Aug 6, 2019Michigan firm thrives in soil health market
A growing compost business in Michigan sees its role as helping farmers grow more high-value fruit and vegetable crops.
Morgan Composting’s headquarters sits on top of a hill in remote Sears, Michigan, where the family once milked cows. What began in 1996 as a family-run dairy with extra cow manure has become a composting company with a booming business serving everyone from backyard gardeners to large specialty crop growers. The company not only manufactures and mixes compost but also does product development and marketing. The family also still grows 600 acres of corn and 10 acres of mixed vegetables.
The company has 38 full-time employees. Now in their 80s, Dale and Reenie Morgan remain involved with the business, looking over the company books. Brad, the second generation, is company president. Brad’s son Justin Morgan is vice president, while his other sons Jeremie (materials) and Jacob (mechanical) are heavily involved in specific parts of the company.
The business has grown to five composting sites in Michigan in addition to its Sears location. From its flagship product, Dairy Doo, it has developed a full line of more than 15 retail products.
“Not all compost is the same,” said Brad Morgan. “Everything that you’re doing basically has a recipe.”
Cooking up compost
Every recipe has ingredients. Some of the raw materials that the company composts include regional cow manure, chicken manure from southwest Michigan and yard waste from the city of Kalamazoo.
The company buys other substances from farther afield: rail car tanks of fish product, meat and bone meal, feather meal, kelp, Leonardite ore, greensand and many other materials..
“We carry a wide variety of hard-to-find organic products,” Justin Morgan said while giving a tour of a warehouse. “Each individual ingredient carries its own power, so to speak.”
The company also manufactures its own humic acid – valued for helping plant roots absorb nutrients – and worm castings from European crawlers and smaller “red wigglers.”
Pre-mixed products, and custom mixes ordered by large growers, are laid out in rows for further decomposition.
“Once it’s right, we turn it every three days, and the temperature is constantly monitored,” Brad said. As beneficial bacteria break down organic material, the thermophilic compost’s temperature soars to 140˚ F, killing off weed seeds and pathogens.
Specialty crops’ special interest
The business continues to grow as there is increased interest in soil health in general, and composting in particular, among specialty crop growers.
The composting program at Washington state’s Stemilt Growers was featured at Tilth Alliance Conference last fall. The growers, whose operations focus mainly on apples and cherries, use the process to convert culls and waste apple and cherries into compost with manure, according to a blog post by the Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences.
Research trials by Michigan State University’s (MSU) Marisol Quintanilla found that some composted manures such as the Layer Ash Blend from Morgan Composting reduce the numbers of unwanted nematodes that can hurt fruit trees and are thought to cause orchard replant issues.
At the same time, composting is subject to additional scrutiny from a food safety perspective. The Food Safety Modernization Act’s Produce Safety Rule includes detailed guidelines for how manure, food residue and other composting materials should be stored and properly applied.
“In general, if compost is applied in a manner that minimizes the potential for contact with the harvestable portion of the crop, it would be considered a lower risk than a broadcast application over the top of a crop,” according to Phil Tocco of MSU Extension. “Aim to minimize direct contact of compost with the crop as much as practical.”
Morgan Composting has also seen an increased interest in compost.
“I figure we’re touching 200,000 acres in Michigan right now,” Brad Morgan said. Customers range from home gardens to serious growers with 15,000 acres.
Specialty crop growers, including vegetable growers, use it to strengthen soils drained by demanding crops.
“Farmers need to improve their soils to put back what their crops take out of the soil,” Justin Morgan said.
The benefits of compost are a healthy diversity of microbes. Justin Morgan said tests by Ohio State University’s Bug in a Jug program have found between 12,000-52,000 microorganisms in one gram of its soil.
“There’s been a big push on soil health,” Brad Morgan said. Organic growing has surged in reaction to consumer perceptions of traditional chemical sprays and fertilizers. Strong composts, biocontrols and biostimulants are part of the organic growers’ toolbox.
Justin Morgan said he’s optimistic about the future. Livestock farmers need to dispose of manures. Fruit and vegetable growers need healthy soil. Composting can help them both.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “Farmers can do more cash crops.”
Above, Justin Morgan, vice president of Morgan Composting, stands next to a windrow of compost at the company’s Marion warehouse. Photo: Stephen Kloosterman