Doug Hall and Dianna Johnson farm poop. Technically, they farm chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation, but they supplement their income by hoarding giant piles of decomposing chicken manure for compost.
In a large barn, Johnson stands next to one of two, 30-ton mounds of rotting manure.
“This is a pile that is about two months old that we started on March 23, and we take the temperatures and turn it about every three to five days. And after, about, six to nine months, depending on the quantity of carbon we were able to get into the initial mix, it will be our finished product, which is this.”
Hall has raised chickens on their farm, WP Ranch for twelve years. Now that Johnson works with him, their operation includes four barns, each housing thousands of chickens that eat and poop and then grow to the appropriate sizes for Pilgrim’s Pride products. The two farmers also square bale Bermuda hay, but even with both of these endeavors, Johnson and Hall felt they did not possess enough reliable income. Their Bermuda hay could die from frost, and market prices for their chickens didn’t always compensate for their input costs.
“We haven’t gotten a raise for our chickens that we grow in five years.”
As bills piled up, Johnson thought of the 700 tons of manure the ranch produced annually.
“When Doug said, ‘You know, we’ve got to do something with the cleanouts.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s compost this. I think that gardeners and golf courses and landscapers would love this.”
Hall latched onto the idea, and they created a monster. While Johnson conducted research on the science of composting, Hall began to assemble old pieces of farm equipment into makeshift sifting and bagging machines that they affectionately call “Frank” and “Stein”.
“What we do is, we feed it through this end down here. See how it turns and it’s sifting out? Now come down here and look right in here. All the fines go right down in that auger.”
That’s Hall giving a demonstration of his masterpiece. After the manure decomposes in carefully monitored piles for six to nine months, Hall and Johnson load it into Frank, an old rock tumbler. Frank sifts out rocks and breaks up large chunks, and then the system augers the product through Stein, a discarded feed bin that they use to bag the compost. Hall says the system is very low-tech, but it has saved him money. Johnson and Hall have put countless hours into constructing the machines, but so far, they have only invested $1,000 into composting equipment.
For that money, they have created WP Ranch’s Composted Soil Amendment. They say the product improves soil through organic means.
“Our compost has live organisms in it that breakdown our compost. Those organisms that feed those plants and improve the soil. You’re going to have less disease in your plants. You’ll definitely have more productive plants.”
After two years of experimentation, Hall and Johnson put their product on the market, and they have spent the past year selling it. According to the two farmers, they have earned back their initial investment and have probably sold a total of three tons of composted chicken manure through local stores and through their Web site. But input costs for their chicken farm continue to rise and Johnson has student loan payments incurred from her two Murray State degrees. The compost must keep selling for Hall and Johnson to continue performing the jobs they love.
Lincoln Martin, UK Ag extension agent from Marshall County says it’s not that easy. He says agricultural difficulties affect farms around the country and that many growers like Johnson and Hall fall subject to factors beyond their control.
“There’s a lot of manual labor that has to be done. There’s a lot of money borrowed. There’s a lot of risk involved in producing an animal or a crop, and I think that’s why you see the number of the farms decreasing around the country, including Kentucky, because it’s a difficult, risky business environment.”
But for Hall and Johnson, survival simply took a little bit of creativity and several tons of chicken poop.