Ag Choice hauls, depackages and produces animal feed and compost. Founders Jay and Jill Fischer embrace new opportunities, and then figure out how to maximize efficiencies and profitability.
BioCycle first visited Ag Choice in 2007, two years after Jay and Jill Fischer started their organics collection and composting enterprise in Andover, New Jersey. At the time, composting was an offshoot of Jay’s family sawmill, which sold sawdust to small horse farms in the area, and backhauled manure and bedding to compost. Ag Choice also was collecting preconsumer organics from several area grocery stores.
The housing bust in 2008 hit the sawmill hard. “We made the difficult decision to close the sawmill, and literally a day later, we got a call from a national waste management company asking if we would sign a contract with them to accept commercial organics,” recalls Jay Fischer. “We haven’t looked back since.”
The original Ag Choice composting facility was on a roughly 4-acre farm-based site. It started out with a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) assignment, which exempted Ag Choice from having a much more costly Class C solid waste permit. Initially, the RD&D was issued to Ag Choice to show it could compost food scraps, manure and yard trimmings in outdoor windrows on compacted soil. (The Class C permit for these types of feedstocks requires composting in an enclosed building on a concrete floor.)
“Our original RD&D permit was for 10,000 cubic yards (cy)/year of organic materials,” notes Fischer. “We were limited to preconsumer food scraps. Today, we are located at a larger, 8-acre site in Andover, New Jersey, and are permitted — still under an RD&D assignment — to take in 38,000 cy/year of materials, including pre and postconsumer food scraps and all proteins such as meats, dairy and seafood. Our current research focus is odor control, and we are planning to also evaluate options for storm water management.”
Ag Choice started out with a pull-behind Midwest Bio-Systems (MBS) windrow turner. The Fischers, and Matt Hillsdon, their composting site manager, took the MBS compost training course, and follow the practices of adding clay and other ingredients to their composting recipe to optimize the microlife and trace nutrients. In 2012, the company replaced its MBS turner with a pre-owned Komptech Top Turn 4000. “It doubled to tripled the volume we could do with a pull-behind turner,” notes Jill Fischer. “Windrows are 8-feet tall, 14-feet wide and about 250-feet long.” The composting process is 10 to 14 weeks, from raw feedstocks to stable humus, she adds. Windrows are turned on a defined schedule from commencement through completion.
The most recent addition to the composting site is a pre-owned Komptech Star Screen, along with two Hurrikan air classifiers to remove plastic from finished compost. The Komptech replaced a small Screen USA star screen that performed well, but “we outgrew it,” says Jill Fischer. “The star screen is electric-powered and runs off a diesel generator. It can process 200 cy/hour of compost, and gives us the capability to fill big orders.” Ag Choice only sells compost and blended soils in bulk, and supplies landscape contractors and area garden centers for retail sales.
A New Chapter
Over the years, Ag Choice expanded the range of food waste it processes, especially from food processors. “We kept getting calls from packaged food companies wanting to know if we can take their off spec or out-of-date products,” explains Jay Fischer. “We tried lots of ways to manually depackage these feedstocks, but there is no way to unpack them by hand and make it profitable.”
Then, in October 2011, the Fischers received a call from a consultant to Nestlé Nespresso U.S.A. “The consultant asked if we were familiar with Nespresso, and I said, ‘yeah, sure’,” says Fischer. “Nespresso was looking for a facility to recycle its used coffee capsules, which is part of its commitment to creating shared value. As soon as I hung up, I went on the Internet and learned that the capsules were aluminum, and contained coffee grounds. Jill and I discussed this opportunity and decided to say yes. I am the quintessential entrepreneur and knew I could find a way to make it work.”
The first step was to locate a warehouse to house the processing line, along with storage of the capsules. The Fischers leased a 15,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Johnsonburg, and hired Dennis Deignan to oversee operations and Jeff Smith to manage the processing line. “We like to hire people from our community, many of whom I’ve grown up with,” he adds. “We promote a family-friendly atmosphere and are growing Ag Choice together.”
The second step was to identify and purchase a piece of equipment that could break open the capsules and separate the aluminum from the coffee. While researching options, Fischer found a You Tube video of a Scott Equipment Turbo Separator. He contacted Scott Equipment, and sent samples of the capsules to depackage. “It worked,” recalls Fischer, who collaborated with Nespresso to purchase a unit. “I designed the line that feeds the Turbo Separator.”
Nespresso offers pre-paid recycling bags free of charge for customers in 48 states to mail back used capsules to be recycled. Those customers can bring their bag filled with used capsules to any UPS drop off location, Nespresso boutique, or select retail partner. Once capsules are collected, they are sent to Ag Choice where the aluminum is separated from coffee grounds. The coffee grounds are turned into nutrient-rich compost and topsoil and the aluminum is processed and sent back to the value chain to be reused to produce new products. “We receive thousands of pounds of capsules shipped each day from consumers or collected loose at Nespresso boutiques and transported in bins,” notes Fischer. “In addition, Nespresso sends us unused coffee capsules in their original packaging that are off spec or past their sell-by date.”