Christiansen Farms is a third-generation family operation, currently run by Larry, Alan, and Dennis Christiansen. When their father purchased the farm in 1961, they could never have foreseen that they would evolve to become one of the largest compost producers in the state of Illinois. But indeed they have. When the state legislature banned organic material from landfills back in the early 90s, Larry wasted no time positioning their 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. But over the next 20 years, Christiansen Farms has become very sophisticated in managing their green waste intake, and quite smart transforming it into compost.
One of the smartest decisions he 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. Their original shredder had put in more than 7000 hours of service time, and Larry realized 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,” continues Larry.
The K designation indicates the machine is on a tracked chassis, another additional advantage he has come to appreciate over their previous model. “Honestly, I wish our first Doppstadt was on tracks!” he 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. 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.”
Investing in a new machine was a crucial decision for Christiansen Farms. For more than 20 years they have 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 curve. “We’re finding the revenue economics have not changed much from when we purchased our first Doppstadt,” details 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. And 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.”
In addition to streamlining production, expanding their market and product scope is another area of concentration. One of the new opportunities they are now pursuing involves blending their compost into specialty soil mixes. Larry recognizes that there is significant potential to market to customers who do not want to purchase pure compost but would otherwise benefit from a custom blend. These mixes can be employed across numerous applications, thus broadening the customer base for their compost-derived products.
Another potential area for growth that Christiansen Farms is pursuing are certain applications for their screening overs. “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. That’s something where we are simply waiting for the right partner to come along before we jump in. But food waste composting is going to happen for sure.”
It’s smart business, and 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 they foresee, Larry recognizes that there are still plenty enough challenges to overcome in the current economic environment. And one of the last things he wants to have to worry about is equipment. “Once things get going in March, it’s pretty much non-stop through the summer. The Doppstadt has never let us down,” 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.”