Entrepreneurs turned around a failing mulch grinding business and today operate several composting sites in the Houston, Texas region.
BioCycle October 2014
Although Houston, Texas based composter The Ground Up (TGU) has only been in existence since 2010, its line of high quality soils, compost and mulch has helped make it one of the area’s fastest-growing companies. With three locations in the Houston metro area, TGU was recently named to the Houston Business Journal’s Fast 100 List.
In 2010, Luis Chamorro and Andrew Jobe attended the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association Expo in San Antonio. They faced an exciting challenge: Take a Houston business that had a failing mulch grinding model and turn it into a thriving composting company. They had been recruited by Ceres Environmental, a Minnesota-based company that has been in the wood recycling and disaster recovery business for over 30 years, to turn this failing business around. At the time, Ceres’ Houston site was using a large piece of land to receive wood waste, make mulch and primarily supply resellers in the area. While at the Expo in San Antonio, Chamorro and Jobe envisioned how to turn this operation into a one stop shop concept that specialized in high quality and high performance organic products, targeted commercial contractors, and served and supplied the end user and not the reseller. After jotting notes on some blank beverage napkins and getting excited about what was happening, The Ground Up brand was born.
“Andrew was finishing an entrepreneurship program at the University of Houston and I had four years of sales and marketing experience,” recalls Chamorro. “We were recruited to come up with a new concept. My main purpose was to bridge the Latino markets and open doors in the retail and commercial markets. Andrew was hired to do analytics and product sourcing. We didn’t have experience in composting or in the industry. We were the new kids on the block — which in this industry just happens to be the best way to describe who we were and how we were perceived!”
They hired Soil Food Web, based in Oregon, to assist them in developing the composting component of the new company. “Andrew traveled to Oregon where he spent weeks training and learning techniques about composting, and the ins and outs of the biological chemical properties of compost,” explains Chamorro. “I stayed in Houston developing the business and lining up clients as well as analyzing our market and client base. Today, Andrew is Director of Business Operations and I’m Director of General Operations, directly managing 25 employees and all the new marketing strategies for TGU. The company is privately owned and thanks to our investor [owner of Ceres], we’ve been able to develop the concept to where we are today.”
The original The Ground Up location operates on 26 acres of land in northwest Houston. TGU opened a second production site in Katy, and has a third location in Memorial Villages that serves as a nursery/sales hub for commercial contractors and retail sales. About 90 percent of the green waste received is from area landscapers, in the form of leaves, grass cuttings and tree debris. In total, The Ground Up processes about 200,000 cubic yards (cy)/year. The company charges a tipping fee of $2 to $5/ cubic yard. TGU also receives preconsumer fruit and vegetable waste from a produce supplier in the Houston area. “Preconsumer food waste is what allows our product to be called Handcrafted Vegan Compost,” says Chamorro. “TGU only composts vegetative waste and fruits and vegetables.”
Using a CBI horizontal grinder, the material is reduced to a “chunky” texture, using a 6-by-9-inch screen “to get good air flow in the piles,” notes Jobe. The grinder is transported to the Katy site as needed. Material is composted in windrows roughly 150 feet long, 25 feet high and 60 feet wide. In addition to the vegetative food waste (which also provides moisture to the starting mix), several types of additives are blended with the green waste — green sand (mineral deposits left in Texas by prehistoric seas), large-grain angular sand and also “expanded” shale, a porous, lightweight material that is similar to but more stable than volcanic rock. To expedite and enhance the composting process, microbial inoculants are added, including molasses and seaweed.
Materials are composted for over 12 months; a front-end loader is used to turn windrows about every four months. Material is then ground in a Diamond Z tub grinder, screened to 1.5 inches, and cured for another three months. Finished compost is screened to three-eighth inch using a Komptech MultiStar screen.
For the most part, TGU’s composting facilities have not had problems controlling odors, except when “we have a lot of rain, which can cause the fruit juices to float away, instead of getting absorbed in the windrow,” notes Jobe. He’s found that the key to controlling odors is containing the leachate that comes from the piles of composting material. “We cover the leachate with our 1.5-inch ground material to soak up the moisture,” he adds. “Once all the leachate has been soaked up, that material is folded into the compost pile.”
End products sell for an average price of $25/cy in bulk. “Our primary market is Houston for bulk soils, mulches and packaged products,” says Chamorro. “We have expanded with our packaged products into Austin and San Antonio and are creating an aggressive sales strategy to penetrate Dallas, and surrounding Gulf states. We use a Hamer bagging system.” Packaged products are now sold by 70 retailers in the Austin, Houston and San Antonio metro areas. One of TGU’s most effective marketing tools has been social media, particularly Facebook. “We have just under 6,000 fans, which is pretty good considering we are over 80 percent commercial [customers],” he adds.
TGU sells seven different soil blends for landscaping and gardening. Some blends are designed for water conservation. The product line also includes a cactus and succulent blend, and one for growing citrus and other types of fruit trees. TGU also sells “super nutritious,” vegan compost, fortified with water-soluble, microbial foods like kelp and molasses, and humic acid.
“We have a wholesale nursery where we can do research and determine what works and what doesn’t,” Chamorro says. “We also work with horticulture and sustainability experts at the University of Texas at Austin and the Houston Arboretum, when fine-tuning or developing new products.”
Dan Emerson is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.