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Sustainable agriculture comes to life as Rana Bains feeds his soul.


By Joann Pipkin

 

Rana Bains in front of Bluebird Composting.Laying the Foundation


Raised on a 300-cow dairy farm in India, Bains’ and his family also grew sugar cane, rice, wheat and alfalfa. Rare for an Indian to come to the United States to study agriculture instead of medicine or technology, nonetheless Bains first landed in California to learn dairy science at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. With sustainable farming always on his mind, the young entrepreneur got his first taste of the agricultural buzzword while interning in Vermont. He later found himself studying business at the University of Missouri, earning a degree in 2010.

“I wanted to do something to improve our soil,” Bains explains. “I wanted to find out more about crops and how they do sustainable farming.”

The Vermont experience opened Bains’ eyes to the world of compost, how it feeds the soil and the plants that emerge from it.

“(With compost), you’re improving organic matter in the soil,” Bains explains. “That means less runoff into the creeks and into the rivers. And, farmers are going to have a better crop.”

He returned from his northeast venture with a simple mission: “We’ve got to do this,” Bains says. “We’re supporting a community, improving the environment and we’re making a living at the same time.”

Still, Bains knew his business would have to be different to thrive. Sustainable agriculture is all about enhancing the quality of life for farms and society while maintaining the economic viability of those operations, yet it’s a rare gem in the Midwest.

Since 2012, Bluebird Composting has milled locally-sourced organic materials such as wood chips, sawdust, food waste, chicken litter and horse manure into specialized compost. Corn and soybean growers as well as vegetable farmers, backyard gardeners and landscapers in a 250-mile radius of Callaway County purchase Bains’ product in bag and bulk form at both retail outlets and on-site.

“We produce a very high quality compost so people that pour that in their corn fields, in their soybean fields, in their veggie garden, on the grass – it has completely changed their soil and the grass grows so well,” Bains says. “Our goal is to feed the soil. Once we feed the soil, the rest is history.”

 

 

Feeding the Soil


sifting compost A screen sifts compost before it is bagged or sold in bulk at Bluebird Composting. Maintaining temperature between 130 and 150 degrees is crucial in the compost process so beneficial microbes are kept alive.

The process of turning organic waste into a valuable commodity is no overnight sensation. Within 48 hours of arrival at Bains’ facility, waste product is sifted and sorted, to ensure its quality.

“We keep all of our compost on the site,” Bains explains. “We mix all (of the components) together and then the pile is moved every week. We’re checking moisture. We have to have 50 to 60 percent in it. In all we do, we try to provide a good environment for the microbes and bacteria to start composting material.”

Moisture content is especially important in the formation of compost, Bains says. Once the temperature of the mix goes higher than 150 degrees, a compost turner rotates the pile every other day depending on the time of year. If the pile is not turned, temperature drops.

The entire process is really about the biology of compost where water and nutrients from waste are released, pulling in oxygen and resulting in a product that gardeners and farmers can use to feed the soil.

“Our goal is to maintain temperature between 130 and 150 degrees in order to keep beneficial microbes alive in the compost,” Bains explains. “So, if you start with 100 cubic yards of material, you are left with 40 to 60 percent to take care of by the microbes.”

Next, a bioassay test ensures no chemicals are in the blend before it is sent to a lab for additional review. Afterward, a half-inch screener sifts the compost before it is bagged or sold in bulk. The process typically takes 4 to 5 months to complete, but Bains says when daytime temperatures are higher than 90 degrees, compost is ready in about 3 months.

 

 

Finding a Partner


Rana Bains in front of compost pile.Launching a business like Bains’ would be no easy task. The sustainability concept alone wasn’t commonplace in his newfound mid-Missouri home away from home. It would require capital and land up front.

Bains credits his business degree for helping him get his feet wet, though his first attempts at securing financing were unsuccessful.

“Banks didn’t have any data (on this type of business),” he says.

Already three years in business under his belt, a friend introduced him to a long-time FCS Financial member, who proved to be key in Bains’ securing credit to purchase the land that now houses his operation. And, working with FCS Financial will now allow him to make permanent improvements to his facility.

As it turns out, the site was once home to a dairy farm where Bains worked while in college.

“I was very comfortable here and how I was going to make it work,” Bains says of the land he now owns.

While not your typical agriculture venture, Bains’ composting operation meshes well with more traditional FCS Financial cooperators.

FCS Financial’s Jeremy Haley says Bains’ business knowledge was paramount in building their relationship.

“It’s a testament to Rana saying, ‘here’s my numbers, here’s what I do, here’s who I do business with. I take it to the farmer. Farmer’s want this in place of fertilizer.’”

Bains took having his ducks in a row in stride when he met with Haley. “You’ve got to know your numbers,” he says. “If you don’t know, hire someone who knows the numbers. Otherwise, you will not keep your workers who depend on you.”

Haley appreciates the diversity Bains’ operation brings to the table. “Meeting Rana, it was ‘here’s what I do and here’s my business.’ There was no table of contents that told us what the answer should be; there’s no road map.”

 

 

Marketing an Unknown


Rana Bains, Bluebird Composting Rana Bains turns waste into want in his Fulton-based compost business.

Financing was just one hoop Bains had to jump through in building his compost operation. Marketing a virtually unknown product took the word challenge to another level.

“It’s something new that people aren’t used to,” Bains says of his organic compost.

Backyard gardeners aren’t as concerned about crop yield as corn, soybean and vegetable farmers. “Our main focus is on how we’re going to keep (our customers) happy and convince the people who are making a living off farming that you can produce a product that will make them happy, increase their production, lower their production cost,” he says.

And, convincing them of that is a big challenge. Bains goes on to explain the difficulty in explaining to corn and soybean growers how compost can improve their bottom line.

That’s where research comes to play. A project Bains’ conducted resulted in his company creating a three-year program for farmers where they use his compost while also cutting back on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium application. “As you’re cutting back (on those nutrients), your production is going up,” he explains. “It’s going to be cost neutral to you, and you don’t need to lime anymore.”

In addition to showing customers how the compost can improve the cost of production through his research project, Bains attends conferences and classes, educating himself and others on the benefits of organic compost and its sustainability.

Bluebird Compost Premium Blend CompostIt’s been a hard sell, however Bains says once people see the results, they realize the good in his product. Plus, it’s a cost-effective nutrient option for farmers.

Trade groups like the Missouri Organic Association have been key in helping Bains tell his story. “We‘ll go there (to their meetings), set up a booth, talk with customers, give them samples and sponsor these shows,” he says. “We sponsor a lot of community gardens. We give a lot of farm tours to professors and students, individuals.”

 

 

Charting the Course


Organic compost may just be the beginning of what is yet to come for Bains and his Bluebird Composting.

Bains has his eyes on adding worm casting to his existing operation. An organic form of fertilizer produced from earthworms, worm castings – otherwise known as earthworm waste – eat through compost. Serving as the optimal soil enricher, worm castings improve soil aeration and drainage and increase water retention in the soil.

A grant project would also help Bains tap into making a food waste bio-digester. “Before the food waste is added into the compost piles, we’re going to take out the methane gas,” he explains. “And, make this facility produce its own energy.”

Both enterprises would add dividends to Bains’ bottom line.

All in a day’s work for a man who simply wants to grow the soil and make agriculture more sustainable.

With a three-hour round trip commute from the home he shares with his wife and young son in Town & Country outside St. Louis to his business in Fulton, Bains has plenty of time to ponder ways to better Mother Earth.

His business education taught him to look at the dollar sign first. Yet, Bains is keeping part of what he does true to his upbringing.

“The way you were raised makes a big difference,” he says. “You’ve got to draw a big picture, but at the same time you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing.”

And as Bains grows the soil, he truly enjoys what he does.

“It’s feeding my soul,” he says.

 

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