Dressed in jeans and sturdy boots, prepared to trudge through mud and filth, and with my husband’s parting words, “You might want to take a clothespin for your nose” ringing in my ears, I approached my visit to Veteran Compost with a mix of trepidation and cluelessness. Sure, I had done my basic research, but the website’s reference to the “million worms on the farm” didn’t do much to assuage my concerns.
So imagine my surprise when I pulled in the drive of the Aberdeen farm that serves as home base for the company and smelled – absolutely nothing. Even walking right between the piles of compost, I couldn’t smell a thing other than the fresh scent of a crisp fall day on a farm. And when Veteran Compost owner and founder Justen Garrity escorted me into the small building that houses troughs filled with “vermicompost” – or worm castings – it took him turning over handfuls of the rich soil amendment to see even one of the million or so worms apparently in residence there.
Climbing down from his tractor to greet me, the 30-year-old entrepreneur took time out of his busy schedule to pull up a seat on the screened-in porch of an old farmhouse and share his inspirational success story with I95 Business.
From Worcester to Aberdeen By Way of Iraq
While Garrity grew up in Maryland and Pennsylvania, his career journey started at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where an ROTC scholarship propelled him to a bachelor’s degree in management of information systems. After graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and spent the next five years on active duty, serving in South Korea, Missouri and Iraq and garnering numerous military awards.
Following a 15-month deployment in Iraq, Garrity transitioned to the National Guard to be closer to his family. Returning home to the worst job market in decades, he quickly found himself unemployed – unable to get even an entry-level job despite his college degree and proven leadership skills in the military. Drawing on his field-tested resilience and initiative, Garrity decided to start his own business rather than rely on others for his fate.
A Different Kind of Green
Thanks to a childhood spent outdoors and years of Scouting that instilled in him a deep appreciation of nature, when Garrity started researching businesses, he knew he wanted to do something that would benefit the environment. Garrity initially looked at electronics recycling, but it represented a “small sliver” of the waste stream and a number of area businesses already offered the service. He came across compost as an alternative and quickly realized its huge potential.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more food reaches landfills and incinerators than any other single material in municipal solid waste, with just three percent of food scraps diverted by composting. Best of all, Garrity says it’s good business: while he is essentially providing a manufacturing service and making money selling his end products, he also gets paid for raw materials on the front end by the restaurants, schools and hospitals who pay him to collect their scraps.
Garrity says he also liked the idea that composting was more of a leading edge idea. “This is the next Internet garage boom,” he says. “Out in San Francisco or Seattle it’s mandatory for restaurants to compost. Eventually that will be nationwide.” He also points out that with the rising price of trash collection, composting is a more affordable alternative even for companies not concerned with the environmental benefits.
A Slow Start
In July of 2010, Garrity started his first pile of compost, but despite building it, people did not come – at least not right away. Veteran Compost didn’t get its first paying foodscrap customer for six months. His big break finally came when a restaurant that had been using another company got fed up with their terrible service and asked Garrity to take over the account. From that slow start, today Veteran Compost is fully booked on the collection side and there is a waiting list for new customers.
On the compost sales side, things are equally rosy, as Garrity has won over legions of fans ranging from farmers and landscapers to homeowners. He says, “People who bought four or five bags our first season ordered four or five yards the next season. We have great repeat business and word of mouth referrals because we deliver a great product.“ Today, Veteran Compost products are available at pick-up points in Philadelphia and Northern Virginia as well as in Maryland.
The business has also tapped into the Internet as a sales channel, including selling the special worms needed to produce vermicompost to every state and even the Virgin Islands. “This time of year it’s our best seller,” says Garrity. “People can’t garden but can start a bin to make compost for next spring.”
Entrepreneur of the Year
Garrity’s innovative business model and hard work has not gone unnoticed. The Maryland Daily Record named him one of “20 In Their 20s” to watch in 2011, and in 2012 the Harford County Chamber of Commerce awarded Veteran Compost its prestigious Harford Award in the entrepreneur category.
Garrity attributes his success to solid business practices and a focus on social responsibility including a commitment to hiring veterans and military families. “Our sales and marketing approach is not to convince people they should compost but to be easy to find for those people who know they want to do it,” says Garrity. He says it helps that gardening is the No. 1 hobby in the country, so gardening enthusiasts just “open their wallets” for quality products.
To reach this lucrative homeowner group, Garrity speaks to gardening clubs and schools and is a fixture on the farmers’ market circuit. One of his favorite moments was when a young child came up to him at a farmer’s market and proudly showed him a picture of a radish he had grown with the help of Veteran Compost. “We’re not just selling widgets, I’m really passionate about this,” Garrity explains.
Plans for Growth
Not one to rest on his laurels, Garrity has big plans for the future, starting with hiring another employee early next year. (Current staff include a former Army Blackhawk pilot, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan and a military spouse, who he says often have trouble finding work because they move around so much.) Garrity also plans to double his capacity in Aberdeen in the next couple of months, with the longer-term goal of duplicating his operation in other locations around the state, as well as in the Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia metro areas. Finally, he plans to expand his service to accept drop-offs from food processing plants that may have food scraps left over after making fruit salads for a supermarket chain, for instance.
When asked what he considers his biggest accomplishment, Garrity cites reaching profitability. “Everyone says it’s fun to own your own business but those first 18 months before we hit break-even were not fun.” Conversely, he says his biggest business challenge was learning to run a business and how to compost at the same time.
In terms of lessons learned, Garrity says the one thing he would have done differently was invest in better equipment from the start. “I should have invested in better stuff because it led to inefficiencies and equipment companies are willing to finance in this economy. I bought a tractor that didn’t run and a truck that was unreliable, but on the bright side I’m a pretty decent diesel mechanic now!” I95