The finished compost product Mark and Steve Petersen sell has no odor and does not leave a mess on people’s hands. 
The finished compost product Mark and Steve Petersen sell has no odor and does not leave a mess on people’s hands. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    APPLETON, Wis. – Mark Petersen sees the value in manure. For the past 25 years, he has turned waste from his animals into compost, creating an additional revenue stream for the farm while also eliminating odor from the neighborhood. Every growing season, all the manure generated on the farm the previous year is sold into the home garden market after being turned into compost.  
    “We started composting because it reduces the smell, and we can sell it locally,” Petersen said. “People use it for planting flowers and gardens, top dressing lawns, etc. Some landscapers buy it, too. It’s natural lawn care.”
    Located on the outskirts of Appleton, the Petersen Farm is run by brothers Mark and Steve Petersen. These third-generation farmers milk 50 Holsteins in a stanchion barn and farm 300 acres.
    Petersen’s composted cow manure is a hot-ticket item drawing customers from all over the Appleton area as well as Green Bay and Fond du Lac. It is also sold at plant sale events hosted by the University of Wisconsin Extension Master Gardeners. As soon as frost is out of the ground, Petersen’s phone starts ringing.
    “We’ve had a beautiful spring, so we’ve been very busy this year,” Petersen said. “I think even more so because of the coronavirus. People were home and looking for gardening projects to do.”
    A 5-gallon bucket of compost sells for $2. For larger applications, the Petersens sell compost at $40 per cubic yard. Customers needing a pail or two can grab it from the trailer that sits on the front yard. People requiring larger amounts visit the Petersens’ compost site to fill up trailers, pickup trucks or dump trucks.
    “The compost we’re selling is year-old manure,” Petersen said. “The product has no odor and looks like chocolate brownie mix. It usually flows right through your hands, which means you don’t get dirty when you touch it. It’s not a mess to work with.”
    Petersen is licensed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. He advertises in newspapers and online but spends fewer dollars on ads than he used to. Repeat customers and word-of-mouth referrals have boosted business.
    “I’m a smaller farmer, and this is an added source of income,” Petersen said. “We don’t get rich; but it’s extra money for groceries.”
    The composting season coincides with spring planting and field work which Petersen said creates stress in getting things done.
    “It’s labor-intensive,” said Petersen, whose farm is open seven days a week for compost pickup.  
    “You have to be willing to be interrupted. We ask that customers call ahead. As long as we know they’re coming, we take care of them.”  
    The constant flow of customers provides an educational opportunity as Petersen creates a link between farm and community. For some, it is a tradition to pet the calves and see the animals when they buy compost.
    Petersen said they are extremely busy until June 1. Business picks up again in the fall when the ground starts to freeze and people clean out their gardens to get a head start for next year.
    “When someone buys compost from us, they’re getting straight compost,” Petersen said. “Our product has not been mixed with anything else as are many other types of compost found in a store.”
    The only thing added to the manure are natural carbon sources.
    “Dairy manure is high in nitrogen,” Petersen said. “You have to amend it with a carbon source. Bedding with newspaper helps. Rained-on hay can act as a carbon source. Leaves help, too. We mix a carbon source into it, and then Mother Nature does the rest. We help her by turning it which perfects the carbon/nitrogen ratio.”
    Since 1988, the Petersens have bedded animals with recycled shredded newspaper purchased from charity drives and the recycling center. The paper saves on bedding costs as Petersen said one pound of newspaper goes 30% farther than a pound of straw and costs half as much.
    “It’s more absorbent than straw,” Petersen said. “I pay $100 per ton for newspaper, whereas straw would cost $200 a ton.”
    Using a bale chopper to chop up the paper, Petersen said it takes 45 minutes a day to process, and they go through 1,500 pounds of paper per week.
    Manure is turned into compost at the Petersen farm through a three-step process. The first step involves drying out the manure by spreading it in a thin layer. Step two is setting it in rows. The third step is to turn the manure over periodically with a compost turner to expose a fresh layer for drying.
    Petersen worked with Kevin Erb at the University of Wisconsin Extension in setting up his composting system.
    “Mark cares deeply for the cows but also cares deeply for the community and maintaining positive relations with his neighbors,” Erb said. “He does an incredible job of managing the cows and the compost. He also does a good job in the barn making sure nothing goes in the manure that doesn’t belong.”  
    The windrows at the composting site are in various stages of maturity and turned with a specialized tractor-pulled compost turner several times a week to create an environment that encourages the anaerobic bacteria to break down the manure. Composting reduces the volume of manure by about half as organic matter becomes compost.
    The correct carbon to nitrogen ratio naturally heats rows to between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, ensuring optimal bacterial activity. Petersen uses a thermometer to determine when rows are ready for turning. Once the internal temperature drops below 110, the row gets turned.
    “The more you turn, the faster it gets done,” Petersen said. “Then it is no longer manure – it’s compost. When you compost manure, none of it goes into the soil, thereby protecting surface and groundwater. We also have grass around our composting site to prevent erosion.”
    Petersen said composting manure is kind of like making hay.
    “You need good weather,” he said. “Last year it was a pain because of all the rain. Then the rows become too muddy to turn. If we know rain is coming, we’ll cover up the finished compost to protect it like we would a load of hay.”
    Petersen does not turn rows in winter to avoid adding snow and frozen chunks in the center, making composting a year-long process.
    “Letting compost sit and cure for several months or over winter lets everything finish up and gives Mark a higher quality product,” Erb said.
    Petersen’s goodwill towards the environment extends to his crops as well. In 1995, the Petersens began no tilling and strip tilling their fields.
    “Everyone thought we were off our rocker when we started doing this,” Petersen said.
    No till and strip till have reduced the farm’s soil and nutrient runoff by 75% and saved $9 per acre on fuel costs. Petersen said no till also saves time.
    “Strip tilling is a hybrid between no till and conventional,” said Erb, who helped Petersen set up the practice. “Instead of working the entire field, you work a very narrow band of 7-8 inches in which seed is planted. The area in between those rows is not tilled.”
    Petersen strip tills in the fall, which allows the soil to warm up and dry quicker in the spring, providing good seed contact. Strip tilling enables Petersen to get in the fields and plant corn sooner than his neighbors because the fields are able to take the traffic.
    The Petersens’ manure composting and no-till efforts earned the farm a U.S. Dairy Sustainability award in 2013.
    “Petersen’s Compost is a sustainable business,” Petersen said. “It can stand on its own two feet, which is something special in this day and age. We know what we put into it, and we know what we need to get out of it.”