Rana Bains checks a pair of yard-long thermometers planted deep into a mound of compost stretched out along an old dairy farm in Fulton. “They’re not done cooking yet,” he says from under his white and navy-blue baseball cap. “These are the new piles. We just started them last week.”
Over the next five months, Bains will meticulously monitor and tend to nearly 30 rows of compost — made from a mixture of sawdust, animal manure and decomposing food — which he’ll turn into topsoil and other compost mixtures to sell to gardeners, landscapers and farmers who are looking to improve their soil condition.
His company, Bluebird Composting, has been making and selling compost for six years by collecting food and animal waste from local schools, farms and businesses across mid-Missouri — quite literally turning other people’s trash into treasure.
Last month, Bluebird expanded its pickup operations into Columbia by launching a pilot program with the University of Missouri’s Campus Dining Services. Bains said Columbia is the fourth city to partner with Bluebird, after Macon, Marshall and Fulton. Soon, he plans to expand into Jefferson City as well.
“More and more people are jumping on it,” Bains said regarding compost use. “It’s the best way to improve your soil, and it’s the best way to manage your food waste.”
By composting food, he said, cities can mitigate waste that would otherwise go into a landfill, taking up space, creating environmentally unfriendly methane gas and contaminating groundwater with runoff. Plus, he said, the result is a product he can sell that also improves Missouri’s often clay-rich soil.
Currently, Bluebird produces up to 18,000 tons of compost a year, but Bains said the company has been nearly doubling its production annually since opening in 2012. Already, at least 33 stores sell Bluebird’s products in 20 different Missouri cities, including Jefferson City, Columbia and St. Louis.
Those sales have helped Bluebird grow steadily, Bains said. But that doesn’t mean the company is seeing a profit just yet. Bains said he is focusing on reinvesting in the business to expand its reach and hire new employees.
The company now has eight employees, compared to just two when it first opened, and Bains said concentrating on growth will lead to bigger contracts and better profits in the long run.
Ron Hausheer, Bluebird’s Fulton site manager, said one reason business is picking up is that people are becoming more aware of the benefits of composting. Not just environmentally, he said, but also as a health benefit, since compost adds nutrients back into soil that go into the fruits and vegetables that people grow.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an omnivore, a vegetarian, a vegan,” he said. “It all starts with what comes from the ground.”
Bains said customers also come to Bluebird because the company doesn’t add any fertilizers or chemicals that might compromise the quality of its product. Fertilizers and even seemingly harmless things like grass clippings can often be laced with pesticides or other chemicals that aren’t necessarily healthy for human consumption, he said, and some people are looking for more natural options.
That’s one of the reasons Carissa Mueller started buying compost from Bluebird. Mueller recently built a garden at her home in Holts Summit and was tired of buying compost and not knowing exactly what was in it. So, finding Bluebird was the perfect fit, she said.
“I made two trips yesterday. This is my second trip today, and I might make a third,” Mueller said. “This is probably the cheapest topsoil I’ve found, and it’s natural, good topsoil — and local.”
Bains said that’s the point. He wants Bluebird to be an example of how people can run their businesses in a sustainable way, rather than solely focusing on the bottom line.
Growing up on a dairy farm in India, he said, sustainability wasn’t a buzzword people used for marketing, but a way of life. They raised livestock and grew crops to make a profit, but they also took care of the environment and focused on creating a healthy local economy, he said, to ensure their way of life could sustain itself in the long run.
That’s what Bluebird does, Bains said, by taking waste that would otherwise be harmful and giving it a useful purpose again. “We convert that (waste) into compost and put that back into your raised bed or your soil. You grow again, and you eat,” he said. “It’s closing the loop.”