Digging In

Features - Composting

How Andy Harpenau helped found Omaha, Nebraska’s first commercial compost farm.

December 7, 2018

Working in the composting business wasn’t necessarily part of Andy Harpenau’s grand plan, but when he saw the opportunity to make money and offer a new service to the community, he jumped at the chance.

It all started in 2004, when Harpenau, a 38-year-old businessman, was working building homes in Omaha, Nebraska, and people new to the area kept asking about the town’s trash service offerings.

One day while on site, he saw a garbage truck drive by and immediately envisioned the opportunity to help meet the waste removal demands of area residents.

A couple months later, Harpenau formed Gretna Sanitation.

“We had one truck and a 20-minute route,” Harpenau says. “That’s how we started out. At that time, it was myself, my dad and my brother.”

Today, Harpenau’s small waste hauling business has grown to include thousands of residential and hundreds of commercial clients who like the fact that Gretna Sanitation offers dual-stream recycling to sort their glass, paper and now, food and yard waste.

The start of something great

Every spring during those initial years, Gretna Sanitation trucks were overloaded with yard waste, and tipping fees at the landfill were getting costlier.

“Haulers don’t have composting sites, so they mix yard waste in with trash and they take it to the landfill,” Harpenau says. “That was a real obstacle for us on the hauling side and wasn’t good from a sustainability perspective. It made people think it’s OK to mix their yard waste in with their trash.”

"Haulers don't have composting sites, so they mix yard waste in with trash and they take it to the landfill," Harpenau says. "That was a real obstacle for us on the hauling side. "

To remedy this problem, Harpenau decided to create Omaha’s first and only commercial composting farm in 2011.

Harpenau says the transition to composting was originally more about saving money than it was about protecting the environment.

“It didn’t have anything to do with trying to save the planet originally,” Harpenau says. “We were just trying to figure out a way to save some money, and one day we were picking up this material—yard waste and agriculture waste—and we had an ‘a-ha' moment.”

Finding new ground

The first step in getting the organic collection business off the ground was finding a place to dump the green waste that the company collected, Harpenau says.

“Whenever we start a new business, we always think about the worst-case scenario,” Harpenau says. “So, we asked ourselves, ‘If this thing falls apart, what’s the worst that can happen?’ So, instead of buying ground, we wanted to lease.”

Among the sandhill cranes and roaming bison of the Wildlife Safari Park in Omaha, Harpenau found an abandoned rock quarry that was the perfect site for the company’s needs.

“It had just enough ground around it that we could build a few windrows and dump some trucks,” Harpenau says.

Making inroads with the community

While the upside was tremendous, starting a composting business doesn’t come cheap, Harpenau says. That’s when he looked at the company’s options for procuring the capital needed to finance their operations and buy new equipment.

After talking it over with his team, Harpenau decided that pursuing grants made sense to fund his compost farm.

Harpenau had relied on grants in the early years of Gretna Sanitation to help fund a new garbage truck, and new grants made available from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and the Nebraska Environmental Trust were what “ramped up our efforts to start making an impact as far as real diversion rates from the landfill,” Harpenau says.

The last step in getting the composting site off the ground was to get the proper permits, which Harpenau says was tricky at first. Nearly 100 disgruntled residents attended the county commissioner hearings to express their disapproval of the compost farm being established in their community.

However, Harpenau did his research to draft a concept and design to overcome some of those objections. He studied good management practices and modeled his company after other compost farms that had a good track record with the public. He created an odor impact management plan, which he says “makes the neighbors more comfortable.”

“We didn’t want to just go in there with good intentions,” Harpenau says. “We wanted to make sure that everybody knew we had a plan. If we did have an odor complaint, we had steps in place that would dictate how things would be handled.”

Along with lessened resistance from the community, the support of the county commissioners helped pave the way for the site to get approval, Harpenau says.

“You’ve got to find a supportive political board that wants to see something like this happen for it to work,” Harpenau says.

After all his lobbying efforts, Harpenau was finally granted a permit to begin composting manure, food and yard waste.

Andy Harpenau (right) at Gretna Sanitation's compost farm

Soil science

Several different feedstocks—yard waste, food waste and animal manure from the local zoo—are hauled to the farm, compiled in rows and repeatedly turned over, mixed and watered.

“There are so many moving parts,” Harpenau says. “It’s so complex.”

Odor is one of the major complaints that composting farms generate; however, Harpenau discovered only a handful of compost farms out of thousands across the country make headlines for odor problems. He called around and found out the issue was a simple fix.

“All of their odor complaints were happening before 8 a.m. and after 4 p.m. That’s because people are home. For us, we don’t turn compost before 8 or after 4,” he says. “Now, only a handful of people show up when it’s time to renew permits.”

In addition to being mindful of the time when turning compost, Harpenau’s team also continuously pumps water into the windrows to adequately process the organics on site and suppress odors.

“We use a lot of water on our windrows,” Harpenau says. “Water is your friend. It helps break down waste faster and holds odor down. We keep our rows at 50 percent moisture. That’s your goal.”

He says it takes about four to six weeks before the processed organics are ready to be moved into a curing pile. After the compost is cured, it is ready to be sold to end consumers through the farm’s distribution arm, Soil Dynamics.

Soil Dynamics currently sells its organic composted soil and mulch straight from the farm, but Harpenau’s goal is to eventually offer it at nearby commercial locations.

Setting themselves apart

In the process of starting the compost farm, Harpenau says he has been able to set Gretna Sanitation apart from the competition.

“It’s made us profitable,” he says. “It’s given us a niche. We’ve signed up new hauling customers because of the composting. It’s the uniqueness of being able to compost food waste, ag waste, manure, yard waste. We’ve differentiated ourselves with specialized services that nobody else can provide.”

In 2017, the company established its outreach division, Hillside Solutions, to help spread the word about the work Gretna Sanitation is doing.

Brent Crampton, director of partnerships, joined Hillside Solutions in January. He goes out to schools, apartment communities and businesses to talk about the recycling and compostable hauling services of the company, along with the composting soil conversion of Soil Dynamics. He also meets with customers and finds out what their challenges are and figures out ways to streamline their recycling services.

Harpenau says with the help of Hillside Solutions, a number of schools and businesses in the area have started their own composting programs intent on diverting organics from landfill and creating richer soil to be used for gardening.

While the public embrace of organics collection and diversion is great from an environmental and public relations perspective, Crampton says, Gretna Sanitation’s foray into composting has helped serve as a model of what benefits haulers can realize when they rethink their traditional approach to waste management.

“We’re the only ones in town that have a compost farm, and are the only people to pick up organics,” Crampton says. “This is the future of the waste industry, and it’s not a nonprofit. It’s a business.”

The author is a digital editor for Waste Today and can be contacted at kmaile@gie.net.