Communities throughout the United States are implementing recycling programs to extend the life of the nation’s waste management facilities. Green waste programs have been a centerpiece of those efforts for decades. However, until recently, many green waste programs have only focused on the collecting yard and wood waste material efficiency with the majority of profits coming from disposal costs. Today, savvy composting facilities are flipping that old business model by incorporating technology and science to create renewable energy and nutrient-rich compost that can be sold at a premium price.
At the Balls Ford Road Composting Facility in Manassas, Virginia, construction is underway on a new advanced aerobic composting system. When completed in 2020, the facility will be able to process over 80,000 tons (72.6 mT) of organic waste per year, turning it into compost, soil products and non-synthetic fertilizers. The operation is a public-private partnership between Prince William County and Freestate Farms, LLC, a local organic waste recycling and agricultural services and production company.
Freestate Farms operates the Balls Ford Road Composting Facility and is responsible for financing and building the facility. The first phase of the construction project, currently underway, involves advanced aerobic composting technology to speed up and optimize the composting system. When complete, the system will automatically control the flow of air through concrete aeration floors to maintain optimal aerobic conditions in the piles and control odors.
In the second phase of the project, Freestate Farms will construct an anaerobic digestion system for processing food waste in a fully enclosed airtight tank to produce methane-rich biogas and fertilizer products. Then in the final phase, the organic agriculture company will use the material it produces to generate energy and grow produce for the local area.
“It’s taken several years of planning to get to where we are today, but when it’s all complete, people will get a first-hand look of what can be done through a robust recycling program,” said Jeffery Morton, operations manager for Freestate Farms. “All of the work and knowledge we’ve gained along the way is being incorporated into this system. The quality products that we’re able to produce and distribute right now are what makes building a more advanced facility a viable option.”
Focusing on the end-product
Freestate Farms took over operations at the Ball Ford Road Composting Facility back in 2015, but the newly formed business brought many decades of composting experience with them. Currently, the Freestate Farms facility takes in yard waste from approximately 150,000 households and 8,000 local businesses. The facility has a permitted capacity of 50,000 tons (35.4 mT) per year but are presently handling around 30,000 tons (27.2 mT) tons of material annually.
Incoming material is comprised mostly of yard waste like grass, leaves, tree limbs and some food waste. According to Morton, processing, handling and screening are vital in creating quality end products. “Incoming material gets run through our grinder, then stacked in windrows and turned regularly to make sure there are adequate oxygen levels,” he said. “That part of the process usually takes between 6 to 8 months. After that, we screen off the larger material, leaving us with nutrient-rich compost and soils that are used by growers and consumers. The larger material is then turned into dense nutrient mulch or added back into the composting piles.”
The experienced team at Freestate Farms understands how the material that is screened has an impact on its value and what someone will pay for it. “Screening takes time and is often viewed as a bottleneck in the composting process, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” explained Morton. “After trying several different models of trommel screens on the market, we discovered that the Vermeer TR626 trommel screen was the right fit for our operations. It’s convenient to operate, reliable and consistently produces no matter what the moisture content is outside.”
Freestate Farms invested in its fourth Vermeer TR626 a couple of years ago and is anticipating adding another soon. “When we’re thinking about adding a machine, we look at the purchase price and production rates. We’ve always found that this Vermeer trommel produces more per hour than any other machine in its price range,” Morton explained. “We consistently produce close to 65 yards (59.4 m) per hour. It’s also efficient with fuel and easy to maintain, which helps keep our running costs low.”
Sam Morton, Freestate Farms trommel operator and site manager, said the TR626 is convenient to use, and it does a fantastic job of removing unwanted material from the finished product. “It outperforms anything I’ve operated before. Also, replacing and swapping out screens is pretty darn easy to do, too,” he explained.
Balancing equipment costs and operating expenses helps Freestate Farms manage its fixed expenses. Of course, fixed expenses are only part of the equation. Composting facilities need to have a demand for the products they are producing. Jeffery and Sam Morton both give the TR626 high marks in that department.
“Word-of-mouth has driven up demand for the compost we produce,” said Morton. “Businesses and homeowners know we produce an excellent product, so we never find ourselves in a spot wondering what we are going to do with all the material we take in. Instead, we hustle every day to try to keep up.”
The public-private partnership formed between the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and Freestate Farms is benefiting everyone in the community. “Having a good partner is important for business success. We have that with the county, and with the companies who supply the equipment we use to produce compost,” said Morton.
“One of the first calls we made after taking over operations in 2015 was to Vermeer All Roads Recycling & Forestry Specialist Steve Zaicko,” added Morton. “Steve set us up with the grinder and helped us fine-tune our process. Since then, we’ve added more Vermeer equipment because of the fast and reliable service we received from Steve and everyone at the Vermeer All Roads dealership in Manassas. Steve is knowledgeable about our business and our equipment needs. It’s partnerships like this one that are helping us get to where we want to be.”
Building for the future
The processes and machinery Freestate Farms employ today is helping them prepare for future operations. By continuing to tweak methods and consistently producing quality compost and soil products, the team will be ready to take on more in the future. In just two short years, the Balls Ford Road Facility is expected to double its processing capabilities, handle a broader range of organic waste, increase the county’s recycling rate by 30% and significantly extend the life of the local landfill.
The future of composting looks fruitful, and organizations like Freestate Farms are leading the way.
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