Cold Spring, Minn. – Like any cook, Brad Matuska knows the secret to great cooking is quality ingredients – even if the final product isn’t edible.

As co-owner of Mississippi Topsoils, Matuska has perfected the recipe for cooking up premium compost. His raw materials – wood chips and poultry processing solids from the Gold ‘n Plump processing plant nearby – are blended and composted in sealed metal bins. A computer system regulates compost conditions and helps control leachate and odor. The company’s innovative approach has earned it AURI’s second annual “Ag Innovator of the Year” award, given to AURI clients who have achieved market success for value-added products.

“Mississippi Topsoils has perfected a process that makes a premium product from very low-value materials,” says Michael Sparby, AURI project director in Crookston. “They’ve also adjusted to market conditions and moved from marketing a bulk product to one offered in bags direct to the consumer. I think they’re a real success story.”

Bulk to bags

This year is the fourth year that Mississippi Topsoils is marketing its Soil Essentials Premium Compost. Last year, Matuska began marketing the compost in one-cubic-foot bags through Minnesota garden centers. He has already moved 10,000 bags.

“Since we rolled out the bag, sales have gone up,” Matuska says. “Garden centers love it and consumers love it. We started out with a few pallets here and there; now customers are asking for it by name.”

A kind of school

Mississippi Topsoils may be a success story, but its achievements didn’t come without a steep learning curve. Matuska holds a degree in biology and knew how to make compost. Building a value-added business from the ground up was a different story.

“I had it in theory,” Matuska says, “putting it into practice took a lot more than I knew. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to run a business, from taxes and employee retention to payroll and bookkeeping.” Matuska credits co-owner Math Miller with bringing vital business expertise to the operation.

The learning will not stop soon; Mississippi Topsoils is working with AURI and a large Minnesota vegetable processing company to evaluate composted sweet corn silage as a soil amendment. The product is being tested this summer to see how well it supports plant growth.

The silage product could add an additional revenue stream for the ag processor. And Matuska knows working with the processor could meet a key requirement for his compost recipes: quality ingredients. “To have any predictability in our product, we have to have consistent feedstocks,” he says.

“Ag processors are ideal… their products need to be consistent and predictable. So, by nature, their byproducts will be consistent as well.”