June 16, 2011 | General

From Cattle Ranching To Composting

BioCycle June 2011, Vol. 52, No. 6, p. 34
A downturn in the cattle ranching industry prompted a family in south central British Columbia to begin a composting venture.
Molly Farrell Tucker

RANCHERS John and Kate Anderson learned the hard way that turning their hay fields into a biosolids composting facility wouldn’t go over well with some of their neighbors. The Andersons have been cattle ranching in south central British Columbia since 1985. They own about 1,000 acres, lease 3,500 acres from the Canadian government, and privately lease another 2,000 acres.
Cattle ranching had become significantly less profitable in Canada since 2003. That year, the U.S. closed its borders to Canadian cattle after a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad-cow disease, was found in a herd in Alberta, Canada. “It was a devastating blow to the beef industry and decreased beef prices by 40 percent,” says Kate Anderson. “The industry already had pretty lean returns. There was a huge restructuring over the next decade, and local beef producers sold out. This left mostly big ranches that have been owned by the same families for generations or are owned by larger corporations, or people like us, looking for any way to keep going.”
The Andersons began investigating other sustainable ways to keep their ranch. “We had a huge mortgage and our ranch was providing for two families,” says Anderson. “We didn’t want to lay off the family that helped us with our operation, including ranch enterprises, cattle work, haying and everything in between. The chances of them finding another ranch job in our area or any area, were bleak.” The Anderson’s friends, Scott and Carol Fisher were also looking to start a new business. “We began brainstorming with them in October 2007 on ventures that would work for both couples,” says Anderson. “It had to be sustainable, good for the planet and good for the community.”

The Andersons decided to sell off their main herd of 400 cows and 15 bulls, and embark into commercial composting. “The soils in our area are heavy clay, the area gets only 12 inches of precipitation annually, people love to garden here, and everyone needs compost,” she says. They owned 300 acres in Sunshine Valley outside of the City of Merritt which included 240 acres of hay fields, as well as some marginal farming land that they thought would be a perfect site for the facility.
“In Canada you can operate a commercial composting facility if 50 percent of the compost gets applied to your farm land,” Anderson explains. “We had to produce the maximum we could from our hay fields, as the price of chemical fertilizers was going through the roof, and using chemical fertilizers alone did not fit with our vision of being sustainable. The late fall and winter months are typically slower months on ranches, but can be excellent months for composting because there is less evaporation and less wind.”
The City of Merritt was looking for a way to manage biosolids from its wastewater treatment plant, and the Andersons and Fishers submitted a proposal to the city in April 2008. They began applying for permits and hired Transform Compost Systems of Abbotsford, British Columbia to design the composting facility and help get the project going. “Transform was excellent,” says Anderson. “They helped us understand what we needed to do and also recommended equipment to use, some of which we bought through them.”

“Everything was going smoothly, or so we thought,” she recalls. “We were naive.” Approximately 40 high-end homes on 10-acre lots look down on the farm land where the composting facility was to be sited. “We invited our immediate neighbors who bordered our property to a meeting at our house that spring,” says Anderson. “About ten people came, and we showed them a slide show of what we wanted to do and answered any questions they had. We followed with dessert. It just seemed like the neighborly thing to do.”
The remaining property owners who lived near the proposed facility were filled in by some of those in attendance. “Ten or so of the neighbors who weren’t at the first meeting formed a coalition against us,” says Anderson. “Some were heavily lobbying city hall against us and our proposal. There were weeks of letters to the editors in the newspapers that were slanderous and mean. Excerpts of my emails were copied and pasted and taken out of context, and then made into posters and posted on billboards and mail boxes. It was awful. It divided people into two camps, which have not entirely healed to this day.”
Another 30 or so neighbors supported the Andersons. “Two even wrote us a song called Modern Pioneers,” says Anderson. “I was moved beyond words. We had strong community support from Merritt residents also.” In response to the criticism, the City of Merritt opened up the process of awarding the biosolids composting contract and issued an RFP (Request for Proposal) in May 2008.
At that point, the two couples decided to change course. “In the end, we looked at our mission statement, which was to operate an ecologically sound business that would create positive community relationships and satisfied customers,” says Anderson. “We knew we were not meeting our own goals, and looked for an alternative location for the composting facility.”
Their proposal was to set up the facility on a city-owned site near the Merritt Airport where Merritt had been dumping biosolids for the last few years. “We offered to compost the old biosolids as well,” says Anderson, noting it was a solution to an issue the city wanted taken care of and was beneficial to both parties.
That same month the Andersons received an offer from two dairy farming families to buy 240 acres of their 300-acre Sunshine Valley ranch, including the hay fields. “We didn’t know which would go through first, the composting facility or the land deal,” says Anderson. “Neither was certain, so we proceeded with both.” They sold the land first, in July 2008. It turned out to be a good move as the family they had hired to help with the ranch was able to stay on with the new owners.
In July, the Andersons and Fishers also incorporated their new composting venture as The Sunshine Valley Good Earth Company Limited, dba Good Earth Company. In August 2008, Good Earth was awarded a five-year contact to compost the City of Merritt’s biosolids at the city’s site beside the Merritt Airport, including the biosolids that had been stockpiled there.

Transform Compost Systems designed the facility, and the Andersons and Fishers financed and constructed it. They purchased several pieces of equipment including a Supreme 300 mobile EnviroProcessor, John Deere tractor, Caterpillar skid steer, Manitu telehandler loader, blowers to pipe air into the bins and electrical equipment. About 2,000 tons/year of biosolids are processed. One full-time employee works at the facility. The only neighbors are the airport, Valley Helicopter and a resident caretaker.
The Good Earth composts a mixture of biosolids, wood chips, hog fuel, dairy heifer manure from local farms and coffee grounds. “We also add some chicken manure in the winter when it gets cold to bring up the heat,” notes Anderson. Feedstocks are blended in the mixer, then loaded into four large aerated outdoor bins measuring 16-feet wide, 55-feet long and 7.5-feet tall. The rectangular bins were built out of cement lock blocks and placed on a cement pad. The bins have air pipes that provided forced aeration.
It takes 8 to 10 days to fill each bin, which holds approximately 250 yards of material when full. When the temperature reaches a minimum of 55°C, it is kept at that level for a minimum of three days; composting continues in the bins for another 30 days. The material is moved into curing piles for another three to six months. The compost is then screened into various sizes for commercial and residential use. The facility produces about 4,500 yards of finished product annually. “Selling and marketing the compost is a multiyear venture,” says Anderson. “To sell it and promote it in a community that is not familiar with the product takes time. We have seen an increase in sales each year and hope to achieve better sales in our third season this year.”
The coffee grounds come from a pilot project with a Tim Horton’s restaurant in Merritt. It is a collaboration between the owners of the restaurant, Good Earth Company, the City of Merritt, and the Thompson Nicola Regional District (TNRD), the county’s government body. “We all agreed to work together to divert all used coffee grounds from the Lower Nicola Landfill to the composting site,” says Anderson. Each partner contributed financially to the project. (Good Earth does not charge a tipping fee for the grounds.) The TNRD purchased the 4 foot by 8 foot by 4 foot commercial garbage bin being used for the pilot project, and the city’s sanitation department already had a contract with Tim Horton’s to pick up its waste and take it out to the landfill. The bin is pulled twice a month from the restaurant and hauled to the composting site, about 2 miles away. Tim Horton produces about three cubic yards/week of coffee grounds. The Andersons are interested in expanding this commercial organics program but would need to charge for the service.
“We are proud of what we are doing,” says Anderson. “We haven’t hit a home run on sales yet, but the compost is beautiful. Customers using it are giving us excellent reviews and coming back for more. We never did get to put any compost on those original hayfields but we plan to use it on other ranch land we have.”

Molly Farrell Tucker is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.

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