The enormous dark piles of sweet compost stand ready for market deep in the Maine woods at Marion Township, a remote area north of Machias. Their rich dark color and earthy smell belie their origins.
Coast of Maine is taking the waste of the coast — blueberry waste, lobster bodies and shell waste, cow and hen manure, worm castings, aged bark — and combining it with airy peat taken from a nearby bog in Cherryfield to create premiere, high-end garden products.
“This is all about Maine,” Cameron Bonsey, marketing director for COM, said this week. “Put a beautiful painting of Maine on the bag, fill it with a compost that includes lobster, and consumers immediately have an impression. Maine is a huge part of what we sell. The customers’ impression of Maine is that it is a clean, environmentally friendly state, and that is what we deliver.”
Carlos Quijana founded the company in 1996, when he retired from a worldwide banking career, settled in Camden, and came up with an idea to use discarded mussel shells as compost.
Quijana developed a recipe using the shells and blueberry and salmon waste, got a state grant to begin test marketing the product and sold out in two days.
“He was off to the races,” Bonsey said, “because he targeted the high-end consumer, and this company takes a product indigenous to Maine, it employs Maine people and it’s putting its product in a bag designed by a Maine artist.”
From his Portland office this week, Quijana said that in 1996, COM shipped and sold 100 pallets of product.
“We make that in a day now,” he said. “Looking back, it really was a breathtaking decision to go ahead and create this business.”
Quijana said that originally he leased the property from Washington County and purchased it two years ago when he realized he needed to either expand or move.
“We looked at several sites in the Bangor area, but we would rather stay in Washington County,” he said. “We have a good core of people working there, and we feel a commitment to the local aquaculture industry.”
So much so, he said, that more than $1 million has been invested in the facility in the last 18 months.
Today, Quijana’s compost is the premier product in more than 700 independent garden centers along the East Coast.
COM carries five compost and soil products, composted manure, garden food, earthworm castings and nine types of mulch. They carry the Maine-rich names of Penobscot, Cobscook, Schoodic, Monhegan and Quoddy, and the majority of the ingredients come directly from Maine.
“Composting is as much an art as it is a science,” Bonsey said. “Everything affects the recipe — the weather, humidity. You just get an innate sense of what is happening after time. We are constantly tweaking and testing.”
Lobster Compost is the company’s biggest seller, Bonsey said. Composting the crushed lobster shells — obtained just over the border at New Brunswick processing plants — adds calcium and chitin, which are vital for plant growth. The company’s founding product, Penobscot Blend, combines blueberry waste from Maine Wild Blueberry Company in Machias and salmon waste from the Cooke Aquaculture processing plants that handle the salmon from pens that dot the Maine coast.
All of the COM products have been approved by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for use by organic growers.
“Our commitment is to use as many local suppliers and producers as possible,” Bonsey said.
Recently, using a $60,000 Community Development Block Grant, the company leveraged $480,000 in financing and created a new processing facility, expanded its asphalt apron and hired new personnel. They now employ 14 local people with another three salespeople working in the field throughout New England.
The company has also been able to increase its efficiency. Key to that is a new machine that was purchased locally, fabricated by John Ingersoll of Perry.
The machine allows workers to quickly stack bags of product on pallets for shipping. If purchased on the open market, Bonsey said the machinery would have cost $150,000. Instead, Ingersoll was able to build it for $35,000. “This allows that money to stay local,” Bonsey said.
Bonsey said the company also keeps a half dozen local truckers busy hauling the finished goods.
Another local producer COM uses is Gordon Kelly in Centerville, whose peat bogs are harvested sustainably for COM. The company buys aged bark from Domtar in Baileyville and sawdust from a Corinth pellet mill.
When the recipes are collected, ground and mixed, they age for several months in windrows on more than five acres of paved apron.
The product is allowed to heat and is further processed before bagging.
All of the COM products are sold only by independent garden centers.
By focusing on independent centers, Bonsey said COM gives them an edge in the industry over the big box stores. “You will never, never, never find our products in the big box stores,” he said. “We are completely loyal to the independent centers.”
Bonsey said COM is gaining a reputation in the industry for selling a high-quality product. “And we stand behind that product. We have built this reputation one center at a time,” he said.
Recently, the company began expanding into Ohio, Michigan and Virginia using an East Coast distributor.
Quijana said he is currently looking at expanding into California, using waste from that area such as crabs.
“We are at the corner of our country,” he said. “It is a great distance to our markets.”
Therefore, he said, it will be key to work with others in the industry and possibly site additional composting facilities elsewhere in the country.
“There are real boundaries beyond which we cannot compete,” he said. COM is already working with a co-packer in eastern Ontario, he said.
Bonsey said that as the company grows, some of COM’s personal relationship with the customer will be lost. “It’s always a risk,” he said.
Expansion at the Marion Township location will continue next year, plant manager Jeff Moore said. A pole barn will be constructed to keep the recipe mixes under cover in winter months. “This will give us an edge in the spring and we’ll be ready with startup products,” he said.
Bonsey said that as the company moves forward, it will retain its deep Maine roots.
“I’m a hard-core believer in Maine,” he said. “This is where we come from. This is what we are all about.”