While there may be no such thing as a free lunch, switched-on farmers, landscape gardeners and turf growers in the Uckfield area are making the most of a ready supply of top quality compost at a ‘nominal’ cost.

The low cost agricultural grade organic compost is the end product of a recycling operation that is helping the people of Sussex keep green garden waste out of landfill sites while producing a nutrient-rich growing medium.

That operation is run by KPS, a family business that was set up 35 years ago and has since diversified from garden maintenance and tree surgery into composting.

With local councils, landscape gardeners and others all looking for an environmentally friendly way of getting rid of tens of thousands of tonnes of organic material each year, the composting plant at Isfield is kept busy, particularly in the summer.
“Our main income stream comes from the gate fees we charge to councils and landscape gardeners who need to get rid of the material,” explained KPS’ compost manager Simon Reed.

“While we do sell our finer grade of compost, mainly through local garden centres and delivered direct to the public, that’s very much a secondary source of income; what we really need is to find a home for what we produce as quickly as possible in order to free up the site for more raw material.”

It is that need to make space that gives local farmers the opportunity to collect and spread expertly produced coarser grade compost on their land for what Simon refers to as “a nominal contribution”.

The offer is limited to local farmers in order to limit the impact of lengthy vehicle movements on the environment and to make sure existing KPS customers don’t miss out; signs around the site indicate batches of rich black compost already earmarked for local farmers who are in the know.

Site manager Daryl Walker explained: “We have been supplying local farms for years, and while farmers and agronomists are aware of the variety of available nutrients in compost, it’s the benefits in soil structure they find just as important.
“There is some pretty heavy soil around this area and the compost gives good levels of organic matter for water control and root development. If you miss a bit with your spreader, the crop will show you where.”

All the compost, both the coarser grade that suits farmers and the finer grade that homeowners prefer, meets stringent British Standards and is certified by the Soil Association as well as being PAS 100 and CQP certified.

“Composting has come a long way since grandad had a couple of heaps at the bottom of the garden,” explained Simon, who found himself in the industry almost by accident after taking on a summer job with another composting business during a career break.

He now runs a carefully scrutinised, rigorously monitored operation that employs 18 people and turns 50,000 tonnes of organic matter into 28,000 tonnes of compost every year at the Isfield site. A second site at Pease Pottage does an equally efficient job with a further 25,000 tonnes of garden waste from councils and landscape gardeners in the Crawley area each year.

KPS was set up by Paul and Hazel Smyth as a landscaping and tree surgery business in the early 1980s and is still very much a family business. The couple’s sons Jody and Danny now head up the contracting and composting divisions of the company, which employs a total of 100 or so people.

The business grew steadily over the years and while the ‘great storm’ of 1987 was an ill wind for many people it provided a huge amount of tree clearance work for the company and helped it to become firmly established.

In the late 1990s, the couple, both keen on environmental issues, realised they could support the national trend towards recycling instead of landfilling by setting up a composting plant.

“It was a real win-win situation,” explained Simon. “They could get rid of their own arisings, they were providing councils and others with an alternative to landfill and they were creating an end product that had value.”

While it was an obvious way forward, it wasn’t a cheap option, requiring a major investment not just in the site but in expensive machinery such as screeners, green waste shredders and plant capable of turning the rows of compostable material regularly to make sure the process works efficiently.

Simon estimates that to set up a composting business of any size today would mean an outlay of at least £1 million, which is why KPS offers machinery for hire.

“There are farmers who hire our equipment to do their own composting,” he explained. “Some of them may move on to investing in their own equipment, but in the early days we support their efforts with the equipment they need.”

While the screeners are allowed out on their own, the green waste shredders are only hired out with an operator. “They are expensive bits of kit and they need operating with care and experience,” said Simon. “Get it wrong and you can make a costly mistake.”

KPS now has nine screeners on the two composting sites or available for hire, and at £180,000 each, those machines alone highlight the investment the company has made in turning waste material into ‘black gold’.

The Isfield facility takes up nine acres of concrete that drains into two lagoons to make sure no water leaves the site. It’s an important part of the technical specifications under which the company operates and is aimed at making sure potentially contaminated run off does not reach the water course.

As a recycling operation, though, you would expect KPS to make the most of the situation, which is exactly what happens. The water is pumped from a lower holding area, where any sediment is allowed to settle, into a higher lagoon and is then used to wet the compost as part of the process.

“We need to make sure the green waste reaches 65 degrees centigrade in order to kill off any pathogens or weed seeds, and we sometimes need to add water in order to get the process going,” said Simon. “There is no point in spraying it with mains water when we have a lagoon full of the stuff on site.”

Everything that comes into the site does so over a weighbridge, the temperature of the compost is checked daily and the moisture content is monitored twice weekly. “It’s a British Standard process and we need to meet very stringent rules so that we can produce a safe, top quality product,” said Simon.

The smart new timber building that welcomes visitors to the site highlights the company’s professional approach to a process that has moved on considerably from grandad’s garden, while regular lab reports make sure that the process produces a consistent quality of compost.

Incoming loads are inspected and there are measures in place to remove any plastic or other foreign material. Loads can be rejected if they aren’t up to scratch, while anything that isn’t munched up small enough by the shredder the first time is returned to the start of the process and goes around again.

The end product is ideal for improving soil structure as well as adding nutrients to the soil. “It’s suitable for everything from arable, orchard and vineyard use through to allotments, fairways, gardens and sports grounds,” Simon said.
“The benefit of adding compost is that it adds a whole range of nutrients back to the soil rather than just one particular additive.”

KPS also takes in waste wood and turns it into biofuel which is ideal for biomass boilers that heat hen houses, greenhouses and the like.

Again the emphasis is on clearing the site rather than on making money from the product itself, with the result that the KPS offer is about half the cost of a premium woodchip while doing the same job.