Brooks Contractor is used to combining innovative approaches with proven ones to turn problems into solutions. Based in Goldston, NC, the company was one of the first operations on the east coast to recycle foodwaste. It also designed its own foodwaste collection vehicle and was one of the first commercial composters to incorporate eggshells-a resource that was plentiful in their area-to the process. That forward-thinking approach has resulted in an impressive level of growth. In 2012 alone, the company composted over 12,000 tons of foodwaste, combining it with greenwaste and leaf material from surrounding communities to generate 40,000 tons of high-quality compost and soil blends.
That commitment to innovation extends to its use of technology. The company is currently set to take delivery of a new Airlift Separator system designed to minimize the presence of plastic residue in its product, and has just implemented a major upgrade in its windrow turner. That latest move, to a Scarab Model 18BD-600-RTBA, has dramatically increased onsite productivity, shortening turning times by about 60%, reducing maintenance demands and allowing them to continue their push forward.
Cows to Compost
With roots in the dairy industry, Brooks Contractor’s move to composting was one of basic economic necessity, according to Amy Brooks, the company’s food residuals collections manager and daughter of its founder, Dean Brooks.
“We have just under 400 acres here in Goldston, and back in the late ’80s the going got very tough for the dairy industry,” she says. “Struggling to make the mortgage payment after we dissolved the dairy, my father bought a dump truck and started hauling gravel. At the time, he’d heard that a local poultry hatchery was trying to do some composting but just couldn’t get it right. Because we were already composting some of our manure, he talked to them and helped them straighten some things out. More importantly, however, he came away convinced that he could do that kind of work for himself and, not too long afterwards, laid the groundwork for what you see here today.”
It’s important to note how important the poultry industry is to a startup enterprise like Brooks. According to the North Carolina Poultry Federation, poultry represents $12.8 billion in economic impact for the state, creates over 110,000 jobs for North Carolinians, is the top ranked agricultural industry in North Carolina, and comprises 40% of the state’s total farm income. In short, it was a great resource right in Brooks Contractor’s own backyard.
“Dad knew that eggshells were nature’s pure form of calcium carbonate and, because they were a great slow-release source of lime, would be a perfect fit for compost,” she says. “Out here, eggshells go from the hatcheries to a dehydrating plant, where the liquid protein is extracted and sent off for use in the manufacture of dog food or other products. Even though eggshells are the toughest product we work with as far as odor and abrasiveness to equipment, they remain a key ingredient because North Carolina farmers need that lime source. The summer heat and humidity deteriorates the quality of both clay and sandy soils here in central NC. So every summer we tend to ask ourselves if dealing with over 200 tons of eggshells per week is worth it. But seeing the phenomenal results area farms and landscapes are having tells us “˜yes’ and motivate us to keep going.”
Thought for Food
In 1999, with the business established, Brooks began looking for additional material to supplement the feedstock and immediately found one that could be the solution to multiple problems.
“Dad knew that huge volumes of foodwaste were being landfilled every day throughout the area,” says Brooks. “And while he saw that as a real landfill capacity problem, he also recognized that landfilling all that foodwaste meant also burying an excellent source of nitrogen for the composting operation. In that first year, he designed a truck to collect foodwaste and landed a contract with Orange County Solid Waste. What started with just a few brave customers has grown to collecting from over 30 locations under the county’s program. From that example, the program has grown steadily, and today we collect from 150 sites throughout central North Carolina.”
As the incoming volumes of foodwaste increased, Brooks recognized that the issue of leachate from that part of the operation would have to be contained. To address that concern, the company again took matters into its own hands and constructed a retention pond to collect the runoff.
“It was really in our own best interest to do so,” says Brooks. “All that runoff contains nutrients which add value to the compost, so we wanted to recapture them. Today we use the water to irrigate windrows before meeting PFRP.”
With growth came change, including the volumes of incoming material (they currently take in 60,000 tons of material a year, and sell about 40,000 tons of compost and blends), as well as the number and type of products made. Those products currently include premium compost (with and without eggshells), topsoil blends and custom mixes. The company runs an impressive fleet of equipment to get from basic feedstock to finished product-a varied collection of machinery including a Powerscreen vibratory shaker screen, three rubber-tired loaders, two Volvo excavators, assorted construction vehicles, an off-road truck and more, all of which has changed over the years to meet their changing needs.
One of the constants throughout two decades in operation, however, has been the company’s choice of compost turner. According to Alan Brooks, the company’s site manager, they’ve recently taken delivery of a new 600-horsepower Scarab turner, the third Scarab unit they’ve owned since starting in business.
“We’ve always been satisfied with the performance we’ve gotten from our windrow turners and the level of support Scarab has provided; that’s never been an issue with us,” he said. “But, because we’ve grown so much, what we were looking for in a new machine was added efficiency and we got it-a row that used to take 30 minutes to turn can now be done in five. And, because the whole turning process is completed more quickly, there is an impressive fuel savings-even with the larger motor. It’s really turned our heads.”
Efficiency is about more than just speed, though, and Brooks says the company is seeing dramatic reductions in areas such as upkeep as well. Maintenance routines on the new machine, for example, take less than a quarter of the time they used to take-a key issue given the abrasive nature of dealing with the eggshell blends.
“People don’t realize just how abrasive eggshells can be,” says Brooks. “When we first got started processing eggshells we couldn’t figure out why components on various pieces of equipment were wearing as quickly as they were. Scarab looked into it and found out that-after sand-eggshells were one of the most-abrasive materials to process. So we were hoping for an improvement in that area and we got it. The 48-inch diameter, auger-style drum on this unit is designed for up to 1,000 hours of tooth wear; we already have well over 300 hours and haven’t seen signs of any wear yet. Plus, because of the way its been designed, it is actually less than half the cost to retool this drum than the previous one.”
That auger-style drum on the new turner was a huge selling point for Brooks. He liked the fact that, by design, it is less aggressive and, as a result, doesn’t chop the material as badly, leaving any plastic residue in larger pieces and a lot easier to be removed.
“That plastic can be anything from tags and labels you find on food, to plastic utensils,” said Alan Brooks. “We are in the process of adding a vacuum system to remove plastic from the stream after screening, so having larger pieces actually works to our benefit. There is a lot of argument for a more aggressive drum-and Scarab still makes both styles. But the efficiency of this drum is ideal for us; we can afford to turn the compost more often and still not worry about hammering it into pieces that are too small.”
Amy Brooks adds that, though she is hopeful the Airlift Separator will be effective at removing plastic already in the wastestream, ideally, she would like to try to alleviate the problem at the front end.
“I would really like for the universities, hospitals and different institutions that we work with to make better decisions about packaging. Having them force their suppliers to focus on sustainable packaging would mean we wouldn’t have this after-the-fact problem. In addition, North Carolina’s local food movement has given us reason to do better with our resources. Once a business sees how easy and beneficial it is to compost, they are able to utilize that positive direction throughout all their decisions.”
Despite some changes that have taken place in the availability of foodwaste-residual food from many grocery stores is now often being diverted for use in animal feed operations-the future still looks very bright for Brooks Contractor. As mentioned, the company is taking in over 60,000 tons of total material each year, but its permitted annual capacity is 75,000 tons. Amy Brooks says that, with implementation of the new windrow turner, the company could double that easily.
“We are selling out about 40,000 tons of compost and blends and the demand just keeps growing,” she says. “Our customer base includes small vegetable producers and larger-grow crop farmers, cattle farms, golf courses, landscapers, contractors who use bioretention soil, etc. With the model we’re working on, I’d like to see a hefty percentage of our compost be used on farmland. About five years ago, we started giving farmers with an agricultural tax exemption status a substantial discount on compost. Poultry manure was becoming a high-demand item.”
She adds that, with more and more farmers coming in asking what they could afford, in addition to the deep discounts, they developed an agricultural-grade compost for them.