Sussex County organics recycler taps food waste’s potential
Daily Record –
Not all compost is created equal.
Making good compost is an art and science that includes mixing various raw organic materials and controlling conditions without getting too much in Mother Nature’s way, believes Jay Fischer, who owns Ag Choice, a Sussex County company that turns waste into compost.
“You can throw as much money at it as you want, but you can’t beat Mother Nature,” Fischer said. “Soil is a living thing. You pick up a handful of dirt and, you can’t see them, but there’s all these organisms living together in a hidden society that work together naturally.”
Ag Choice is the only state-licensed food waste recycler in New Jersey. The Andover-based company each year diverts about 10,000 tons of raw materials from area landfills, which helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and can reduce non-point source pollution from our waterways.
Fischer runs the company, which has seven full-time employees, with his wife Jill. The couple got their start when they ran a sawmill business with Fischer’s parents and saw an opportunity to start a side business by working with horse farms to turn manure into compost. It wasn’t until he approached the state Department of Environmental Protection about adding food waste into the mix that he became serious about making compost.
“This all started because the DEP said no, that it couldn’t be done,” Fischer said. “I said, ‘Now I’m going to have to do it.”
Fischer developed his appreciation for soil science and learned natural composting techniques from Amish farmers in Lancaster. It took him three years of working with experts from the Natural Resources Conservation Services and Rutgers Cooperative Research and Extension to get the company off the ground. Ag Choice operates under a Class C Research, Development and Demonstration permit issued by the DEP.
Fischer, whose passion for compost can be likened to organic farmer Joel Salatin’s passion for soil, today believes his operation is proof that “you can compost on a small scale, be environmentally responsible and make a profit.”
Trucks from area supermarkets, farms and manufacturing plants daily unload everything from unsold produce, unwanted flavor extract byproducts, animal waste and municipal leaves, all of which are sorted into separate piles on Ag Choice’s 5-acre farm. On a recent visit, red curry tainted by superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters topped a newly formed compost pile and spent coffee beans from a plant that uses them in a mocha drink were underfoot near the compost field’s entrance.
Using a set recipe, Ag Choice lays out the ingredients to create long windrows where the microbes can get to work. At times, a machine turner that straddles the 125-foot long rows churns the piles, which are about 7 feet tall, blending and exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide to speed up the process. This happens every few days based on readings taken to measure oxygen, temperature and carbon dioxide levels. “These tell us what the microbes are doing,” Fischer said.
As the Komptech Topturn 4000 turner worked its way down a windrow in 40-degree temperatures one evening last week, it whipped up a vigorous trail of steam in its wake. Fischer said the temperature of a compost pile is 120 to 150 degrees in its core, where the microbes are hardest at work breaking the materials down.
The whole process of turning the raw materials into stable humus takes about eight to 12 weeks, Fischer said. The finished compost smells sweet and earthy — not what you might expect. “You could eat it and you’d be okay,” Fischer said. “Not that I’d recommend it.”
Ag Choice sells its compost wholesale to landscapers and growers or bagged for sale in garden stores.
While homeowners can make the most of their food scraps and leaves by composting them to create rich soil for their gardens, it makes sense for businesses to do so on an industrial scale because of landfill tipping fees. It can cost about $95 per ton to send garbage to the landfill, so to eliminate wet, heavy food scraps from the waste stream means less garbage and less money.
Among Ag Choice’s waste clients are six ShopRites, including the ShopRite of Succasunna, which last year sent 85 tons of its unsold produce, baked goods, and flowers to Ag Choice, said Santina Stankevich, a company spokesperson. Stankevich declined to say what motivated owners RoNetco Supermarkets to make the switch several years ago, but she said the company is happy to be reducing its waste stream.
A champion of the product is Priscilla Hayes, a materials management and educational consultant, who worked with Ag Choice through the Solid Waste Resource Renewal Group at Rutgers University.
“Recycling food waste makes all the sense in the world,” Hayes said. “People think we live in this ‘Star Trek’ world where food comes out the wall and the trash goes back. No one knows about the process. Trash is power, and we have the power to decide where it goes.”
Hayes said there have been recyclers in New Jersey that have tried to create compost with food waste in the past, but she believes at least one failed because its owners didn’t understand the science behind the process.
“Ag Choice’s compost is the real thing,” Hayes said. “(Fischer has) done all the research, they do all the hard work sourcing, monitoring and metering.”
In the works is a plan to get machinery that would strip packaging from non-biodegradable containers, allowing Ag Choice to use post-consumer waste like canned vegetables past their expiration date.
Standing amid the compost field, Fischer said he sees himself as a kind-of compost evangelist.
“I believe in what we’re doing and that this is the right way,” he said. “I hope my legacy is getting out the message that we can leave the planet better than we found it.”