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Watauga Democrat
March 29, 2006

Animal composting at center of debate

By Scott Nicholson nicholson@wataugademocrat.com

www.wataugademocrat.com

A Deep Gap man is trying to understand why people are complaining about what he considers a natural act.

Jay Carter at his two-acre compost site in Deep Gap. Photo by Scott Nicholson

Jay Carter, who has operated a compost pile on Hardin Road since 1982, was the subject of complaints during a recent county commissioners meeting.

Kenneth Lisk told the commissioners a number of families on Hardin Road wanted Carter’s operation shut down, saying it stank and bred flies, as well as threatened runoff into a nearby creek.

Carter operates the site as an ongoing business and research experiment, saying he’s conducted similar experiments at four other sites. While composting organic matter is a popular backyard pursuit for a number of home gardeners, Carter expanded his efforts from the usual dead-leaves-and-kitchen-scraps pile. He began using one of the planet’s richest sources of nitrogen, that of formerly living creatures.

“I take anything in the carbon chain and compost it,” Carter said. “It makes the finest organic fertilizer.”

Carter uses an aerobic-anaerobic compost system, meaning bacteria that breaks down the organic matter doesn’t necessarily need oxygen the way a typical compost pile does. Carter said his compost has met federal standards by staying over 131 degrees Fahrenheit for three days, and his compost passes pathogen tests because the process takes about two years before the final product is ready for gardens, yards, or landscaping.

What disturbs the neighbors most is Carter’s use of animal carcasses in the operation. By Carter’s reckoning, the four compost piles on the site contain more than 1,000 dead cows and about 30,000 chicken carcasses. He said he’s added 400 deer in the last two years, and stray bones can be seen lying about the site.

His usual method of operation is to dig a large pit in the middle of a pile, then throw in the carcasses, which he gets from a number of sources.

Some people drop off the animals, while he picks up others, then tosses them in a 15-foot-deep pit. He then covers the carcasses with a layer of mulch or sawdust and lets nature go to work. He calls them “reaction pits” and likens the organic process to a series of bioengines.

Carter caught composting fever in Lumberton in 1970, when his father asked him to start a pile in the backyard. “I started out with a sheet and a rake,” he said. “It took all year to do what I can now do in no time.”

Even in those early days, Carter was experimenting with animal carcasses as a source of organic matter. He got waste scraps from the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and mixed them in with the pile. When he moved to Deep Gap in 1976, he took his passion with him, and though he admits to mistakes along the way, he said he’s learned enough to prove the waste stream can be managed much more effectively without relying solely on landfills.

Carter has patented his process, trademarked under the name Bio-E. He sells his products mostly to home gardeners, but also has a few larger commercial clients. Considering the money and time he’s sunk into his dark pits, he said he has a right to develop his product.

He built a four-foot-high earthen berm to divert any leachate from a nearby creek, and said state guidelines require him to have two backhoes, one for adding the material and another for harvesting the finished compost, so that natural pathogens like e. coli and salmonella don’t enter the end product.

The county’s position is that Carter is operating a compost operation that should be regulated by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Carter said DENR won’t give him a permit because his operation is not 50 feet from the adjoining property. He says the DENR permit is irrelevant anyway because he started his operation long before DENR’s composting rules took effect in 1996. He added that most of the people who are now complaining moved into the area long after his operation started.

A commercial chicken farm about 100 yards up the road closed 10 years ago, and Carter said nobody complained about his compost until some people on the gravel road wanted the state to pave it. “I don’t understand it,” he said of the complaints. “All I’m trying to do is make dirt.”

Indicating the piles of compost, including two that are covered with mulch or grass and are ready for use, he said, “All this was done by me. I didn’t have the state telling me what to do. I’ve taken care of the leachate, dealt with the road, and learned how to bury stuff. When you have a patented process, the experiments never stop.”

As for his closest neighbor, Ruth Winebarger, she said she’s never had a problem with Carter’s operation. Though she lives down the road away from her 27-acre property, she rents a house a couple of hundred feet from Carter’s site. “It’s not bothering me,” she said. “I don’t have any problem with it. I don’t know what’s wrong with everybody anyhow.”

Carter said his mission is to restore the topsoil, which he said has been depleted because animals are buried too deeply or thrown into landfills and thus don’t return organic matter to the soil. He compares the clay-heavy soil across the road with the rich, black and loose soil of his compost, saying he’s trying to reverse the depletion of the planet’s dirt.

Carter operates his business as Rockwater Farms. His web site at Rockwaterfarms.com contains a FAQ, scientific and chemical information about his procedure, and other composting tips.

“Rockwater Farms provides environmentally friendly solutions for processing all types of carbon-based waste into compost,” says the site’s introduction. “The systems are scalable from the needs of the small farmer to large municipal systems. Employing a patented process, Rockwater Farms provides complete turnkey solutions for construction, operation, and maintenance of industrial, municipal, and agricultural waste composting facilities.”

He said trial and error taught him valuable lessons and he didn’t have any large-scale models he could duplicate. “I’ve had a lot of experiments get out of hand, but I’ve always managed to get them under control,” he said. In the last five days, he added 400 pounds of fish, 300 chickens and a cow to his newest “reaction pit.”

Carter admitted his operation encourages flies in the summer, but said flies are already “a thing of life.” “They didn’t start complaining until they found out they could get a state road,” he said, adding landowners wanted to develop their property while his own property rights weren’t being respected.

Looking at the long term, Carter isn’t sure whether he will ever recoup his investment of labor and equipment. “There is no retirement,” he said. “This is what I do until I die. I’ve got a fortune sunk in here. I’d like to see this system used for all waste streams. It’s efficient and it works.”

He said he’s asked politicians, scientists and agricultural experts to visit his site, saying only one county commissioner visited. State agricultural officials told him his site wouldn’t work, so there was no need to visit it. He’s also had no luck finding people interested in capturing the methane the operation produces. Undaunted, he said he’s the type of person that doesn’t shy away from a confrontation.

“I’m doing this because I’m supposed to,” he said. “Global warming is here and I’m trying to do what I can to offset it. ‘Think globally, act locally.’ Well, I’ve taken the bumper sticker to heart.”