Earth Farms in the Gaston Gazette

by wfc on January 9, 2013 in Industry news

Jim Lanier will talk about dirt for longer than he’ll talk about the nearly 40 jobs his company created in the last decade.

An investment of around $1 million in a local composting operation, one that’s among the largest in the state?

He’ll get to that.

But he’ll expound on soil and sustainability before mentioning the way Stanley Environmental Solutions and Earth Farms Organics tithe, donating products and man hours to residents and organizations throughout the region.

‘They restored my faith’

Lanier, president of both Stanley-based corporations, didn’t call the newspaper to talk about his work.

Chadwick Rogers did.

Rogers didn’t know about Earth Farms Organics and the 40,000 tons of compost a year. He didn’t realize that it and Stanley Environmental Solutions service big-name accounts from Harris Teeter to Starbucks throughout the Southeast.

He only knew he couldn’t afford the new septic system his home needed. Four back surgeries left him disabled.

Word from a county environmental inspector left him in need of $4,000 in work at his Gastonia home.

Donated labor and materials from Stanley Environmental, along with donations from suppliers the corporation recruited, took care of Rogers’ needs.

“They have restored my faith in kindness and generosity,” Rogers wrote to The Gazette.

Family-based business

William Lanier founded Stanley Environmental 42 years ago. He bought the equipment a piece at a time, struggling to grow the one-man operation into something bigger for his family.

His son, Jim Lanier, became a partner in 1986 and expanded the septic service in the commercial arena.

Under his leadership, the company does far more than repairing and installing septic systems.

Environmental regulations prompted the company’s growth in another commercial service, handling grease trap waste.

When the Environmental Protection Agency began paying attention to the restaurant kitchen waste in the mid-90s, Stanley Environmental saw an opportunity to add to its specialties.

The company was already in the business of cleaning out problem grease traps, the plumbing devices that stop grease and solids from making it into the wastewater system.

Stricter regulation meant owners needed to have those traps cleaned before they began to back up and cause problems.

In the beginning, Lanier’s family company was using the material to help fertilize hay fields.

Research into the subject taught him he could dry out the material and use the water instead.

The problem: He still had a dry cake of waste — food particles and cooking oil — to dump in the landfill. And tipping fees were pricey, which made profit elusive.

That’s when Lanier began to learn that food waste was contributing to a third of the trash in landfills.

It is the largest contributor to methane gas in the landfills, too, he says.

So Lanier found a way to keep the stuff out of the dump — and save some money, not to mention make some.

Earth Farms Organics was born seven years ago to turn the food waste into a viable product.

Lanier found other restaurants, factories and institutions that had organic trash, vegetable skins, egg shells and the like, to add to the mixture.

The result is high-quality topsoil he can sell to landscapers.

Identifying with dirt

Today, the farm in Dallas is home to 300-foot rows of steaming compost, a process that takes sophisticated turning, monitoring and months of curing.

It’s so unique an operation in the region that for months a food waste hauler from Asheville, with its reputation for being North Carolina’s green capital, brought the waste to Gaston.

There wasn’t a composting plant in Asheville that would accept the food he picked up from restaurants, said Danny Keaton of Danny’s Dumpster.

While Keaton was working to put one in place, he says Lanier gave him a better rate than the landfill, along with a more sustainable solution for dealing with the organic waste he picked up from customers.

Lanier has traveled around the country and to Europe to learn about composting.

Enriching the soil allows it to hold more water and lets landscapers and farmers use fewer chemicals to keep vegetation healthy, according to the company president.

The turning point for him was in 2007 when drought left the region parched.

“I realized that we don’t have an endless supply of resources,” he said.

Lanier wouldn’t call himself a tree-hugger.

Nor is he a formal scientist, despite the technical conversations he can carry on about microbes in soil or the carbon and nitrogen it takes to make the nutrient-rich topsoil he values.

But he is a man who identifies with the dirt beneath his feet.

He was a fourth-grader who drove a landscaping tractor to baseball practice. He was a 12-year-old known for tilling yards throughout the J.P. Stevens & Co. mill village in Gastonia.

Up next: More to give back

Stanley Environmental and Earth Farms Organics have both grown throughout the recession and slow, subsequent recovery.

In 2013, Lanier has plans to tackle new types of composting and to become a supplier for the biodiesel industry.

Vermicomposting, using worms to help break down food waste for nutrient-rich soil, is on his to-do list.

As are continuing talks with cities about curbside food waste collection.

Lanier is also preparing to build a plant at Earth Farms Organics where he will extract cooking oil from dried waste for use in cleaner burning biofuel.

“Earth Farms has been the most exciting thing I’ve done in all the years,” he said. “I never dreamed we’d be here as a business. And we want our business to be a ministry as much as anything. We can take our land that we’ve depleted and we can give back to it.”

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