Operation to offer solution for utilizing region’s litter
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
RIDGELY, Md. (March 3, 2017) — When Dave Tribbett Jr. looks at the massive, rotating canisters in his barn that currently produce about 100 tons of organic fertilizer per week, he sees his farm’s future.
And in that future, his new operation, in its first year, is the node to a coastal network of organic fertilizer production.
“We want to make organic fertilizer that’s good for the farmer and environmentally friendly,” Tribbett said last week, standing inside a barn that houses the canisters on his Twin Maple Farm.
Tribbett and a small group of farmers and businessmen established MidAtlantic Organic Resource Co., to capitalize on the region’s excess poultry litter and compostable waste.
Their goal is to convert it into a salable organic fertilizer that doesn’t leach into the ground, the Chesapeake Bay and nearby tributaries.
Inside his barn are three canisters up to 10 feet wide and roughly 50 feet long and several large piles of sawdust, a carbon source used in the composting process, Tribbett said. (He’s growing 60 acres of miscanthus grass — and eventually 1,000 acres — as another source.)
Four chicken houses on his 2,000-acre, diversified farm produce about 1,500 tons of manure per year, he said.
Here’s (roughly) how you make Tribbett’s fertilizer: You start with two parts sawdust, two parts poultry litter and one part waste from regional hatcheries eager to find a home for a byproduct that would otherwise be sent, at greater expense, to a landfill.
That’s pushed via conveyor belt into the two largest canisters, which hold up to 50 tons, where they rotate for an hour and cook for four hours to a temperature of 130 degrees.
That process repeats for 72 hours, yielding a finished batch of composted fertilizer.
It’s faster and cheaper than more typical fertilizer production processes, Tribbett said.
Several factors motivated Tribbett’s new company.
First, he noted the increasing public pressure on Eastern Shore poultry farmers and the state’s plan, among other things, to truck poultry litter off the Shore.
“I heard issues that poultry was getting a bad name for itself,” he said. “Making something better, I thought, was the better option.”
The Maryland Environmental Service also approached him in 2013 in search of a large farm to build a pilot that would test the composting system.
They constructed the smallest of his three canisters to run the pilot.
That led to introductions to Robert Winn and Joey Baxter at Organic Resource Co. in Texas.
The company specializes in organic waste management and usually works with companies and municipalities.
After they were unable to find grant money, they partnered to create Tribbett’s new operation.
The Texas company manufactured the new equipment, and a $600,000 bank loan financed the operation, Tribbett said.
The farm’s finances were also a motivating factor.
He grows peas, lima beans, wheat, barley, corn and soybeans on his farm, not to mention about 875,000 chickens a year that will soon expand in number to about 1.6 million. Even still, plummeting grain prices have hurt his bottom line.
“I’ve got to find ways to cut my fertilizer in half,” he said. “It’s tough for a farming family to make any money anymore.”
He’s also looking to work with local schools.
He wants to take their food waste — again, at a price cheaper than what it would cost to send to a landfill — and turn that into fertilizer as well.
His wife, Spring, is already working with Ridgely Elementary School to get that started.
He said he envisions class trips to the operation and tours to explain to students how discarded food is reused in an environmentally friendly loop.
“I like it. It turns a problem into something good,” he said. “It teaches the kids what can be done with trash.”
The composting process also produces valuable greenhouse gasses that can be trapped and used to heat houses and generate power.
But that’s an expensive proposition, he said, and remains in the distance.
If all works to plan, he said he could see his farm occupying a secondary role in his life to fertilizer production.
He said his operation can produce its product at 25 percent of the cost of typical commercial organic fertilizer.
He’s got the permits already to expand the operation on his property, and he can see new operations across the East Coast.
But that’s still far off, he said. He’s still tweaking the actual compost.
“There is a lot of learning with this right now,” he said.