June 25, 2024 | Business+Finance, Composting, Food Waste, Operations

Composting Facility Acquisition Creates Growth Opportunities

An entrepreneurial team in Albuquerque is scaling operations to process greater volumes of food waste and chipped wood to meet market demand for compost, soil blends and mulches.

Top: Soilutions is located on a 14-acre site in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dawn Dewey (left) and Trishelle Kirk (right), owners of Soilutions (inset).

Nora Goldstein

In January 2021, Dawn and Justin Dewey purchased an Albuquerque, New Mexico composting company, Soilutions, which was founded by Jim and Karen Brooks in 1996. While neither Dawn nor Justin had professional composting experience prior to purchasing Soilutions, Dawn had plenty of exposure to it growing up as her father, Steven Glass, operated the City of Albuquerque’s municipal composting facility for many years. The Deweys also are avid backyard composters.

“My husband and I are entrepreneurs, and we were looking to get into our own business,” explains Dawn Dewey. “Justin is more technical and worked in the solar industry and I bring significant marketing and sales expertise as the former Chief Marketing Officer at Dreamstyle Remodeling, one of the nation’s largest home improvement companies which had grown from $20 million to $200 million in annual sales during my decade-long tenure. My father is friends with the Brooks, who mentioned to him that they were retiring and were looking to sell their business. I asked to be introduced, and we ended up acquiring the company!”

Soilutions is located on a 14-acre site. Prior to the acquisition, the facility was operating at a smaller scale, utilizing static piles. Currently, incoming feedstocks include yard trimmings, land clearing debris, tree trimmings, manure and preconsumer food waste from food manufacturers and grocery stores. The site receives a small amount of postconsumer food scraps from a microhauler servicing residential and commercial customers in Albuquerque.

Opportunities To Scale

Soilutions’ compost, soil blends and mulch can be ordered online, with residential driveway delivery. Photos courtesy of Soilutions.

One of the earliest opportunities to grow Soilutions’ sales after the acquisition was to improve consumer accessibility to the compost products, which previously were sold in bulk to primarily commercial customers. In 2021, the Deweys launched an e-commerce store to enable homeowners to order Soilutions’ bulk compost, soil blends and mulch online for driveway delivery. Next, a partnership was established with a local landscape supplier to carry their bulk products at five locations throughout the metro area.

Soilutions’ sales grew from around $700,000 in 2020 to $2.2 million in 2023. However, tripling the size of the company in three years came with myriad growth challenges. “Demand outpaced supply for the first time in the company’s history,” says Dewey. “We couldn’t keep products in stock.”

In Fall of 2023, Dewey recruited Trishelle Kirk to join the company as an owner and partner to tackle production expansion. Kirk had just finished a tenure as the CEO of one of New Mexico’s largest cannabis companies after leading them through a successful acquisition. Kirk brought significant expertise in scaling an operation quickly and efficiently to Soilutions. Dewey and Kirk determined that shifting to a different composting method to optimize compost manufacturing efficiencies was needed to accomplish their growth goals. In January 2024, Soilutions began the process of transitioning its compost manufacturing methodology from passively aerated static piles to an aerated windrow system. The company purchased a used windrow turner from the City of Albuquerque’s water department.

The additional production capacity will enable Soilutions to triple its compost production while improving the quality and consistency of their final compost products, notes Dewey. It will also provide the capacity to recycle approximately 12,480 tons of food waste and 23,000 tons of green waste annually. “Twelve months at full production levels in the aerated windrow system will divert the same amount of organics as Soilutions diverted in the prior 27 years combined,” she says. “Our goal is to build two windrows a week and get to 30,000 cubic yards (cy) of compost manufactured per year. Key is sourcing the necessary inputs.”

To that end, strategic partnerships with sustainability minded grocers, food producers and lumber companies are critical. Soilutions is actively pursuing expanded landfill diversion partnerships throughout the region. It recently secured partnerships to receive and compost food waste from all local Whole Foods Market® and WALMART® grocery locations. “We currently receive about 100 tons/week of food waste,” says Dewey. “Our focus is on bringing in as much preconsumer food waste as possible, both for contamination control and moisture. One large food manufacturer we service sends us loads of chili peels.”

Windrows are turned with a used turner purchased from the City of Albuquerque’s water department.

Composting Logistics

Incoming food waste is currently unloaded onto a “carbon pad” made from ground green waste, tree trimming chips and manure. A loader is used to blend the material and add it to a windrow the same day. With the shift to turned windrows, active composting is roughly six weeks, with the required number of turnings to meet PFRP requirements (Process to further reduce pathogens). The compost is cured for 60 days.

Soilutions had been receiving ground wood from a nearby pallet manufacturer but the dryness of the chips (3% moisture) makes it a challenging amendment. “The chips absorb all the moisture, and with our arid climate, that is a challenge,” explains Dewey. The company is considering applying for a U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovations Grant to assist it in servicing contractors that are clearing out trees in nearby forests. Grant funds could be used to procure a grinder.

The company uses a triple-deck screener which yields a clean mulch product, compost and overs. It sells a variety of soil blends and mulch products, along with compost. Enriched topsoil currently sells for $69/cy; premium garden soil retails at $98/cy. Compost is $58/cy.

Reflecting on the past three years as a compost manufacturer, Dewey notes that when they acquired Soilutions, they didn’t have a sense of how equipment heavy the business is. “A large percentage of our profits go back into buying more equipment,” she says. “We are trying to get a handle on what the future capital expenditures will be, and the level of investment required. Down the road, we may need to get into hauling and will likely need to procure a grinder or shredder. To date, we’ve used commercial bank loans to help finance the acquisition and equipment purchases.”

Continued growth is planned and expected, including vertical integration and regional expansion, through a combination of new sites and additional acquisitions. The company expects to achieve $10 million in annual sales by 2026, according to Dewey. “We are just scratching the surface in terms of growth opportunities for Soilutions and this industry on the whole, for both landfill diversion and compost product sales.”

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