BC company Sea Soil has developed a successful business that involves taking wood waste from local forest industry operations and combining it with fish waste to produce a fertilized soil that is a hit in the gardening marketplace. By Paul MacDonald What started out as a modest operation turning residual wood into commercial fertilized soil on northern Vancouver Island has in recent years turned into a burgeoning business, with customers throughout British Columbia and in three other provinces.
Sea Soil of Port McNeill, BC, set up operations to produce fertilized soil from wood waste and fisheries waste. These days, it is in the enviable position of working very hard to keep up with the demand for its branded and packaged Sea Soil product, which is sold through garden centres.
Company founder Don Waugh first realized there was an opportunity to set up a commercial fertilized soil operation when he saw that both the forest industry and fish processing operations on northern Vancouver Island were facing waste disposal challenges. At the time, waste material from both industries was being either burned or landfilledbut those practices were coming to an end, with changing environmental regulations. “I thought why can’t the bulk waste from these two industries be put together on a large scale,” Waugh says.
Residual wood management continues to be a challenge for the BC forest industry. Although some residual wood ends up as wood chips and hog fuel for the industry, the smaller components, or “fines” can be difficult to deal with. And fines are exactly what Sea Soil wants.
Waugh did some spade work, so to speak, before setting up Sea Soil. Working with forest industry research organization Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada (FERIC) and Cindy Prescott of the University of BC’s Faculty of Forestry, Waugh developed a fertilized soil mixture, which was then applied on deactivated logging roads on Northern Vancouver Island, in a pilot project.
The results were positive and proved the material was an excellent soil conditioner: planted seedlings on the fertilized soil-applied site had a 98 per cent survival rate versus a 28 per cent survival rate on the non-fertilized soil applied sites. In one growing season, the fertilized soil-treated site yielded an average tree height of 15.5 cm compared to 8.8 cm on the untreated site. The fertilized soil product proved to be a good solution for moving road deactivation along, and for site stability, and received praise from both the BC Ministry of Forests and the Ministry of the Environment.
With these kinds of results, Don Waugh moved ahead and set up the Sea Soil business, with wife Helene. Today, the company handles some 120,000 cubic metres of wood waste from TimberWest’s operations on northern Vancouver Island and wood waste from Western Forest Products’ Beaver Cove dryland sort (Sea Soil started using fines from Beaver Cove when it was owned by Canfor).
Sea Soil is a win-win story, says Don Waugh (left) with some of the company’s product. “It helps the forest industry utilize 100 per cent of its material and it’s good for the environment.”
The wood waste from these two companies’ operations are trucked to the site of a wood chip operation, Northland Power, just outside of Port McNeill. At this site, a McCloskey 727 trommel screen operated by Sea Soil sorts out the larger wood waste pieces for chips and hog fuel, which Northland then transports to other forestry operations.
“What we end up with after we screen that wood waste is forest fines, which consists mostly of fir and hemlock bark and needles,” explains Waugh. The fines material is then transported by truck to the nearby Sea Soil site and mixed with fish waste, mostly fish carcasses, that come from a local processing plant. After the composting process is complete, the product is screened on site with a McCloskey 621 trommel, and then put in a static pile.
Waugh says that they’ve developed their own unique method for composting. While the company is reluctant to go into great detail, the process involves dumping the fish waste into a pit and then covering it with fines, to achieve a 50/50 ratio. After five weeks, the material is then moved into windrows and turned regularly as it is composted for the next two years. The material is kept at a consistent temperature (60 degrees C) for the process to be most effective
Waugh did a lot of research to determine the best compost period and tried periods of six months and a year. “Our goal was always to produce the best, safest product on the market and to do that you have to compost for a long time. “The compost has a large microorganism component, and over that two-year period it is being fed by the fish waste, which magnifies the NPK (nitrogenphosphorous- potassium) components.”
They decided to opt for the windrow form of composting because it is one of the best ways to handle the very wet fish waste material. Windrowing gets the material aerated and gets it working organically, producing an effectiveand odor-free and pathogen-freefinal product.
While composting could be done under cover, Sea Soil does it in the open on their large 10-acre site. “We’ve found that the amount of moisture we get helps to deliver a good final product.” And Port McNeill gets plenty of moisturethe area has an annual average rainfall of 180 cm. As part of their quality control process, they do not introduce any outside waste, such as wood pallet material or lumber.
“We are strictly forest fines and fish material,” Waugh says. “That’s important. If you start including other materials, you can add chemicals and other harmful substances, such as heavy metals, to the compost, and that would eventually get into the soil of the people who are using our product. So we never vary from our recipe and our two ingredients.” “It’s a bit like baking a cake,” adds Helene Waugh, Don’s wife. “You want to make sure you have good ingredients. The forest fines we use are a very good carbon source. And fish are one of nature’s best nitrogen sources.”
When the Sea Soil business started, company employees were filling the bags by hand. They now have automated bag filling equipment (above) that will do 30 bags a minute.
They are careful to take out cedar fines in the screening process. “The cedar does not compost wellit can effectively kill the composting activity,” says Don. They also only use fines, which are made up of about 90 per cent bark, rather than any wood from the logs. “After two years, wood would be just starting to break down, and it would eventually rob plants of nitrogen. But with the bark, the cellulose is removed within the first three months of the twoyear process, and each piece of bark is saturated with the nutrients that plants need.”
While Sea Soil is doing well now, it was hardly an overnight success. Helene says they faced a bit of an education process with customers. “Our biggest challenge at the beginning was finding a market for the Sea Soil product. We literally went to dozens of public and garden industry shows, and were visiting garden stores constantly.”
But the business has grown each year, to the point where Sea Soil now markets three separate products: the Original Sea Soil, Potting Soil mixed with Sea Soil, and Container Mix with Sea Soil.
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