The Biz

There are many roads to prosperity, but most folks don’t think of dead farm animals and livestock poop as particularly promising raw materials. One local firm, though, is building a booming business helping the state’s agricultural industry turn these and other organic waste byproducts into sweet, loamy compost that slashes costs while helping protect the environment.

Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks: Advanced Composting Technologies is making a living out of dead animals. Pictured is the hot, steaming compost rendered from deceased 500-pound sows. Courtesy Act

Advanced Composting Technologies began life as Mountain Organic Materials back in 1998, President Keith Warren explains. The company was created to handle the sawmill wastes of the Candler-based WNC Pallet & Forest Products Co., a partner in the business. Bark was turned into mulch, and sawdust—mixed with manure from a local dairy as a nitrogen source—was composted. But backyard methods don’t work well on a large scale, and even using a front-end loader to mix and turn the compost, it took months to produce the finished product.

“We said, ‘Man, there’s got to be a better way,’” Warren recalls. “So we found an old feed mixer the dairyman had and we pulled it out of the junkyard and rebuilt it, and we turned it into a mixer for the sawdust and manure. Then he had an old tractor he was ready to turn in; we bought the tractor, rebuilt it and used the tractor to turn the feed mixer.”

But it was still taking four months to jump-start the composting cycle. So Warren started reading and had a eureka moment that would forever change the company’s direction and scope. Forcing air through the compost via pipes underneath feeds the oxygen-dependent microorganisms—greatly increasing the temperature of the compost and maximizing other biological aspects of the process.

The change whittled down the active composting time to around 35 to 45 days while producing a premium-quality compost, says Warren. In fact, the technological innovation is a major reason the company was recently honored by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce (see The Biz, Feb. 27 Xpress).

“That was such a unique concept to composting that we applied for a patent for that part of the process,” notes Warren.

Back to the earth

Five years ago the business moved from Crowell Dairy Farms, where it had been operating, to a Wilkesboro, N.C., poultry farm. Up till then, Warren says his firm was producing about 1,000 cubic yards of compost a month, strictly for the Asheville market. “We could not keep up; we had more orders than we could fill,” he recalls, adding that his customer base of landscapers, contractors and homeowners was enthusiastic about the product. “People loved it.”

After tweaking and perfecting its methods over a period of several years, however, the company—which changed its name to Advanced Composting Technologies in 2005—took the plunge into large-scale commercial applications, focusing on agriculture. A primary focus became the state’s large hog- and poultry-farming operations, which are known for being highly polluting. Using manure as fertilizer is nothing new to farmers, but ACT’s approach helps them get rid of dead animals (“mortalities” in industry parlance).

Although composting carcasses wasn’t unknown in the industry, the main disposal method was, and remains, incineration. Expensive due to ever-rising fuel costs, it’s also polluting. Advanced Composting Technologies’s method, now being used by a number of hog, poultry and other animal farms across the state, mitigates both concerns to a considerable degree.

“Forced-aeration composting technology is the most dependable, reliable, economical and environmentally sound method I have ever seen for handling poultry mortalities,” says District Conservationist Ron Howard of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has partnered with ACT on several projects.

Chuck Stokes, who owns Little Creek Hog Farms in Ayden, N.C., says he used to spend about $80,000 annually on diesel fuel for his incinerators; that expense is now down to $20,000, thanks to a forced-air composting system from ACT that runs on electricity. The farm, one of the more environmentally astute swine operations in the state, also features a system that turns the washed-out wastes from hog houses into potable water for livestock.

Warren says the company went whole hog on livestock-carcass composting after the Wilkesboro poultry farm contacted ACT and asked for help. “They had tried composting in the past, but because it wasn’t designed specifically for them, it leaked and it smelled and it mostly worked anaerobically. [The carcasses] just rotted, and nobody liked it,” says Warren. The company spent a year at the Wilkesboro farm modifying its existing system to compost the dead animals and also coming up with building designs that the company now constructs on-site with the help of subcontractors. The success at the Wilkesboro poultry farm sparked interest from the large hog industry in the eastern part of the state.

While the emphasis now is on organic farm wastes, the system could easily be modified to handle any number of commercial and municipal organic wastes, says Warren, adding that his company will probably move into those areas in the coming years as it seeks to expand outside the state.

“I think we are … probably the only forced-air composting company that focuses specifically on animal agriculture,” notes Warren. “Now, does the composting process work in other areas? Absolutely. It would work for food wastes at the Biltmore Estate. It would work for a landfill to do organics, or for restaurants that want to get rid of their food wastes. Anything that’s organic will compost.”

Meanwhile, there’s still plenty of growth potential left in agriculture alone, Warren maintains, adding that soon the state may allow farms to sell the compost rather than just spread it on their land. Although animal farmers have taken heat for the polluting wastes their operations create, today’s farmer, whether large or small, is becoming much more environmentally savvy, he maintains, whether by choice, to satisfy legal requirements or in response to pressure from environmental groups.

The state’s hog industry—the second-largest in the nation—is responsible for massive fish kills and widespread water pollution from spills or hurricane-driven flooding of lagoons and spray fields. In 1995, for example, an eight-acre hog-waste lagoon burst, spilling 25 million gallons of manure into the New River. The spill killed about 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing. A subsequent state ban on the construction and expansion of lagoons and spray fields remains in effect, while environmental groups and scientists at N.C. State University and elsewhere continue to educate farmers and offer technological solutions for mitigating pollution.

And whether farmers are being forced to “green” their operations or simply do it on their own, says Warren, “They’re just getting extremely creative and a lot more environmentally conscious than they were 20 years ago.”

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