Old idea leaps to new level

A massive composting project on Hill Road in Edgar County is pioneering effort for state

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Edgar County residents Matt McNabb and his father, Bob McNabb, are men of vision.

They saw a problem and have devised what they believe is a viable solution that will not only benefit their farmland and other farmers but also help the environment.

The McNabbs have created a massive confined composting operation using multiple shipping containers at their place on Hill Road in Elbridge Township. The plan is to take vegetable matter that otherwise goes to waste or gets landfilled and transform it into compost for enriching the ground.

“We’re farmers and with market prices going crazy and inputs going up, we could save our fertilizer costs by 50 percent,” said Matt McNabb.

It took some time to get the idea that first originated in 2017 to where it is today. Matt McNabb owns McNabb Broders Trucking and received a contract to transport damaged wheat from Indianapolis, Ind., to another location. When picking up the wheat someone commented it was unfortunate that it wasn’t going to be composted or put to some other use instead of being placed in a landfill.

As it turned out, the wheat did not go to a landfill but rather to another company that was able to salvage it.

The comment got the younger McNabb thinking about all of the waste material heading to landfills that have the potential for composting. As he researched the issue, one of the problems he discovered is the amount of labor needed to keep outdoor composting piles turned on a daily basis when dealing with tons of material. It is also a lengthy process often requiring a minimum of three months to obtain usable compost.

One day while waiting in a truck line at the Decatur ADM facility, he was continuing the online research and discovered a system that uses specially lined shipping containers and forced air to create massive amounts of compost in a period of seven to 21 days.

“The system was developed in California where the state is doing away with big outdoor composting because of the methane gas it produces,” Matt McNabb said.

His system is equipped with bio-filters filled with wood chips that eliminate the methane gas and also any odors that sometimes accompany the composting process.

Composting in 20-foot shipping containers requires a massive amount of supply since each container can hold up to 20 tons of material. ADM proved to be the source with animal feed that got wet or is otherwise considered not suitable for sale.

“All of this material (ADM) can’t use goes to the landfill,” said Matt McNabb, noting ADM officials were intrigued by his proposal.

The company, he said, had adopted a landfill-deferred program with a goal of all plants being 85 percent landfill deficient by 2020.

Another source of material is the mulch ground by the city of Paris at Potts Lane, and the composting is a way to get rid of stores of old hay.

The McNabbs calculate their system can accommodate 5,000 tons of material from ADM and the company wants them to take three times that much.

“We were taking a leap of faith, but we couldn’t fund it on our own,” said Matt McNabb. “Every bank in Paris said no.”

The break came when they presented the plan to Longview Bank. Matt McNabb explained Longview is owned by the farming Albin family. They saw merit in the idea and provided financing.

What started as McNabb Broders Composting is going through the process of becoming the not-for-profit McNabb Broders Sustainability Education.

“That’s so we can apply for grants and work with colleges and universities,” said Matt McNabb. “People who grant money want to see some research out of it.”

Compost production is not in full swing as they are still experimenting and learning. They are currently loading 12 to 15 tons of material in the shipping containers and need to tweak their loading system to get the full 20 tons each container can hold.

It is an efficient system. Each 15-ton load yields about 14.5 tons of finished compost.

Most of weight loss is associated with leachate, or water runoff. Even that is not waste. The leachate is captured and reused in subsequent loads to start the composting process and reduce the need for using potable water.

After final Illinois Environmental Protection Agency approval, they can put the system into full production and create large quantities of compost as a soil amendment. It cannot be marketed as fertilizer.

Both men see this as way to better protect their land by adding organic material rather than more chemicals. They hope to take their farm to organic status with a crop rotation of corn, beans, wheat, alfalfa and possibly hemp.

“I want to see a better quality of life for my family, our ground, the community and the environment,” said Matt McNabb. “Everybody’s in grain and hauling. We’ve got an overabundance of the stuff.”

The effort has also inspired them to look for other ways to minimize their environmental impact. Future plans call for installing solar power to generate the electricity needed to operate the fans moving air through the system and the computerized controls. A catchment system for using runoff water from the roof is also under consideration.

Bob McNabb is convinced that in the not too distant future they will be using electric powered trucks, tractors and other equipment in their farming, trucking and composting operations.

As Matt McNabb becomes more experienced at composting he anticipates creating tailor-made composts containing the specific nutrients a farmer needs for a certain field, much like fertilizer companies can now mix and blend chemicals to match what soil testing reveals as deficiencies.

“It’s kind of cutting edge,” Matt McNabb said. “This system has only been out for about 20 years.”

He regards how all of this came about as a blessing.

“God had his hand in this with the timing and when doors opened and people were available to help us,” he said.