Bill Stene buried his hand in a mound of what used to be manure, shredded paper, sugar beet tailings and grass clippings. He pulled out a handful of dark, nutrient-packed compost.
"If we've got a good one, this is it," he said, referring to the second of six long windrows of compost on his farm near Billings.
Stene will know soon when he gets results back from a lab. The tests will determine the level of nutrients and weed seed in the compost. If the mixture passes muster, Stene will screen it to remove rocks, and the compost will be ready for use as a soil additive.
Composting takes waste that would typically end up in the landfill and turns it into something beneficial.
If all goes well, Stene and his partners - his wife, Sabra, and John Reinholz, of Reinholz Custom Footwear - will be producing a lot more compost.
"We'd be looking to make a high-quality compost," Stene said.
The partners are planning a large operation that would take in 5,000 tons of waste material a year and produce more than 22,000 yards of compost. They plan to sell the compost and use it on the Stene farm located four miles north of Billings.
The Stenes and Reinholz have applied to the state Department of Environmental Quality for a solid-waste management license. DEQ conducted an environmental assessment and concluded May 2 that the environmental effects would be minor. DEQ intends to issue a license. The public has 30 days to comment on the proposal.
Stene, who sells real estate and manages property, and Reinholz view the venture as good for the environment and a good business prospect.
The operation would be on 60 acres of the 895-acre main portion of the Stene farm. Ten acres would be used for active composting.
Stene and Reinholz started out thinking they could get by as a small composter, which doesn't require a license. But they soon realized they needed more room than the two acres allowed by DEQ for a small composter. Stene joked he couldn't turn the tractor around on just two acres.
Mike DaSilva, a solid and hazardous-waste specialist with the DEQ, said composting operations generally don't have a lot of problems if they're not using materials like food scraps or sewage sludge.
If not managed properly, there can be odors, DaSilva said. But that can be fixed easily by turning the pile to keep oxygen in the mix. He also said the Stene operation is in the middle of the ranch. The nearest home is more than a half-mile away.
The site is 1,600 feet west of Rattlesnake Lake. The windrows would be located uphill of an alfalfa field that has a 4-foot dam at its low end.
This would be the first large composting operation in Yellowstone County, DaSilva said. There are a few others in the state.
Materials to be composted would come from local lawn maintenance businesses, MetraPark, the Western Sugar Cooperative and Montana Mobile Document Shredding. Stene estimates in the environmental assessment that he currently has 2,500 tons of compostable material on site, consisting of 250 tons of paper, 3,750 yards of sugar beet tailings, 120 yards of lawn clippings and 3,900 yards of manure.
That may sound like a lot of waste, but it doesn't look or smell like it. Rather, the materials are in various stages of evolving into compost through natural processes. What began as 16 windrows of raw material several months ago has turned into six rows of nearly completed compost. White shredded paper appears in the larger windrows that are at the beginning stages of decomposition.
Serious composting may seem like an unlikely project for a land man and a custom shoemaker, but the partnership is rooted in a long friendship.
"John, he's always good for these hare-brained ideas," said Stene, ribbing Reinholz.
Reinholz is interested in horticulture and enjoys what he calls garden farming - growing sweet corn, potatoes and other vegetables for the farmers market. "I call it a big garden," he said of his 100 acres.
Reinholz is intent on reducing the amount of chemicals and fertilizers needed to grow healthy crops by improving the soil. "If you feed the soil, the solid will feed the plants," he said. And stronger plants are better able to resist disease and bugs.
Using compost helps replenish the soil with nutrients and makes it hold moisture better, Reinholz said.
"We'd like to wean ourselves of so many chemicals," Stene said.
The men have visited large composing operations in Illinois and Minnesota and have taken classes on composting from Midwest Bio-Systems Inc., of Tampico, Ill., which makes the compost turner they purchased. The partners have invested approximately $90,000 in equipment, which includes buying a new compost turner and a used pay loader, dump truck and tractor.
Stene said the tractor has a "granny gear," which allows it to go slow enough for the first pass through a windrow. At the rate of a foot a minute, the first run through a 600-foot long windrow can several hours to mix the fresh wastes. "The first time is a killer," Stene said. But as the wastes break down, turning the piles takes considerably less time.
The compost turner runs along the side of the tractor and has rotating blades that mix the waste materials while introducing oxygen. Water can be sprayed into the mixture from a water tank that attaches to the equipment.
Stene said he keeps a close eye on the temperature and takes samples from the windrows. Heat generated from decomposition kills pathogens, but temperatures greater than about 155 degrees can kill the good bacteria breaking down the wastes, he said.
While Stene takes care of the on-site operations, Reinholz has lined up the waste sources primarily through friends he's met playing baseball and through church. Sabra Stene is in charge of the books.
In addition to selling the finished compost, the Stenes plan to spread it around their farm. Although the land already is platted for a subdivision, Stene is in no hurry to develop. He is busy planting wheat and alfalfa. He also intends to grow grass and has ordered 100 trees. The trees are the first of many he is going to plant on the acreage purchased a little more than a year ago.
Stene said he likes good landscaping and wants to preserve the land as a farm and ranch.