Christiansen Farms is a third- generation family operation located in Peotone, Illinois. It currently is run by siblings Larry, Alan and Dennis Christiansen.
When their father purchased the farm in 1961, they could never have foreseen it would evolve into one of the largest producers of compost throughout the state of Illinois, but indeed it has.
When the state legislature banned organic material from landfills back in the early 1990s, Larry wasted no time positioning the farm as a key player in the nascent industry. “I had no idea what I was going to do with it, but I was already calling waste haulers to get them to bring us their material,” he recalls.
He started applying yard waste to the farms’ fields in 1992. This was the beginning of its part in recycling the landscape waste that used to be dumped in the landfills, the company says. As time moved on, the family started composting these materials on their farm.
Over the last 20 years, Christiansen Farms has become very sophisticated in managing its green waste intake and quite smart about transforming it into compost. In 2005, it obtained a permit to operate a compost site from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Christiansen Farms takes in grass clippings, branches and leaves. It grinds and mixes them to enhance their natural break down. After about six months, the compost can be used as a soil amendment. According to the company’s website, “It is rich in nutrients, organic matter and microbes that plants need. In fact, Christiansen Farms regularly applies compost to our own fields to reduce fertilizer applications and improve the soil’s health.”
One of the smartest decisions Larry will tell you he ever made was equipment related. More than five years ago, Larry replaced his high-speed grinder with a Doppstadt DW 3060SA slow-speed shredder to process the green waste used to make compost.
“It was the first time we had ever been able to keep up with the material coming in,” he shares. “It is impossible to stop that machine, even with matted wet grass or leaves. The slow and steady action works through our material as fast as we can feed it in.”
Last year, he finally replaced that Doppstadt with another Doppstadt slow-speed shredder. Christiansen Farms’ original shredder had put in more than 7,000 hours of service time, and Larry determined that a new machine would be able to perform even more efficiently.
This time, he selected a DW3060K with the BioPower configuration. “The BioPower model is perfect for what we’re doing. It’s more aggressive at grinding material like yard waste, grass and leaves, and the output is a little finer too,” says Larry. The K designation indicates the machine is on a tracked chassis, another additional advantage he has come to appreciate over its previous model. “Honestly, I wish our first Doppstadt was on tracks,” Larry admits. “We used to pull that previous machine with an excavator as were producing material, but it would require us to shut down, pull it forward, get it lined up properly and turn it back on.
Larry says now the excavator operator can simply crawl the machine remotely from the cab. “It’s incredibly convenient and is saving us a lot of time,” he says.
Investing in a new machine was a crucial decision for Christiansen Farms. For more than 20 years, it has been one of the leading compost producers in Illinois, but the economic worksheet continues to change and evolve, and operations that don’t upgrade or change themselves will quickly find they are outside of the profit trajectory.
“We’re finding the revenue economics have not changed much from when we purchased our first Doppstadt,” notes Larry. “And by that, I mean we have not been able to get many rate increases on our tipping fees over the last five years.”
He adds, “We have not really been able to raise our rates for selling the compost either. But costs have gone up on the other side of the balance sheet, so we realized we needed to be more efficient to maintain our business.”
“We’re finding the revenue economics have not changed much from when we purchased our first Doppstadt. And by that, I mean we have not been able to get many rate increases on our tipping fees over the last five years.” – Larry Christiansen
In addition to streamlining production, expanding the farms’ market and product scope is another area of concentration. One of the new opportunities the farm is now pursuing involves blending their compost into specialty soil mixes.
Larry recognizes the significant potential in marketing to customers who do not want to purchase pure compost but would otherwise benefit from a custom-made blend. These mixes can be employed across numerous applications, allowing Christiansen Farms to broadening its customer base for its compost-derived products.
Christiansen Farms sees certain applications for its screening overs as another potential area for growth.
“I’m looking at uses for our overs in agriculture bioreactors to absorb nitrogen and keep it from leaching into the rivers,” explains Larry. “We see some wood chip applications on the horizon. And we’re even beginning to see some food waste possibilities.”
The company is waiting for the right partner to come along before it jumps in whole hog. “But food waste composting is going to happen for sure,” Larry says.
It’s a reality that compost producers will need to embrace to continue thriving into the future.
“The landscaping market really took a hit back in 2008 and has not really ever recovered to quite the level it had been,” Larry says. “This will be our second season with an aggressive marketing campaign, and we are out actively pursuing new market share and responding to the opportunities we see to offer different kinds of products and solutions.”
For all the potential opportunities the family foresees, Larry recognizes that plenty of challenges still need to be to overcome in the current economic environment. Equipment issues don’t need to be one of them.
“Once things get going in March, it’s pretty much nonstop though the summer,” he says. “It’s comforting to know that we can get through an entire season without a breakdown, or a need to change flails or some other machine-related headache. We don’t need any more distractions, and the reliability for us has been tremendous.”