By Isaac Bonnell
Not all compost is created equal, but in one form or another, Whatcom County sure does produce a lot of it.
From backyard bins to full-scale commercial operations, more than 25,000 yards of compost is produced locally each year, enough to fill about 1,600 dump trucks.
Smit’s Compost and Green Earth Technology, both located in Lynden, are two of the most prominent composting facilities, and each one produces its own kind of compost. One is manure based and rich in nutrients, while the other is made of woody debris and food scraps, making it ideal for erosion control and fluffing up heavy soils. Both are in high demand.
“The market for compost is larger than what we’re producing here,” said Stephanie Harvey, co-owner of Green Earth Technology. “Very little of our material gets shipped out of the county.”
As backyard gardeners emerge from another dreary winter to tend to their flowers and veggies, Nathan Smit is working like a busy bee to meet customer demand for his compost.
“We’ve come a long way from where we started,” Smit said, adding that single-bag sales have increased dramatically. “Last year we sold between 7,500 and 8,000 bags and we’re in all the Haggen stores around the county.”
Smit is usually at work by 6:30 a.m. to turn piles of compost and load the delivery truck, then it’s off to make deliveries. From April to June, when most gardeners are tending to their soil, Smit said he averages seven deliveries a day. He often doesn’t come home until 8 p.m.
“I’m up early and I work late,” he said. “But in the winter months I can cut my hours and take a break. That’s the cycle of agriculture — it’s a tough business to be in, but it’s a nice lifestyle. You get to use your hands and be outside.”
From cow to compost
For more than 40 years, the Smit family has operated a dairy on the edge of Lynden. Nathan, who is in the third generation, is the first to branch out from the dairy — but he didn’t go far. Smit’s Compost is located just across the street from the 500-cow dairy operation, where Nathan gets all of the raw materials for making compost.
Smit takes the manure, which is mixed with fir wood shavings, and compresses the liquid out of it. The liquid then gets stored in a holding tank before being sprayed as fertilizer, and the solids are laid in 80-foot-long rows for composting.
Mother Nature does most of the composting work. Smit just has to turn the piles regularly to make sure the microorganisms that are breaking down the material get enough oxygen.
“I’m not doing anything special, I just keep the piles aerated,” he said. “You have to keep it aerobic, otherwise you’re not composting. It will still decompose without oxygen, but it won’t make a good compost. It’s not complicated, it’s just that there’s a lot of it.”
As the biological processes break down the manure and wood shavings, the pile heats up to about 135 degrees, killing any pathogens and seeds that may be in there. Steam rises from the younger piles, which are lighter in color and still smell of manure.
By the end of the three months that it takes to make the compost, the piles are a deep brown color and have lost about half of their original volume, Smit said. And unlike the starting ingredients, it doesn’t smell.
“There’s one simple way to tell if a compost is good: It shouldn’t stink,” Smit said.
Food scraps and yard waste
No cows are necessary to make the compost at Green Earth Technology, but if you recycle food scraps and yard debris through programs like Food Plus! Recycling, then you are part of the process.
“We receive 14,000 tons of yard debris and food scraps a year,” Harvey said. “If you have a commercial collector picking up your food and yard waste, it’s coming here.”
All of that raw material is chopped up into smaller pieces before going into the compost pile. Normally woody debris takes longer to decompose than manure and food scraps, but Green Earth Technology uses a special system to speed up the process: The compost is covered in Gore-Tex.
“Most people are wearing it and we cover our compost with it,” Harvey said. “The fabric allows composting to take place outdoors with minimal odor and with temperature and moisture control. And the higher temperatures that the Gore laminate allows you to get up to makes the process go quicker.”
From start to finish, the composting process takes eight weeks, and each pile gets turned three times. Harvey uses probes placed in each pile to monitor the temperature and oxygen levels. When the oxygen level drops, a computer kicks on fans that blow air into the compost pile. With this system, temperatures in the pile soar above 180 degrees.
The end result is a product that can spruce up any flower bed, loosen up heavy soil and help with erosion control, Harvey said. For that reason, the compost is popular for environmental remediation projects and rain gardens.
“A fair amount of our material goes out for road restoration projects,” she said. “It’s more for erosion control than for nutrient added value, but it’s a bonus that you get both.”
For Harvey, composting is more than just a good business — it’s a way to reduce the amount of material we put in landfills.
“There’s still a lot of garbage that is being railed out of the county,” Harvey said. “We need to educate homeowners about what can be removed from their garbage for composting. Composting allows us to take 30 percent of our ‘garbage’ and turn it into something we can use. From the sustainability end of it, it takes all of us to make it work.”
Learn about backyard composting
The WSU Whatcom County Extension office offers free, one-hour classes on composting at its demonstration site near the Bellingham Clean Green Transfer Station and the intersection of Lakeway Drive and Woburn Street.
The next available composting classes are scheduled for July. For specific dates or to sign up, call Joyce Jimerson at (360) 676-6736 or visit whatcom.wsu.edu/ag/compost/
The WSU Whatcom County Extension office also offers a 10-week course on composting and home sustainability issues called Carbon Masters. The classes first started 13 years ago as a composting and recycling class, but have expanded this year due to increased demand.
“I’ve done this for 13 years now and it’s night and day from when I first began,” Jimerson said. “People realize how important it is for the whole life cycle of the soil. It’s what keeps our water clean.”