How to start an urban compost business in the city – Urban Agriculture Summit Conference

Yeah so in terms of what we do so I own
a company called Veteran Compost it started in 2010 long story short if you
want to hear the sad story we can go to Whitlow’s and get two beers at lunch and
I can crying it for ya well what happened is I got out the army after
several years of doing counter explosives not a lot of counter explosive ID work
in DC luckily our streets are clear got to find something else to do so I was looking around
at sustainable businesses in agriculture and discovered composting so
two-thirds of what’s in every trash truck in America every day going by it
could be composted so a huge amount of raw material huge demand for the end
product and luckily at the time in 2010 not a lot of regulations and rules kind
of teach yourself and jump on in the business so that’s what I did started in
2010 was a one-man show so it was me and started it first we started in July
of 2010 between July and December of that year made $350 it’s not profit
that’s too little revenues it’s probably the worst producing farm in North
America for six months so lots of bills starting out when we made $350 we
could have brought scratch tickets so I ended up taking a job so you know it was
working got the thing going and after 18 months we pulled pulled up and and broke
even and we’ve been profitable ever since so since then we’ve now grown with
15 full-time employees we operate three facilities one in Northern Virginia and
Fairfax County one in Harford County of Maryland and we’re building one
in Rambo County Maryland so those three facilities we have 10 trucks out
every day collecting food scraps and delivering compost so what our business does
is we go around that residential and commercial customers and collect their
food scraps we provide the bins we pick them up
we dump out the compost bins we wash them and then we take all that material
and compost it and we do everything from seven gallon bins on people door steps to
dumpster quantities out of healthcare accounts so everything in between
so if you want me to name-drop later we can do that too we had lots of
well-to-do customers Google so what we do then is the finished compost that’s
what we’re really in it for is we make this great finished organic compost and
a bunch of different compost blends that we market to agriculture
we are approved for organic farming so by footage the largest potential or say
the largest portion of our product goes to organic and urban farmers we also
sell a lot to homeowners and landscapers but mostly to farmers so that being said
and by the way I have no agricultural background I grew up in Columbia
Maryland in Howard County in the burbs so very close to the mall you know I’m
not an ag guy by background so okay so the seven things I had that were
written down here so number one is are you sure you want to do this so it’s not
about wearing flannel shirts and drinking out of mason jars like which a
lot of people we’ve hired over the year with environmental science degrees think
that it is this is really really hard work it’s really not well paying as you
think and it’s just really really hard work so you’re gonna get into urban
organic farm or any conventional farming just understand what you’re getting
into and maybe you should listen to your friends and family who are saying maybe
do something else maybe I should listen so along with that is I’ll say this is a
problem across a lot of sustainable farming and urban farming is don’t be
ashamed embarrassed or afraid to make money okay
so part of being a sustainable farm is being financially sustainable and seven
years of doing this and delivering the farms unfortunately a lot of our
customers from seven years ago are around and some of them aren’t because
they had a lot of altruistic views about the world which is great we’re all gonna
save it together but you gotta pay the bills to keep the farm going so if
you’re getting into this you really need to be as much about business as you are
about farming so that was my biggest thing so if you ever want to read a book
Gary Hirschberg a guy that started in Stonyfield Yogurt wrote a book called Stirring it Up
costs turnout his theory is very similar to mine if you’re in sustainability and you
make a bunch of money people will see that and they will get a sustainability
so you can become this person that draws people in so if you’re in urban or
organic farming or conventional farming you’re driving a sweet car everyone’s
gonna say I need to get a set of urban farming that’s where the sweet cars are
just saying so this film don’t be afraid to make money because financial
sustainability is important as any type of sustainability number two is grow
crops to make money so the first like three years I was in business my dad
called my farm the laboratory because we were like tinkering with stuff we’re
making mistakes trying to figure out the right products and processes and
equipment and make all those mistakes we’re really small but at some point you
got to figure it out so the first year or two that you’re farming if you want
to try 30 different varieties of stuff cool but after a while you got to find
what works so I have an urban farm in the area that they grow like 30
varieties but they’ll admit after a couple beers that they really make all
their money on hers so herbs are what pay the bill the other stuff is really
cool and they know that and so they make sure the herbs get watered intended
first every morning so just know what makes money and make sure those crops
you know your reevaluating them year to year you know in our example we used to
sell live compost worms and we discontinued that product line because
we figured out it wasn’t part of our core business and it wasn’t high margins
and it was a live product it bag of worms doesn’t sit well in storage they
kind of die so they’re real on the shelf stable product that has low margins and
it’s not part of our core business we had to discontinue that so if you want
more improve we’re all over it but worms themselves we don’t sell a couple other
Nuggets here there’s a fine line between hoarding and keeping things until you
need them around farms just being aware there’s a lot of
things we keep we’ve organized it and boards and pieces of metal and tools and
someday we’ll need that and then at some point you get a constant reevaluate
maybe you were getting a little over there I’m not affording so you know be
aware the food was great that’s one of things I was gonna mention is
the last thing I’ll say is just um you know trends are really important in
agriculture know what’s out there and what’s trending so ethnic food is a huge
one cut flowers or really big edible flowers microgreens in our
line will work you know we create products to serve those emerging types
of farming so we make the micro green mix we are making soil mixes for cameras
rollers you know we’re looking for ways to make value-added products out of
soils which on the produce side you make value-added product to make more money
and on the soil side you can do the same thing so be aware of the trends and
don’t be afraid to hit your wagon to that because there’s you know ways to
make better margins than that and then finally the last thing I’ll say is like
I said it’s as much of business as it is about farming so I went to a farming
conference out in Austin Texas a couple years ago to speak and on the bus ride
from the airport to the conference bunch of people in car parts and hats and no
one talked about nutrition for chickens no one talked about their hay fields no
one talk about anything farming related everybody was telling stories about how
much they were making per part of the chicken so it was like it was a business
conversation the whole bus ride how much you getting for chicken feet oh man you
got a lead finding those that make earrings on Etsy
I gotta find a lady like that too and so the whole conversation was all about how
to squeeze a couple more pennies at every bird on the farm so when you’re
doing this just remember this is a farm business and you got to make money to
stay in business we hire veterans and so where do you
find them right so the company’s called veteran compost obviously my branding is
super original and well thought out right very literal so yes most of our
workforce actually all of our workforces either veterans or family members of
veterans so in DC all of our staff in this area we have seven employees that
work indeed the DC area are all veterans we’ve done I mean short of grabbing
people off the street and bringing them to work we’ve done everything but that
but um we’ve done Craigslist as a lot of veteran outreach and then a number of
our employees have come from Easter Seals has a program for veteran they
called the Veteran Staffing Network and so we’ve worked with Easter Seals and we
send them job listings and then they find candidates for us so typically you
know a lot of our hires I know Carly mentioned hire for personality you know
that’s how we do all our hiring as we bring people out for a four-hour trial
and I give them cash I don’t know if it’s illegal I might be in trouble whatever
so we bring everyone I’ve ever hired what I do is I recommend this for anyone
in farming is everyone has I love this work I love it it’s great outdoors what
we do is we bring it right out for four hours you get whatever the hours
ranges in cash at the end of the four hours and we’re gonna try out and what I
do is and I typically walk away and I learn long I let them work with the
other employees on things and I let the employees give me feedback are they
gonna fit our culture are they actually hard-working when I walked away they get
on their cell phone starts smoking butts or they actually Dublin down working
hard so that’s what I recommend to is for all the people you hire is try them
out first but better and staff in network we’ve probably gotten five or six
people from there and then Facebook Facebook employment ads are free right
now so our last hire can’t be a Facebook we put that out and it kind of went out
to the universe and we got someone through that as well but you know for us
veterans have ended up being a good a good fit obviously I started
the company because I didn’t have a job so I’m trying to pay that back and you know
when we talk about hiring for personality I’m hiring for the
intangibles no one has a degree in composting it doesn’t exist so I got to
train everybody how to get it and I’m gonna train them the way I wanna train them
that’s fine so I’m looking for someone’s gonna show up on time they’re gonna work
hard they’re not gonna break my stuff they’re generally not going to steal
from me you know and stay out of trouble so you hired for the personality that we
trained them to do what we need them to do

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