Compost Hits: Pay Dirt

There's an organics train coming through, and I plan on being the engineer," says Thomas Fulmer, manager of Enviro-Comp Services Inc., Jacksonville, Fla. Composting historically has been a tough game, but for composters like Fulmer, who have stuck with the business through the tough times, payday might be just around the corner.

Alexander, a co-chair of Bethedsa, Md.-based Composting Council's Market Developing Committee, has been involved in the marketing of organic products and compost for 14 years - long before the notion of selling compost was in vogue.

"Without a doubt, marketing has become more of a key role in the whole picture of composting," says Rod Tyler, the Composting Council's national field representative. "Back in the '90s, when a lot of the [yard waste] bans weren't passed yet, legislation drove the industry; everyone was thinking of the impending law. Few composters depended on revenues from the marketing side.

"Nowadays, it's common for composters to expect to break even on the tip fee side [of the business] to pay for their operational costs and view the profit generated from the compost's sale as the icing on the cake," he says.

But compost marketing is more than just a gravy train: Composting companies are counting on sales more than ever when performing due diligence on their facilities. "They understand their numbers better," Alexander says.

Profit-driven composting operations tip the scale toward the private sector, as diversion-mandate-strapped municipalities turn toward dedicated organics companies for help. "Organics is a business," says Charlie Pick vice president of development, Organics Management Co., Chicago. "You can't be an expert in everything. It takes a specialized set of skills and expertise to run a successful composting operation. Outsourcing operations to a private company might give communities the focus that composting requires."

Jacksonville realized this opportunity back in 1991 when it issued a request for proposals to manage the city's 120,000 ton per year yard waste facility. Enviro-Comp, the winning bidder, splits the profits of the material's sale 50-50 with the city, but is responsible for all the marketing.

"It's a good marriage between the public and private [sectors]," Fulmer says. "If I show an aggressive marketing campaign, then profits can go to 60-40 in my favor."

And Fulmer, who charges $4 a yard for compost, deserves a higher percentage for his marketing effort. He certainly has his work cut out for him. Like many compost facilities nationwide, Jacksonville historically has given away its compost to any resident who wanted it. "Until they developed a market, they just wanted to get rid of the compost the best way that they could," Fulmer explains.

So, how do you sell a product that historically has been given away for free? "I'd prefer that we stop giving it away, but it's something that we have done for six years," Fulmer says. "It's tough to reverse. [Turning this into a money-maker] is a very slow process."

Everything is relative when marketing compost, Fulmer says. "Your marketing is site-specific. If you talk to a composter in south Florida, he'll tell you, 'I can sell all the compost I make.' However, that's because he is situated smack-dab in the middle of Florida's largest industry - nursery growers. North Florida's weather doesn't allow that industry, so my situation is different."

For years, Fulmer has been positioning his operation as a leader in one of composting's hottest emerging end markets: erosion control. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), more than 2 billion tons of topsoil are lost through erosion annually - creating a mostly unrealized niche market for composters.

"The [Florida] Department of Transportation [DOT] will be our savior, because it will buy compost and mulch to control erosion," Fulmer says. However, this was a tough sell. Fulmer started promoting compost's value to the DOT in 1991. After years of "constant contact" and attempts to get DOT employees to consider compost, he finally found someone who understood organics. "Once I reached one person who knew what I was talking about, I had my 'in.' My success is tied to downright persistence," he says. "At the DOT, they all used to run from me, saying, 'Here comes that compost guy again.'"

Fulmer's pitch: Mulch could be used in direct application to roadsides. "There are a lot of places in Florida where grass won't grow. It's just sugar sand, which won't hold moisture," he says. "If a layer of mulch is added, it will break down, add organics to the soil and add moisture to the ground in drought situations. It'll allow better vegetation growth."

In 1997, after years of plugging away on his own, Fulmer finally received help from the University of Florida, Gainesville, which conducted a study on compost marketing in the state. Study in hand, university officials have targeted the DOT and embarked on an on-going "DOT roadshow," where they are visiting different districts to teach officials how to put together compost specs.

"The specs will have all the districts singing from the same sheet of music," Fulmer says. "The indication I get from the DOT is that next year, it will use a lot of our product because it has the specifications and has budgeted for its use."

Although it looks like Fulmer might be about to reap the fruits of his labor, he realizes that his job is not done - even with the more enlightened DOT. "Local DOT district managers have been handling erosion control in a certain way for years and wonder why they should change their procedure," he says. "For example, I told one local DOT manager that I would deliver my compost to wherever he wished without charging freight or material costs. I took two loads to a slope where there was a horrendous wash-out and suggested that he redo it in compost.

"A year-and-a-half later, the compost still is there in the dumped piles," he continues. "He's got the prettiest green grass you've ever seen growing across the top of those piles. He was so used to doing it the same old way that he went right around my compost. He's had to redo his slope since then, and my compost still sits there."

Not banking on the DOT for an immediate meal ticket, Fulmer has cultivated a temporary cash cow - so to speak.

It's a classic, textbook case of how to create a market: Fulmer pays a reputable, albeit down-on-his-luck, dairy farmer 50 cents a ton to accept a minimum of 60,000 tons of mulch a year. Fulmer sets the compost down in the farmer's fields so that his cows won't sink into the muck. Eventually, the farmer scrapes up the manure-clotted compost for fertile spread in his hayfields.

Pleased with the results, the farmer spread the word about Fulmer's compost without mentioning that Fulmer was paying him. Then, Fulmer struck more favorable deals with the next generation of farmers: He pays for hauling; they pay for the compost. Soon, farmers were paying full cost for transportation.

Still, this effort is too painstaking for its reward. "The farmers are tiding me over for right now" until the DOT contracts begin, Fulmer explains.

As if creating markets wasn't difficult enough, Fulmer finds himself in direct competition with peat sellers. "There's a bog 40 miles from me, and in middle and south Florida, there are bogs everywhere," he says. "Although peat and compost both can be used as a potting medium, compost is heavier. So, if I try to match the peat seller's price of $6 a yard, plus freight when I sell to a nursery, the nursery will get more peat for the same freight cost."

Whether the customer is a nursery, landscaper or the DOT, resistance to change is Fulmer's greatest marketing challenge. To rise above it requires some legwork. For example, Fulmer has hosted a monthly meeting of the North Florida Landscapers Association to promote the use of compost as a "soil amendment."

Fulmer predicts that the commercial and homeowner landscape market in Florida will boost the state's compost industry.

"Landscapers tell me that using compost is the right thing to do because it adds the organics back into the soil, but they are concerned that they won't make any money by using it," he says. "If a landscaper uses compost [instead of a cheaper substance], it might add another $200 to the cost of his job, which could lose him the bid."

Florida's interest in compost is hampered by the amount of available non-compost-based organic material, such as bark fines and sawdust. These other options keep the compost market price low, the Composting Council's Tyler says. "But along the coast where soils are sandy, we should start to see composting applications going up over the next decade - and with it, higher prices paid for the materials."

Fulmer is crossing his fingers. "Texas is getting $22 to $25 a yard. That's going to happen in Florida," he says. "We'll all survive this. We'll all make money one day."

Diversify and Multiply Diversification is the buzzword in compost circles: Diversify the products produced, blend feedstocks, create a brand, and then niche market it like crazy.

"Five years ago, people used to sell one product. Now, they're selling a minimum of three," Tyler says. "From a diversification standpoint, it's generally accepted that you can buy compost as a coarse screened mulch, a fine-screened top dressing material or an in-between product that can be used to upgrade soil for landscaping.

"As the markets grow more competitive, that mix might broaden to as many as 50 products," he continues.

To effectively market these products, a composter must understand his niche. For use as erosion control, for example, the compost can include wood chips an inch-and-a-half long or pieces of yard waste that are six inches long because the stringy nature is good for the application.

However, that compost would not retail to a gardener, who would want a purer mix.

"In composting, one size doesn't fit all," says Matt Cotton, technical consultant for the California Compost Quality Council, San Francisco. For example, he says, independent haulers can do better in the bulk market because it doesn't require the same attention to detail. "Quality means different things to different people. Go out and look at the markets and develop your strategy accordingly."

Overall, composters don't have to look too far to find buyers, according to most industry experts. "The market seems to be absorbing everything that can be produced at this time," says Glenn Zimmerman, president of the Composting Council of Oregon, Aumsville. "Everyone I know who sells in bulk has been able to sell what they produce."

Who's buying? It depends on the region, but lawn and landscape still is the best paying market, says composting consultant Alexander. That's easy to see, because gardening is ranked as the top hobby of Americans. Nationwide, consumer lawn/ garden sales increased 18 percent to $26.6 billion in 1997 from $22.5 billion in 1996. During the same period, participation in lawn and garden activities increased from 65 million households to 68 million, according to the National Gardening Association, Burlington, Vt.

Composters can capitalize on this market through retail sales. "The American way is to have more results in less time," Tyler says. "The [composting] products that perform are just being gobbled up by consumers."

Browse though your local Wal-Mart or nursery, and you'll see the more progressive, entrepreneurial composters' niche products already on the shelves, marketed under distinctions such as "rose food" or "tomato booster." If you can grow it, there's a composter scrambling to create a soil amendment specific to that plant's needs. And in many cases, the first one on the market makes the mint.

"Composters have the ability to create unique products that will be usable in unique applications," Alexander says. "The understanding of what it means to produce a customer-specific product is light years ahead of what it was a decade ago."

The topsoil and agricultural industries also are strong in many states. And although nurseries' sales are sporadic at best, this market sector cannot be discounted because it purchases $250 million of compost products per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"The success of compost sales to nurseries seems to be contingent on the availability of high quality products and whether or not that particular state has a compost 'champion,'" Alexander says. "For example, Maryland, Florida, California and Ohio have champions who did research on nursery-specific applications for compost. Thus, you'll see a higher percentage of compost being sold to nurseries in those states."

Bob Watson, marketing manager for the Great River Regional Waste Authority, Ft. Madison, Iowa, has chosen to bypass nurseries, setting his sights on retail sales instead. "Nurseries are seasonal - they buy when they need it - but retail buys a year in advance," he says. This cycle affords Watson a guaranteed market and the luxury of budgeting his operation yearly.

When Great River began selling wood mulch six years ago, it discovered that to attract the bigger accounts, it had to diversify and sell in volume. To this end, it formed a marketing co-op with two other municipalities, an alliance that allowed them to bulk-purchase composting supplies.

Watson reports that two more municipalities are coming aboard and private companies also have solicited him for membership. Each co-op member produces a specific product (such as compost, dyed wood, topsoil, humus, cedar, cyprus and bagged rock) for Watson to market. Great River sells approximately 2 million bags a year within a 250-mile radius.

"We're lucky, we work hard and we follow three rules," Watson says about his success. "Make quality your priority, no matter what feedstock is composted; give good service; and know your customers' needs."

Feedstocks: The Next Generations Blending compost feedstocks goes hand-in-hand with diversification in a composter's product portfolio.

While yard waste still reigns king of the feedstocks, some enterprising composters are plucking more exotic, region-specific material from their waste streams.

Along the North Carolina coast, fish and crab waste is a burgeoning feedstock. Farther up, in the berry-picking Northeast, cranberries are finding their way into compost. Across the country, cutting-edge California composters have found winning recipes with wallboard gypsum, power plant ash and brewery waste. And composters who add egg shells to a mix can market their product as having a liming effect.

Got a dead duck? If you're a composter, you're in luck. More than 7.3 billion chickens, ducks and turkeys are raised for commercial sale in the United States each year, according to the USDA. Of that number, about 37 million birds (18 percent to 25 percent) die from disease or other natural causes before they reach the market.

As more poultry is consumed, these numbers are expected to climb. According to the EPA, composting is a more viable and cost-effective option for disposing of poultry carcasses than incineration or burial because the pathogens are destroyed by composting's high temperatures (130 degrees F to 155 degrees F).

Although these various feedstocks are eking their way into the nation's compost piles, they cannot compare to the behemoth feedstock of the near future: food waste.

According to a 1997 USDA study, 96 billion pounds of the 356 billion pounds of food produced in the United States are lost at the retail and food service levels. This figure does not even include preharvest, farm-to-retail or wholesale losses.

"On average, each of us consumes about three pounds of food a day," says U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "If even 5 percent of that 96 billion pounds [that are lost] were recovered, rather than discarded as solid waste, about $50 million could be saved in landfill disposal costs alone."

"Food waste is one of the few feedstocks that has not been capitalized on in the United States, although Europe has been composting it for years," says composting consultant Alexander.

Besides saving on tipping fees and generating a back end profit, food waste is one of the few composting materials that can be source-separated easily.

"There are huge opportunities here; that material should not be going into a hole," Alexander says.

Gary Plotz, city administrator for Hutchinson, Minn., already sees food waste's potential. The city started composting biosolids three years ago and - pushed by skyrocketing tipping fees as high as 15 percent in one year - added yard waste as a composting feedstock a year later. "We felt we could compost up to 70 percent of the material collected from the residential waste stream," Plotz says.

In July 1997, the city embarked on a food waste composting project, targeting food stores, cafeterias in the five school districts and large local industries such as 4,000-employee Hutchinson Technology and 2,000-employee 3M.

In May 1998, with the cooperation of the city's exclusive residential hauler, Hutchinson applied for a $100,000 grant from the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance to fund a 220-resident food waste collection pilot program.

Eight weeks before the program's kick-off, the city spearheaded an educational blitz in the affected neighborhoods. "Since we could not accept plastic bags, we had to deal with the consumer acceptance of an alternative bagging system in the home," Plotz says. "Otherwise, all we'd get would be the yard waste."

The city broadcasted the pilot through community newsletters, direct mail and door knob hangers.

"We provided the residents with two carts - one for garbage and one for kitchen organics and yard waste - and 10 13-gallon compostable bags for the kitchen organics," Plotz says.

Still in its infancy, the program averages 57 pounds per single-family residence a week and a 70 percent participation rate. "It's far exceeded our expectations," Plotz says.

Hutchinson composts the food and yard waste in-vessel, but is considering switching to four 1-acre cement pads. This will allow the leachate and storm run-off to drain into a pond, which would water a poplar forest. The city plans to harvest poplars as part of its overall project with the state.

Currently, Hutchinson is selling only yard waste compost at $3 a bag, but has petitioned the state for another grant to take its program county-wide - an event that will allow the city to market a food/yard waste compost blend as well.

"There are two parts to the grant: $1 million from the county and $1.3 million from the State of Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance," Plotz explains. "The city of Hutchinson will contribute $300,000."

According to Plotz, the city has started negotiations with the Great River Regional Waste Authority to join its co-op if the program goes county-wide. "[The co-op] has assured us that it can market 400,000 bags for us for an initial fixed fee, plus a percentage," he says.

"The end product is crucial," Plotz continues. "We wouldn't be doing this at all if it wasn't saving us money on landfill charges and if we didn't have a viable market and distribution method for the product."

So far, so good: Local tipping fees are $46 per ton, but compost processing only costs $36 per ton - a $10 per ton cost savings. In addition, last year, Hutchinson pocketed $10,000 from compost sales to landscapers.

Kids Composting in Charlottesville Charlottesville, Va.: home of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, voted one of Money magazine's top places to live - and now, recognized as a food waste frontier.

"The problem with composting food in the United States is the lack of a good infrastructure," says composting consultant Alexander. "That's what's so intriguing about Charlottesville - it's developing the infrastructure necessary to compost food waste successfully."

Plastic is the bane of any composting operation, and with food waste, it comes in the handy form of cutlery, plates and bags. The Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, Charlottesville, knew that in order to profit from food waste, it first needed to find a way to boost source separation.

It solicited Biocorp Inc., Redondo Beach, Calif., to provide biodegradable cutlery and bags to Walton Middle School for a food waste collection/ composting pilot program, which ran from March 1998 to June 1998.

The cutlery used in the Charlottesville school already are stabbing hotcakes and danishes in McDonald's restaurants across Austria, Germany and Northern Europe.

The utensils are composed of a resin called "Mater-Bi," which is made with a biodegradable polymer and combined with cornstarch and other organic materials.

The biodegradable bags contain no polyethylene or polystyrene and decompose in a compost environment in 30 to 40 days.

According to the manufacturer, in addition to their McDonald's uses, these products play key roles in municipal waste collection in Italy, Germany, Scandinavia and the Netherlands where organic wastes already are collected separately and composted.

Compare this ideal to the United States, which landfills 113 billion disposable cups, 39 billion disposable utensils and 29 billion disposable plates each year, according to the Food Packaging Institute, Washington, D.C.

Walton Middle School found that using biodegradables allowed it to compost two-thirds of its cafeteria waste (by weight).

This figure is promising, considering that the local tipping fee is $38 per ton and composting costs only $22 per ton.

The solid waste authority hopes to branch out to the remainder of the school district, local restaurants and grocery stores.

The compost will be used to restore eroded topsoil, and the use of biodegradables will reduce the waste generated by disposable plastic products.

States such as California, Kentucky and New Jersey, which have introduced bills to limit the use of disposable plastic, should monitor Charlottesville's success closely.

Ultimately, food waste composting's success hinges on three factors:

* State regulations allowing the acceptance of food waste as a composting feedstock. For example, Pennsylvania now is allowing food waste to be accepted into yard waste facilities. "However, regulation is a state-by-state issue," Alexander says. "Some states require that facilities obtain full municipal solid waste management permits to compost food waste. Others are more lenient."

* Collaboration of composters who see the opportunity for food waste composting.

* Establishing the proper collection infrastructure, which will include the use of biodegradables.

"The generally accepted number for food waste as a percentage of the waste stream is about 8 percent," the Composting Council's Tyler says. "That's not very attainable unless we have a collection vehicle - either a rigid container or a compostable bag. We can't use paper because it will get wet and soggy.

"We also have to deal with the substitute-habit factor: We must use a biodegradable bag that looks and feels like plastic," he continues. "That way, we don't change the habit of the collection worker when we substitute one bag for the other."

To this end, the Composting Council is negotiating a partnership with the Degradable Polymers Council, Washington, D.C., to promote the use of degradable bags.

What's Hot? What's Next? "There are compost hotspots all over the country, and the reasons for them are as varied as the regions," Tyler says. "In places along the East Coast where tip fees are highest, composters are doing quite well.

"Ohio has more registered compost sites than its surrounding states, but a yard waste ban is not driving those numbers," he says. "The reason for Ohio's progressiveness is that the state's landscape/nursery market always has created a heavy demand for organic products."

Other key composting markets, according to Tyler, include California, Delaware, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

Most composting gurus point to the southern, arid areas of the nation as burgeoning markets. "These places with sandy soil will need organics to retain water, and farmers will buy them to keep the ground fertile," Tyler says.

In fact, with its high organic content, compost can absorb up to four times its weight in water, according to the EPA.

"California and Hawaii have landscape management programs called 'Zeroscaping,' which is a reduction of landscape plantings that often incorporates rocks," Tyler says. "As these states become more aware of compost as a way to retain vegetation, we'll start to see an increased demand for composting products."

Although many debatable factors exist in today's compost industry, one thing is agreed upon: Quality counts.

"You have to go out there and beat the bushes to build a market, but first, you must have a quality product," says composting consultant Alexander.

"If you're selling garbage, you won't get repeat business. And never remind the end user that what they are buying used to be what they considered 'garbage,'" he says.

Wood Wastes Reclamation, Aumsville, Ore., prides itself on its compost quality. "Oregon is working on quality standards," says Composting Council of Oregon's Zimmerman, a Wood Wastes employee. "There are some composters who are unscrupulous and market things as 'compost' that aren't. People buy it, get turned off, then don't buy compost again."

Wood Wastes, which composted more than 20,000 tons in 1997, has a contract with Marion County Solid Waste to compost curbside-collected yard waste. It is planning on branching out into composting food waste and manure.

Less than 2 percent of Wood Wastes' compost has garbage, thanks in part to the county's thorough educational programs and Wood Wastes' decision to designate one employee to pick out garbage from the feedstock.

"The standards will go up, but they will be driven by the marketplace, not by regulations," Zimmerman says.

Today, for each new niche market that is being explored by one composter, there are ten more waiting to commandeer that sector.

"There are more good composters now than in years past," Alexander says. "When a contract is up, you can expect more competition on the front end, with each business trying to underbid another with lower tipping fees.

"Composters have become businessmen who know their costs and generate more revenue from the sale of their products," he says.

Thus, composting, although potentially lucrative, is not for the faint-hearted. "Like any business, you have to spend money to make money," Alexander says. "It'll cost you good money to build your markets in the first three years of operation, but after that, it's just going to run."

The product resulting from the controlled biological decomposition of organic wastes that have been sanitized and stabilized to a degree that is potentially beneficial to plant growth when used as a soil amendment; compost is largely decomposed organic material and is in the process of humification/curing. It is typically not a fertilizer unless amended, although some composts may contain fertilizer properties from time to time as a result of chemical content in the feedstock from which it was made.

Compost is a tricky organic beast: Its worth depends completely on its end use, and even the most sophisticated end user can be fooled by its quality - or lack thereof.

Enter the Composting Council's (Bethesda, Md.) Market Developing Committee. Two years ago, it ventured to design a compost quality assurance program that would provide end users with a consistent, good product.

Then, the debate began. Even the experts could not reach a consensus on what standards would determine compost's quality.

"This wasn't like setting a glass standard for a clear, recycled bottle," says Ron Alexander, one of the committee's co-chairs. "One standard did not fit all."

The Council, realizing that it had to learn to walk before it could run, refocused its scrutiny on compost testing standards.

Rod Tyler, the Council's national field representative and a former compost seller, knew first-hand the perils of lab testing. "We sent our compost out to get tested regularly at one lab. And soon, we got into the groove of understanding what type of results to expect from the product we sent in. We got fairly decent at predicting what the results were going to be.

"However, that lab was using one set of test methods," he continues. "When we opened a facility in another city, the compost went to a different lab, and, bingo, we started getting significantly different results. The compost was composed of the same ingredients, but the testing wasn't the same."

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. An unscrupulous composter can shop his compost to various labs until he finds the lab whose test methods grant him the highest quality number possible for marketing an often sub-standard product.

If this has given you more devious readers a wicked idea for boosting your compost sales, your plans are about to be foiled. The Composting Council has published the first edition of its "Test Methods for the Examination of Composting and Compost" (TMECC), a 1,000-page tome that already is being touted as the cornerstone of the industry.

The TMECC, which is the fruit of six years of research, is the only scientifically based manual that addresses all major composting parameters.

This first edition currently is undergoing international peer reviews and field tests. "Field testing means a lot in this industry because you can have something peer reviewed to death, but you don't know that it will work until you go out and actually do it," Tyler says.

The testing and reviews should take about one year, and the final version "will be the Bible for composting in terms of testing and uniformity," says David O'Bryon, executive vice president of the Composting Council.

This final edition will be available on CD-ROM and will be co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Phil Leege, TMECC's co-editor.

With the TMECC firmly in hand, the Council now is revisiting its quality assurance standards proposal of two years ago. According to Tyler, the TMECC/quality standards' goals are to get composters to test their products according to uniform standards and provide directions for the use of their products to their clientele.

"These standards should broaden the marketplace and self-regulate the industry," says Tyler, who is banking on the receptiveness of individual composters for the program's success. He is optimistic, and has good reason to be. "[The TMECC and quality standards have] been well-supported from the marketing committee standpoint.

"However, there have been some flies in the ointment; some companies claim they don't need the standards," Tyler notes. "That's because they are so far ahead of their competition in their local marketplace that they don't want any equalizing force intervening."

For more information or to receive the first edition of the TMECC, contact the Composting Council, 4424 Montgomery Ave., Ste. 102, Bethesda, Md. 20814. (301) 913-2885. Fax: (301) 913-9146. Website:

Brand recognition harkens back to Marketing 101. But how important is branding to compost sales?

"Branding depends on the marketplace," says Rod Tyler, the Composting Council's (Bethesda, Md.) national field representative.

"The agricultural sector is generic as it gets: It either accepts a compost or rejects it. However, in retail, branding is very important. The stakes are especially high if the company is the first in that area's market.

"As the competition comes into the marketplace with 'me-too' products, those with the branded identity will hold the market share 20 percent to 50 percent longer," he continues. "And those brands that achieve good results will be remembered."

However, Matt Cotton, technical consultant for the California Compost Quality Council, San Francisco, believes that other factors, such as availability and price, are more key to compost sales success than branding "because yard waste compost is sold mainly in bulk."

If you decide to brand your compost, do so cautiously, warns Bob Watson, marketing manager for the Great River Regional Waste Authority, Ft. Madison, Iowa. "Seven years ago, we tried to sell our compost in a nice white bag with the recycling logo on it. That didn't work because people who saw it thought, 'This is garbage,'" he says.

When Great River changed the product's name to 'Earthly Goods,' the product was better received. "If people purchase Earthly Goods' compost manure and achieve excellent results, then they will continue to buy other products with that brand name because they associate it with quality."

Many composting operations are missing a major market by neglecting bag sales. While huge profits can be made selling in bulk, individual bags should not be ignored.

Bagging, when done correctly, can affect the bottom line. For example, Nick Pavich, CEO of Weedfree Organics, Sun Valley, Calif., takes in soil amendments from different establishments, stabilizes the material and sells it in bulk or by the bag to landscapers, nurseries and citizens. Pavich has a three-acre sales yard and a 20-acre processing site.

Prior to buying a bagging machine, Weedfree Organics filled bags manually and averaged only about 1,000 bags each year, Pavich says. While this practice may seem outdated, most operators still rely on the old "shovel-in-the-bag" method.

"We wanted to get into more bags, but we knew we couldn't do it without a bagging machine," Pavich says. "Filling bags by hand is too slow and labor-intensive."

Due to the nature of his operation, he selected a portable bagger, manufactured by Sandbagger Corp., Wauconda, Ill., that allowed him to travel to different sites. "During our first year of using the machine, we filled in excess of 10,000 bags," he says. "And, we're seeing a 15 percent increase in bags sales each year."

The bagging machine can fill three bags simultaneously every 10 seconds. With three operators, it can bag more than 1,000 bags per hour. The machine increases production by 500 percent compared to filling bags the traditional way.

Roger Cooley, a sales representative for Barrier West, Sumner, Wash., suggests asking the following questions prior to purchasing a bagger:

* Is it operator-friendly?

* Is it engineered to alleviate back strain and fatigue?

* Is it safe to operate and easy to transport from site to site?

* What types of materials is it designed to handle?

* Can it accommodate a variety of bag sizes and styles?

* What is the engine size and type?

* Can it be modified to accommodate smaller bags in case of an emergency?

"When you compare bagging machines and their prices, always compare apples to apples," Cooley advises. "Do some research and don't be afraid to ask questions."