Routt County, located in Colorado's Yampa Valley region, is home to 25,000 residents who wake up every morning to mountains and pastures.
While community members in Steamboat Springs are surrounded by a rich region of resources and farming, composting and organics services have failed to prosper, causing a disruption in waste diversion efforts.
Winn Cowman, Cowgirl Compost CO founder, saw an opportunity to revamp composting just one year after the city ended its program in 2018.
"We lost it. We had this infrastructure at our skill area to support composting," she explained at the 2022 Summit for Recycling. "We had this great infrastructure where people were sorting. We hired people in this ski area to search through the materials, and then it went away. It was heartbreaking as a community to have composting go away."
Leveraging her background in landfill consulting and waste diversion, Cowman founded Cowgirl Compost CO, starting in hauling and collections.
The company provides a sealed bucket that is leak and smell-proof for home collection of food waste, which are emptied weekly into "ambassador bins." The bins are taken to Cowgirl Compost facilities to be composted with yard waste, creating a nutrient-dense soil amendment that can be used for landscaping and gardening. Subscribers receive a divided following nine months of enrollment in the program.
Cowman started with one truck, creating community drop-off events two hours every Wednesday. Recognizing that as a short-term solution, she gathered "Composting Ambassadors" to lead her growth strategy.
"We started using people who are willing to host a 48-gallon toter with the bear-proof top," she explained. "We tried to get one in each geographic sort of neighborhood throughout the community, which we were successful in doing. And they put it out every Tuesday and Thursday and they emptied their buckets into the barrel."
Cowman began to collect the waste on Fridays, shoveling the contents into the back of her truck with the help of her husband and son and driving it to Cowgirl Compost's facility, which is located about 20 miles outside of Steamboat Springs.
"I'm taking food waste, compostable paper and then mixing it with wood chips which tree services are bringing out to me for free," she added.
While small quantity facilities are exempt from Colorado state regulations, Cowman was required to appear before county commissioners and meet permit requirements that far exceeded the state level. One thing that made Cowgirl Compost CO'S facility favorable to county officials was the use of a fence to block the view of the compost pile. Recent funding in the form of a grant from the Colorado Department fo Public Health and Environment will support future growth, something compost startups in the state desperately need.
"I do this on evenings and weekends because I have another full-time job," she explained.
Looking ahead, Cowman is seeking a move from a conditionally exempt, small quantity compost facility to a Class III operation. She explained her plans for potentially having two locations or multiple sites, but that would require moving equipment. Despite the setbacks and frustration that come with both the business and her role as waste diversion director at the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, growing Cowgirl Compost CO has been a fulfilling venture.
"Trying to move the needle on recycling and composting and all those things can be really difficult and frustrating at times," she concluded. "Even though I was exhausted from having a full-time job all day, the nights and weekends that I'm out at that composting facility have been my saving grace and my sanity - that hands-on component of being able to move the needle and knowing that you're actually getting something done has been a really a great part of my life over the past couple of years."
Editor's Note: This is part two of a three-part series that explores three compost startups in Colorado. In Part One, Jamie Blanchard-Poling of Compost Queen explains how beneficial partnerships can assist business owners with navigating relationships. In Part Two, Winn Cowman of Cowgirl Compost CO takes readers on a trip to Steamboat Springs in Yampa Valley, where bear-resistant bins are standard. Part Three takes readers to high country in Salida with Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Compost.