Four years ago, Karl Johnson was assistant ski coach at Montana State University. Now, he does vermicomposting.  PHOTO COURTESY KARL JOHNSON

Not So Average Joe

Planting the seed for sustainability: Karl Johnson on his natural path to entrepreneurship

Karl Johnson grew up composting at his family home in Vermont. He never thought much about it, composting just became a habit like any other. 

“It was kind of a natural thing that made sense, this is what you do with food waste, you put it in the compost bin so that you can put it back in the garden. That kind of cycle – a natural cycle,” he said. 

He never imagined that composting and worm farming would become his occupation. It happened mostly by osmosis – seeing what options existed here, he said. 

Eight months out of the year, he had a ski coaching contract with Montana State University. The other three months he spent experimenting and researching – summertime projects to keep him busy. 

In Nov. 2017, he formed the LLC for YES Compost and did not go back to coaching, instead shifting to volunteering for the ski team. 

Johnson learned vermicomposting or “the worm side of things” from his friend Brian. They worked together for close to six months. 

“He taught me what to feed and how to take care of worms. That was sort of the impetus to really start a business and quit the ski coaching thing,” he said. The process is exciting – seeing that with the help of worms, food waste becomes crumbly, fertile soil in two months. 

Vermicompost, the worm side of things, learned from his friend Brian by working together for close to 6 months, he taught me what to feed and how to take care of worms. That was sort of the impetus to really start a business and quit the ski coaching thing. 

“Part of the appeal of it to me – it was not just this compost that a lot people do, everybody that is involved [in vermicompost] is still learning,” he said. The science, the process, everything is becoming more refined – how to make the best environment and get the best castings, he said. 

He has an indoor facility to work with the worms in the winter, which makes it possible for him to pursue vermicompost in this climate. 

He also has a gigantic winter pile outside – the bigger the pile, the more insulation. Mix together some food scraps, and horse and llama manure, the pile “freezes over, forms a cap over it” the snow further insulates the worms. 

“A foot down it is probably 70 or 80 degrees,” he said. 

In this scenario, he cannot work with the worms. 

“You just make the pile, see what happens and see what comes out of it in the spring,” he said. 

He now does commercial and residential compost pick-up in Bozeman and Big Sky, offering weekly or biweekly collection. 

“For the most part, it seems 5 gallons is enough for most families, even with a kid or two,” he said of the residential service. Customers can also add a bucket if needed. 

“Everyone that signs up for the food scrap gets worm castings back three times a year. People like to get something back. I have enough castings, so it doesn’t deplete me too badly. People love to use what they have contributed to. You understand the full cycle,” he said. 

According to Waldeneffect.org, worm castings have a “huge positive effect on plant growth. When up to 20% of the soil consists of worm castings, plants germinate better, grow faster, and produce higher yields.

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