A chicken farmer in Kentucky started making compost with its poultry litter as a base in 2010. Today, Charlie’s Compost is sold in 36 states.
BioCycle January 2014
About 50 tons of compost were produced in 2010. Initial customers were vegetable farmers in the area, according to Lynch, a graduate of the University of Kentucky who serves as the company’s chief scientific officer, sales manager and vice-president. There was a time when consumers were generally reluctant to use poultry-litter-based compost, due to concerns about odor, pathogens and the fact that applying too much can “burn” plants, Lynch notes. “Even though chicken litter is a really valuable ‘product,’ the market wasn’t ready for that type of organic product. So we wanted to make a value-added product and make it more user-friendly.”
Some experimentation was required to come up with the right recipe to produce high quality compost. “For us, it’s all about quality and consistency; things have to start out right to end really well,” she explains. “You have to have the right balance and prep the ingredients before they go into the pile, so it starts off in the best possible condition.” Lynch adds that in recent years, “the market started to turn and there has been more consumer demand,” with the increased interest in growing and buying organic foods helping to fuel steady sales growth.
Launching the compost business was made easier by the fact that Mann already had a Bobcat, tractors and trucks on-site for use in the poultry operation. The largest expense to start composting was acquiring a Mighty Mike compost turner from Frontier, which has since been upgraded to a model PT-130.
For carbon sources, Charlie’s uses straw, hay and corn stalks purchased from local farmers, and wood shavings and sawdust from a local mill. “Our cost for ingredients is relatively high for the industry,” explains Lynch. “One thing that sets us apart from some of the other composting operations in the area that are using chicken litter is that we have tried to be very ‘intentional’ about the product — not just what material is easy or cheap but what is going to produce a high quality compost.”
The litter and other material are piled in 225-foot long windrows on a compacted clay pad. Typically six to eight are built at one time. To set the composting process in motion, Charlie’s uses beneficial microbes supplied by Midwest Bio-Systems in Illinois. During the 8- to 12-week process, the material is initially turned daily, then less often as the compost matures. Regarding temperature, “we’re looking for a heat spike at the beginning, to make sure the pathogens are being killed,” she adds. Charlie’s does not compost during the winter season. The material is considered finished once the internal temperature of the pile has returned to within 20 degrees of the ambient temperature, and, more importantly, when the carbon dioxide level is below 4 percent, Lynch says.
In 2013, Charlie’s Compost produced and sold about 300 tons of compost, in amounts ranging from 2-pound bags to 2,000 pounds in bulk form. Most compost sales to date have been to consumers and retailers in and around Kentucky, although Charlie’s Compost has been registered and sold in 36 states, with the help of one distributor, Indiana-based Bloomington Wholesale Garden Supply. The compost is also sold on-line through Amazon.com in 10 lb and 25 lb bags. A Facebook page is used to spread the word about the merits of quality compost. In its advertising and marketing materials, Charlie’s uses the slogan, “Beyond fertilizer. See and smell the difference.”
The focus on premium quality ingredients has paid off, Lynch adds. “We’re a fairly young company, but we have seen that customers can tell the difference in a quality product.” The most effective marketing tool has been offering free, 2-pound sample bags of compost to prospective customers at trade shows and other venues. Doing so has helped the company convey its message “through word-of-mouth, organically — no pun intended,” she says. “When it comes to marketing, the biggest thing for us is getting the products in growers’ hands so they can use it on their tomato plants or whatever they value. If they try it, we will have a customer next year, because the product will perform.”
Educating gardeners and growers in the region has been a gradual process. “There is a lot of compost out there, of varying levels of quality,” Lynch notes. “There are many people who only recognize N-P-K values, so trying to explain the benefits of organic matter and beneficial microbes can be a bit much. That’s why sampling the product can be the best way, so they can see the difference. We’re starting to see customers become more knowledgeable as compost is becoming more mainstream.”