Ag Choice hauls, depackages and produces animal feed and compost. Founders Jay and Jill Fischer embrace new opportunities, and then figure out how to maximize efficiencies and profitability.
BioCycle September 2016
The housing bust in 2008 hit the sawmill hard. “We made the difficult decision to close the sawmill, and literally a day later, we got a call from a national waste management company asking if we would sign a contract with them to accept commercial organics,” recalls Jay Fischer. “We haven’t looked back since.”
The original Ag Choice composting facility was on a roughly 4-acre farm-based site. It started out with a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) assignment, which exempted Ag Choice from having a much more costly Class C solid waste permit. Initially, the RD&D was issued to Ag Choice to show it could compost food scraps, manure and yard trimmings in outdoor windrows on compacted soil. (The Class C permit for these types of feedstocks requires composting in an enclosed building on a concrete floor.)
“Our original RD&D permit was for 10,000 cubic yards (cy)/year of organic materials,” notes Fischer. “We were limited to preconsumer food scraps. Today, we are located at a larger, 8-acre site in Andover, New Jersey, and are permitted — still under an RD&D assignment — to take in 38,000 cy/year of materials, including pre and postconsumer food scraps and all proteins such as meats, dairy and seafood. Our current research focus is odor control, and we are planning to also evaluate options for storm water management.”
Ag Choice started out with a pull-behind Midwest Bio-Systems (MBS) windrow turner. The Fischers, and Matt Hillsdon, their composting site manager, took the MBS compost training course, and follow the practices of adding clay and other ingredients to their composting recipe to optimize the microlife and trace nutrients. In 2012, the company replaced its MBS turner with a pre-owned Komptech Top Turn 4000. “It doubled to tripled the volume we could do with a pull-behind turner,” notes Jill Fischer. “Windrows are 8-feet tall, 14-feet wide and about 250-feet long.” The composting process is 10 to 14 weeks, from raw feedstocks to stable humus, she adds. Windrows are turned on a defined schedule from commencement through completion.
The most recent addition to the composting site is a pre-owned Komptech Star Screen, along with two Hurrikan air classifiers to remove plastic from finished compost. The Komptech replaced a small Screen USA star screen that performed well, but “we outgrew it,” says Jill Fischer. “The star screen is electric-powered and runs off a diesel generator. It can process 200 cy/hour of compost, and gives us the capability to fill big orders.” Ag Choice only sells compost and blended soils in bulk, and supplies landscape contractors and area garden centers for retail sales.
A New Chapter
Over the years, Ag Choice expanded the range of food waste it processes, especially from food processors. “We kept getting calls from packaged food companies wanting to know if we can take their off spec or out-of-date products,” explains Jay Fischer. “We tried lots of ways to manually depackage these feedstocks, but there is no way to unpack them by hand and make it profitable.”
Then, in October 2011, the Fischers received a call from a consultant to Nestlé Nespresso U.S.A. “The consultant asked if we were familiar with Nespresso, and I said, ‘yeah, sure’,” says Fischer. “Nespresso was looking for a facility to recycle its used coffee capsules, which is part of its commitment to creating shared value. As soon as I hung up, I went on the Internet and learned that the capsules were aluminum, and contained coffee grounds. Jill and I discussed this opportunity and decided to say yes. I am the quintessential entrepreneur and knew I could find a way to make it work.”
The second step was to identify and purchase a piece of equipment that could break open the capsules and separate the aluminum from the coffee. While researching options, Fischer found a You Tube video of a Scott Equipment Turbo Separator. He contacted Scott Equipment, and sent samples of the capsules to depackage. “It worked,” recalls Fischer, who collaborated with Nespresso to purchase a unit. “I designed the line that feeds the Turbo Separator.”
Nespresso offers pre-paid recycling bags free of charge for customers in 48 states to mail back used capsules to be recycled. Those customers can bring their bag filled with used capsules to any UPS drop off location, Nespresso boutique, or select retail partner. Once capsules are collected, they are sent to Ag Choice where the aluminum is separated from coffee grounds. The coffee grounds are turned into nutrient-rich compost and topsoil and the aluminum is processed and sent back to the value chain to be reused to produce new products. “We receive thousands of pounds of capsules shipped each day from consumers or collected loose at Nespresso boutiques and transported in bins,” notes Fischer. “In addition, Nespresso sends us unused coffee capsules in their original packaging that are off spec or past their sell-by date.”
The sorting and processing line that Fischer built includes a feed-fill bar that empties both bagged and unbagged capsules on to a conveyor that moves them to a sorting line with four employees. The first person on the line slices the bags open; the remaining sorters empty the bags and remove them from the line. Capsules are conveyed to the Turbo Separator equipped with adjustable paddles and screens under the rotating paddles. The paddles hit a breaker bar, which ruptures the capsules open. Coffee drops through the screen and the subsequent set of paddles push out the clean capsules. The coffee is processed at Ag Choice’s composting site.
“I just designed a bag opener that Scott Equipment is currently manufacturing,” says Fischer, who has no formal training in mechanical design, but “has a knack for it.” The bag opener will significantly increase productivity on the processing line and eliminate the possible safety issue posed by slicing bags open by hand.
With the warehouse and a depackaging line, Ag Choice is able to accept greater quantities of packaged food that was not salable (e.g., damaged, recalled, past the best-by date, etc.). This includes dry foods such as bakery products (including mixes, flour, sugar), cereal, pasta, rice, cookies and candy, and wet feedstocks such as flavorings, fruit fillings and chocolate syrup. The wet products are poured into larger containers and transported to the composting site, where a water truck can apply the liquid to the windrows prior to turning. Liquid can also be added during pile turning through a hose and spray nozzle on the turner.
Ag Choice collaborates with the Sussex County ARC (SCARC), a local organization serving people with developmental disabilities, to employ four to five people who take apart the packages of unused coffee capsules that are sent to the warehouse by Nespresso to be “destroyed.” Workers open the boxes, and manually separate the capsules from the cardboard boxes and packaging and prepare them for processing through the depackaging machine.
Almost all of the packaging that comes into the warehouse is recycled, including the bags used to ship the coffee capsules, all the boxes that contained the food, etc. The recycled capsules are sold to George’s Salvage in Newton, New Jersey, which in turn bales and markets them. “Because the capsules have a very thin layer of plastic to preserve the freshness of the coffee, the bales are sold as a low grade aluminum,” explains Fischer.
Ag Choice has 15 employees, spread out across the organics collection service, the warehouse and the composting site. “In the last 6 months, our business has just exploded,” notes Jill Fischer.
“We have haulers bring in test loads of materials they want us to process, and we gauge the level of contamination and determine whether we will accept it,” explains Jay Fischer. “And when we get a phone call asking what Ag Choice’s allowance level is for contamination in incoming loads, we say zero. Usually if they have to ask, it isn’t a customer we want.”
Ag Choice will continue to grow and innovate in ways of processing organics. “Our next project is to utilize a combination of compost and natural wetlands to control composting site runoff water,” he adds. “Long term, I would like to install a digester and produce enough power to run our warehouse, office and compost facility.
Looking back on the past two years, the Fischers note that partnering with Nespresso was a good move for Ag Choice. “Nepresso is great to work with,” says Fischer. “The company doesn’t just talk about being green and recycling. Nespresso is doing it and is into it. For example, the company works closely with its coffee growers by supporting the development of environmentally sustainable coffee farming practices and contributing to expanded economic opportunities for them in the long-term. And Nespresso truly treats us like a partner. Our definition of a partner is it works well financially and is not all about the other company. Corporate culture is very important to the success of these relationships, and with Nespresso, their culture is about the people. In turn, the benefits of our partnership trickle down into our community.”