anyway.
Two gentlemen came to me once and sad they had some money saved. They asked if I would bet mad if they went into the composting business in a location near one of my distant outlets. I said I would not only not get mad, nut I would even purchase all their finished compost for that outlet, which was 70 miles away. I could save on transportation costs. I invited them to see exactly how I was making my compost. They would be using the same raw products I used in almost the exact same environment—no way they could foul up. I suggested the type and size of equipment they would need and even helped them secure a lease on some property near their raw material supply. I also assured the landowner and neighbors there wouldn’t be anyodor or fly problems.
Months went by and I hadn’t heard from my new friends. Finally a call arrived. Could I come up? They were having problems. On the drive up, I was wondering what kind of problems they could be having. My instructions to them were so simple. All they had to do was to put the stable bedding—which already had a perfect carbon-nitrogen ratio of wood shavings, hay and manure—into a big pile. It already had enough moisture to get the composting action started. It was fluffy enough to get oxygen and never go anaerobic. And they already had a loader to turn the pile after each rain.
Upon arrive I found a disaster. The flies were unbearable. I have never seen flies so bad anywhere in my life, and I didn’t see any big compost piles. They had bought wrong equipment and were doing just the opposite of what I told them. Instead of static piles that would conserve moisture, they made small windrows which quickly lost the little moisture in the stable bedding from the urine and manure. They didn’t pick the glass bottles and other trash out. The windrow turner broke it up into little pieces, so now they couldn’t screen it out. They then had to pipe in water from a distance at a big expense. They had purchased leaky pipe to try to wet the small windrows, but the material was so dry it was hydrophobic (resisted wetting). The water just ran straight down through the windrows to the soil and created the perfect environment to grow fly larva.
I asked them why they tried another method to compost rather than my proven way. They said they bought some compost science books and wanted to make a better product in less time. Had these two gentlemen not bought the books, or at least not tired to apply the science until after they learned to make compost, they would be in business today.
If you have tree trimmings to grind, check into hiring someone to do the grinding. There are many grinders around that need extra work to keep the machine and crew busy. Grinders are designed to destroy things and, in the process, they are continually self-destructing. You will quickly discover they are expensive to operate. If you decide you need one on-site for daily grinding, again talk to someone who has owned and operated one for a year or longer. Most popular brands are advertised in magazines like Biocycle. You can call the dealers, and they will direct you to long-time owners and operators.
I have owned three different kinds of grinders. One they quit making. The second was a good machine, the manufacturer stood behind it, but it was too small. The third was a good machine that I really liked, but I can’t recommend it. Neither the factory nor the dealer would back it up when there were problems. If you have large branches and tree stumps to grind, get one that has bullet bit teeth or knives to do the grinding. They are much more efficient on big stumps of eight-inch diameter and larger. You can’t grind big logs by beating on them with hammers. We use two-inch screens in the grinders for making mulch and composting. The product comes out three inches to fines. The finer particles compost fast; the larger particles keep the static compost pile fluffy and well aerated so less turning is required. After compost is completed, the large material can be separated with a screen, and you then not only have compost but all size materials to be used to for lawn dressing, bed preparation and a dark, partly decomposed mulch that is excellent and feeds the plant while mulching.
Use three-phase electricity on all stationary equipment such as small grinders, screens and conveyors. High-voltage electricity is the most efficient, trouble-free power source there is. The next best choice is equipment with air-cooled diesel engines. Even some of our tractors have Duetz air-cooled engines; they are very fuel efficient and dependable. We started with coolant-cooled engines and spent too much time blowing the radiators free of trash. Air-cooled engines eliminate 40% of maintenance problems. We demand them on all new equipment that’s used around blowing leaves, grass, shavings, etc.
All-wheel drive, articulated loaders are the only way to go. Small, rear-wheel drive tractors, such as used on backhoes, are useless for loading. The front wheels, where the load is, are too small. With the load on the front, the weight is raised off the rear wheels, causing them to lose traction. But is is nice to have on of these tractors on the property with a box scraper or weed and brush shredder to use as the need arises. Start with a small loader if finances and needs are low. Purchase a larger—3 to 6 cubic yards—when needed but keep the small loader. It will come in handy to load small trucks. It is always good to have a second loader in case one breaks down.
If your loaders are only to be used in composting, you can enlarge the buckets since the compost material will weigh half or less as much as the dirt, sand or rock they were designed to handle. We add 4 to 6 inches to the cutting edge and 6 to 10 to the sides and top. This increases the volume by 30 to 50%, enabling that much extra work to be accomplished each day.
We use large, 6 cubic yard tractors and only turn four to five times, depending how fast we will need the compost. It takes about six to eight months from start to finish. A good operator can easily make about 80 cycles (pick up, turn and dump) per hour at 6 cubic yards per scoop. That comes to 480 cubic yards per hours and costs about ten cents to turn a cubic yard. The loaders used for turning have good resale value and many other uses around a compost yard. They also have a lot less down-time than a windrow turner. If the material to be composted is full of bottles, Styrofoam cups, and other trash, it will have to be picked over first if you are using windrow turners. They will break everything up into small pieces that can’t be screened out. Turning with loaders won’t break up trash and it can easily be screened out of the finished compost.
During my first seven years in business, I didn’t use or own a screen. The day I finally got a screen, the demand for our products doubled and we soon doubled our selling price. Screened material looks good; unscreened materials may be of the same quality, but it looks trashy. Screens do more for quality appearance and sales than any piece of equipment salesman you could employ. It costs very little to screen materials. We kept records one month and the electric bill was less than ½ cent per cubic yard. We convey the screened material direction into the trucks, which we found to be another savings. Some of our trucks are too high for tractor loading and would require loading ramps. When trucks are continually loaded from the side with loaders, they soon get banged up and start looking trashy and cheap. Screening materials directly into the trucks before each delivery has other advantages.
Leaving screened materials in stockpiles too long has caused problems. It tends to lump together, trucks and tractors run over the edges and pack it, or it gets contaminated with other materials while being loaded. However, some materials screen too slowly to have trucks waiting, and you will have to do some stockpiling. We now have eight screens, three of them are trammels and the rest are vibrating.
Why so many screens you may wonder? We need them. We screen different products to different sizes, and we operate three different locations. We don’t want trucks waiting for a screen. All of our screens were purchased used. Some we had to redesign, others we repaired, and some we built with mostly used materials. However, we have four screens on order—all trammel with stainless steel screening mesh. We make all kinds of mixes, including some with a high percentage of clay, which tense to tick to the wire. We learned that rusty wire holds product to it. Stainless steel is always slick and shiny, product sticks for a while, builds up to a point, then breaks free exposing slick wire. As needed we are replacing all of the screens with stainless steel. In some cases efficiency was increased as much as 300%. With some products, however, it didn’t make much difference.
I visited a compost operation that was just getting started in a big city. The operator had already purchased a monster-sized screen that cost well over $200,000. I considered it a poor design. I hope the operator had a good plan and it was not another case of letting a salesman design his operation. All eight of our existing screens didn’t cost nearly that much. The four trammel screens we have on order are my design and are being built in a friend’s welding shop. When they are completed and in operation, the cost will be about $36,000 each.
Perception is reality. A clean, screened product, free of rocks, roots, seeds and trash is your best sales tool. As mentioned earlier, once we started screening our sales doubled. Many times after delivering to a home owner, a neighbor would see the screened compost or soil mix and order a load. We often sold to three or four people on the same street. Looks will make the first sale, but it takes performance for repeat orders. Success in the garden or an extra-green lawn holds customers forever. Burn up the lawn or kill some plants, and the customers are gone forever. I had a driver load from the wrong pile once and deliver material that was very raw and still smelling. It was a long time before I sold that customer or his neighbors compost again.
Before you waste time and money on laboratory testing, give the product the plant test. Plant seeds and transplants in it. If they grow well, the compost is ok. If they do not do well, then you can get a lab test. Find a recommended lab. Introduce yourself to them and let them know what you are composting and how. And then stay with the same lab. You can’t make adjustments on analysis from two different labs. After you make adjustments, go back to plant testing.
We do a lot of testing by growing. We plant a lot of trees, shrubs, vegetables and flowers. When the test is completed, we use what we can and usually give the rest away to employees, customers and neighbors. It spreads the word about compost and creates a lot of good will. We gain more by giving the plants away than if we sold them. The cost was already written off as research anyway.
Do not have an institution research your products. I did that once, and they destroyed the reputation of that product forever—even after extensive testing that proved them wrong. In order to show they are experts, most institutions will have something good and bad to say about a product unless there is a sizable research grant attached. If a university professor publishes something good or bad, be it true or false, it becomes law.
A Simple Compost Test
To tell if compost is ready, I roll up the sleeve on my right arm and dig my hand into the compost pile up to my elbow and pull some out and smell. If it has a bad odor, other than ammonia, it is not ready. All of the proteins are not yet digested. If you can only detect an ammonia smell, it might be ready. To tell for sure, wash your hand and go to the office or someplace away from the pile and have someone smell both hands. Women who don’t smoke have the sharpest noses. If both hands smell the same, the compost is ready for most uses. Caution: if you stick your hand into a rank pile, the lingering smell is absolutely impossible to wash off. I use tomato juice or salt water. Rub your hands with either until the smell is gone. Even in the compost passes the smell test, you may still need to let it cure for a while if it is going to be used to sprout seeds or in potting mixes. For flower bed preparations, mulching, and spreading on lawns it is ready to use. Let the curing action in or on the soil. That is where Nature usually does it all anyway.
Composting Problems and Solutions
Smells. Odor has no respect for boundaries. The best fence can’t hold it; it even escapes while you are watching. Once it is loose, you can’t catch it or put it back. It generously divides itself among all your downwind neighbors. The only way to control odors is to anticipate and try to prevent them. I have had a few escapes that attracted unwanted attention. I mentioned the turkey manure earlier. It was the only incident that brought out the air quality control people. It was also the shortest and least foul, but it just happened to go in the wrong direction.
The worst odor I created was when I was composting whole onions. I was getting 40 cubic yards per day, six days per week, and I was running out of room and also dry sawdust to blend with them. I was backing off on carbon to save space and also using some wet sawdust. There was no smell until we started the first turning. Wow—was that booger strong! We did finally get it turned by waiting for the correct wind direction.
Whole vegetables are the hardest to compost, even meat products are easier. Vegetables rot from the inside out. They go anaerobic on the inside, but the liquids are not released to be absorbed by the dry carbon until everything is good and stinky because the cell walls break down so slowly. We learned to grind the vegetables first or to grind them with a carbon bulking product. Ground up, the liquids started releasing much sooner and a little at a time so oxygen could enter. We could compost them whole if we used double the amount of dry-bulking carbon and waited much longer before the first turning. There wouldn’t be a bad order, but it took up needed space and time.
Flies. If you compost high-protein materials, vegetable waste or manure, you will have a fly problem in the beginning. We did at all three of our locations. At the first location, the problem lasted almost three years. I didn’t know any better and tried to control flies with non-toxic sprays or poisons in bait traps. This approach just seemed to aggravate the problem. I finally decided to just live with them because I didn’t want to use toxic materials around the compost. Organic growers didn’t like it, and besides, it was costing too much for the little good it did. When I stopped using the sprays the flies started getting fewer and fewer. Their natural enemies such as dragonflies, robber flies and other predators and parasites started moving in. The problem improved, but the flies weren’t controlled as well as I wished until fly parasites became commercially available. I released them around our compost sites for a while, then I decided to go to the main source. I began releasing predators at the stables and other places the manure came from. The operators of these locations soon learned how well the parasites worked and now release on their own.
The parasites deposit their eggs in the late stage of the fly larva or early pupa stage. When some of them arrive in our yard along with the manure, the parasites hatch there and the fly larva and pupae die. Now we seldom need to purchase and release parasites.
At our newest and largest compost yard, it took less than three months to get the fly problem well under control. We started immediately with the parasites at our location and the new places we got the manure from. The parasites alone couldn’t do the job completely until help came from the dragonflies and swallows that came out in droves every evening after they discovered the good hunting around our piles. The retention pond offered water to go with their meal of flies.
A few flies around a compost operation are necessary. You shouldn’t, even if you could, eliminate them completely. A few flies keep their natural enemies coming around and the ecology stays in the balance. The flies also keep the compost piles well inoculated with numerous species of the necessary decomposing microbes they are able to carry from place to place.