Unable to find a desirable job after returning from Iraq, Justen Garrity decided to open a composting business on a Maryland farm where he employs veterans and their family members.
Molly Farrell Tucker
BioCycle December 2013
When life handed Justen Garrity lemons, he decided to make compost out of them. Like many veterans, Garrity wasn’t able to find a job when he returned home from Iraq in 2009, even though he had a bachelor’s degree in information systems from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, five years active duty experience in South Korea, Missouri and Iraq as an officer in the U.S. Army, and many military awards. For the past several years, the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans has exceeded the national average.
Garrity decided to go into business for himself and began researching possible green enterprises. “I looked at a pie chart of municipal solid waste generated in the U.S. and saw that two-thirds of the pie is compostable,” he recalls. “Composting seemed like a huge opportunity, with a big demand for the products on the back end. It made sense from both a sustainability perspective and a money-making enterprise.” He spent several months researching the industry. “I read articles in BioCycle and visited successful compost operators,” adds Garrity. “They were really friendly and showed me around their facilities and opened up their books so I could see what it takes to be profitable.”
He leased an 80-acre property in Aberdeen, Maryland that includes 30 acres of farmland and 50 acres of woods. About 2 acres are used for the composting operation, which is permitted under the Maryland Department of Environment’s general solid waste rule. “I also have a composting license from the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA),” notes Garrity. “In addition, our end products are registered and approved by MDA.” Composting is done directly on the pastureland, with a “pretty heavy amount of carbon put down first to absorb liquids,” he adds. Gravel has been laid down for access to all operating areas on a year-round basis.
Veteran Compost opened for business in July 2010. It was six months before Garrity got his first account — a restaurant signed up to have its food scraps collected. Today, the company has about 20 commercial accounts on a regular route, primarily in the Baltimore/Annapolis Metro Area (the composting facility is about 30 minutes from downtown Baltimore). Customers include schools, hospitals, supermarkets and restaurants that range from small mom and pop stores to large national chains. About 15 tons/week of food scraps are collected (2-5 tons/day with collection 6 days/week). All food scraps, as well as compostable PLA (polylactic acid) service ware, waxed corrugated and food-soiled paper are accepted. “We are not really big on taking compostable utensils because they don’t break down as well as the cups and compostable stirrers and straws,” explains Garrity.
Veteran Compost also collects food scraps at special events ranging from small weddings and dinner parties to music festivals, seafood festivals and corporate events. “We do a few events a week,” says Garrity. “It keeps things interesting because no two events are the same. Our biggest challenge and concern is avoiding contaminants.”
Food scraps are collected from commercial customers in 35- and 68-gallon OTTO wheeled carts lined with conventional plastic liners. A few customers use compostable bags (purchased on their own), which are added to the composting mix. “We swap out clean carts for dirty carts every time,” says Garrity. “We currently use a F350 stake body with a lift gate for collection because it allows us to service our street-level and loading dock-level accounts. We bring all of the bins back to the farm to be emptied and washed. We will soon be splitting our service offerings into two levels — a premium service like we have now where full bins are replaced with bins cleaned off-site, and regular service where we will empty the bins into a more conventional trash truck and the customer is responsible for washing and lining the carts. We have some customers, such as the hospitals, which need and will pay for the premium service.”
Garrity is still shopping for a new truck so hasn’t started offering both services yet. The company is considering both a refuse packer-type truck or a more versatile dump truck with a cane lift. “The dump truck gives us the option of doing compost deliveries before running our collection routes,” he notes.
Veteran Compost has three full-time staff at the composting facility and six part-time salespeople who work off-site. As a way of helping other soldiers, Garrity only employs veterans and their family members. His staff includes a former Army Blackhawk pilot and a Marine veteran who served in Afghanistan. “I get calls every day from veterans,” he says. “It’s a perfect fit because veterans are used to doing hard work.”
Composting And Product Sales
Food scraps and other organics are composted in an extended aerated static pile, with new cells added to the length of the windrow. The composting system was designed by Peter Moon of O2 Compost of Snohomish, Washington. Incoming food scraps are unloaded onto a heavy bed of mulch fines purchased from a local wood recycler, then topped with more fines and mixed with a John Deere 7775 skid steer. “The mulch fines have proven to be a good, clean, reliable source of consistent woody carbon material,” explains Garrity. “It allows us to avoid the huge cost of a grinder, and the headaches of dealing with curbside yard waste. In addition, the mulch fines are on the dry side, so we are very motivated to capture all the liquid that comes in with the food scraps.” Veterans Compost does receive small amounts of horse manure from farms that it knows well. More recently it also began accepting a limited amount of preconsumer food waste from several food manufacturers. The tipping fee is $40 to $60/ton for the food waste.
The aerated static piles are built in the fields surrounding the farm buildings. “The lengths of the windrows vary depending on how fast we keep up with screening,” says Garrity. Finished compost is screened with a McCloskey 407 trommel. “In ideal conditions we can go from crab cakes to compost in eight weeks,” he adds. Veteran Compost purchased the trommel this past spring. Previously, it had been screening by hand with a small electric unit. “When we started using the McCloskey, our throughput increased from 2 cubic yards/hour to 30 to 40 cubic yards/hour,” he notes.
The facility uses 100 percent wind power from Clean Currents for its operations, including the fans for the aerated static piles. Clean Currents provides green energy options to residential and commercial customers in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania.
The compost is approved for use in organic farming. “Our compost contains no yard waste, so it is chemical-free,” says Garrity. The compost and Square Foot Gardening Mix are sold in both bulk and bags. The gardening mix contains one-third compost, one-third peat moss and one-third coarse vermiculite. Product is sold by weight in 20 lb bags or by volume in one cubic foot bags. A variety of compost-based mixes are made, including topsoil blends and container mixes. “We are always interested in value-added compost products to improve our profit margins,” he adds. Veteran Compost delivers the bulk products. “For small orders of less than five yards we use our stake body truck and for orders larger than that, we have a third party hauler handles the transportation,” he explains. The company also sells compost tea bags, worm bins, rain barrels and empty burlap coffee sacks from a coffee roaster.
Customers can buy Veteran Compost’s products from sales reps in Aberdeen, Baltimore, Ellicott City and Severna Park, Maryland, as well as Aston, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. “I call our salespeople the ‘Mary Kay Ladies of Compost’,” Garrity notes. “We keep them stocked with lots of inventory and they either get sales leads and orders from us, or generate them on their own.” The sales reps keep a percentage of each sale for the work they do.
Veteran Compost has the only commercial worm composting operation in Maryland. “We had a stand to sell our compost at a farmer’s market in Philadelphia, and in one morning, three people asked us if we had vermicompost,” recalls Garrity. “That was three sales we didn’t get so we decided to start making vermicompost as well.” More than a million red wiggler worms are housed in a small barn on the farm. The long wooden worm bins were built with lumber found on the property. The worms are watered every few days, and a thin layer of partially composted screened material is laid on top. After a few weeks, a bin is emptied, worm castings are screened out, and the worms are placed back into their bin with a new layer of compost on top.
About one to two cubic yards of vermicompost are produced weekly. Veteran Compost sold out quickly, raised the price by 40 percent, and still sold out, notes Garrity. The company also sells worms, small bags of castings and compost tea on its website. “The whole worm bin project cost us a couple hundred dollars to set up, including the heaters and grates,” he says.
Residential Collection Service
On September 13, 2013, Veteran Compost began collecting food scraps from residences in the Washington D.C. metro area. It was a “soft launch,” explains Garrity, to get experience collecting from households before starting to market the service. “We got into it because we sell a lot of compost in the Washington, D.C. metro area and customers told us they would like to have a composting option. After 50 people asked, we thought there could be some money in it. We are experimenting with collection bin sizes, billing and other variables to make sure that operationally we have everything figured out. It is going well, and we are getting a good feel for the service.”
Currently, households receive a 7-gallon bin that is picked up once a week. A clean bin is switched out for the full one. “Right now, we are bringing the food scraps back to our farm for composting, but by the end of 2013, we will have small in-vessel system housed in a pole barn on a farm in the D.C. area,” he adds. “I am building the unit. It is essentially an aerated static pile in a box. All we really need to get started is a hose for water and a place to plug in the fans.”
Veteran Compost has received favorable recognition for its composting initiatives. In 2011, Garrity was named one of “20 in Their 20s” to watch by the Maryland Daily Record (he is now 31 years old). In 2012, he received the Harford Award for entrepreneurship from the Harford County Chamber of Commerce, and in 2013, the 2013 Green Leadership Award for Commercial Recycling from Leadership Anne Arundel.
The company began turning a profit after the first 18 months in business. Garrity says he learned a few lessons along the way: “It would have been nice to have customers lined up when we opened, and to have a little better equipment, but I was skittish to buy large pieces of equipment. The good news is, I don’t have any bank loans to pay off.”
Molly Farrell Tucker is a Contributing Editor to BioCycle.