Carlos Quijano grew up primarily in New York, but developed an early and deep relationship with Maine from visits to his grandparents’ Lincolnville farm. After spending more than 20 years with Chase Manhattan Bank, primarily in Europe and Asia, he retired in the late 1980s and moved to Maine.

When a friend mentioned that a mussel farm was having trouble disposing of its waste because a composting operation wasn’t working well, Quijano – an avid gardener and compost user – offered to take a look. What he saw inspired him to form Coast of Maine Organic Products in 1996 to make and market organic compost created, in part, with shellfish waste. Lobster shells are rich in nitrogen and chitin, which helps the composting process.

The company is wrapping up the year with sales up about 16 percent over last year, Quijano said, and is looking to expand. It formed a partnership with a composter in Michigan and is looking at expanding into the mid-Atlantic states and may add a satellite composting space in southern Maine. Coast of Maine Organic Products has about 10 full-time employees and adds a seasonal staff of another seven or eight in the spring.

Q. What was the market for compost at the time you started the company?

A. Consumer awareness of compost would probably rate higher in Maine at that time and my theory was that the farther south you went, the lower that awareness became. We grew the company slowly, we raised a little bit of equity and our growth over 18 years has been largely financed by retained earnings and a very good relationship with our bank because it’s a very seasonal business.

We compost at our facility but we also work with other composters, overseeing their production, which we also pull from, and we’ve spent an enormous amount of time building a customer base and distribution system. I think we were the first people to focus on bagged soil as an essential value-added product for the backyard gardener. The success of your garden is largely a function of the quality of your soil.

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Q. How did you learn about composting?

A. My wife and I have always been fairly serious gardeners, although I was the one that did the lifting and digging. We understood the consumer, which is very important. We spend our weekends during the gardening season as consumers and gardeners in our own backyards and that keeps you in touch with who your consumer is.

The most import component is the lobster waste. We have a shellfish compost called Quoddy blend – we’ve always given our products a Maine coast name.

We had shrimp compost, but the supply of shrimp ran out and then we started to work with lobster waste. At first it was all from New Brunswick – we’re only 35 miles from the Canada – but with the opening of a number of lobster processing plants in Maine, most of our lobster is coming from Prospect Harbor, Rockland and Tenants Harbor. To produce compost, you need to balance nitrogen, carbon and moisture. You are carefully keeping track of those balances and we mix the lobster with sawdust and that turns it into soil and we add some manure and we take in a lot of the blueberry litter from the blueberry harvest. That’s only available for the short time so we build up stockpiles of that. We have a number of recipes that we use.

The active composting depends on the weather, but we lay out windrows and use a mechanical turner to pulverize whatever is there and aerate the piles. That ensures uniform quality. Then after six months, we pile them up, screen them and let them cure. It takes about a year. Good, well-made compost should smell like the forest floor.

Q. How big is the business now?

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A. We’ve gone from just me and my wife to two or three people in our offices on Newbury Street. We have two people in our sales team in Connecticut and our production facility is in Marion Township, between Calais and Machias, in the eastern part of Washington County. It’s literally a clearing in the woods. We took over the operation of a very small composting facility that was run by the county and several local towns, and we leased that for a long time and were able to get a grant to build out the infrastructure. That facility has grown and we’ve bought the land, 23 acres. It’s the perfect place for composting, with no neighbors, and we have since built a big steel building and expanded the pad several times. We also have a “compost cam” now.

Q. You distribute throughout New England. How did you build that network?

A. We built a distribution system focused on the individual garden store. We’ve never sold to the big chains and we provide the independents with a quality product.

We focus a great deal on creating relationships with, for the most part, family-owned companies and we’re family-owned as well. A lot of our sales and marketing is focused on what can we do to help the garden center not only promote their product, but promote gardening as well and helping to educate people about not only our products, but the importance of soil quality in general.

Q. What’s the seasonal cycle you follow?

A. We compost through the year, but the selling season is in the spring, especially early spring, because a lot of what we make is soil amendments that people add when planting. We also do potting soils, but the heart of our year is from whenever the weather breaks in early spring until the middle of May. Right now, we’ve finished the trade show season and now we’re doing early orders and shipping to garden centers that like to build their inventories over the winter so they’re stocked in the spring.

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The two things that determine the seasons are the growing season and the weather. We’ll be bagging right up to about Thanksgiving and then we go into a kind of winter hiatus and we bring the bagging crew back usually around April 1st. We try to put down a lot of inventory now. When we send the bagging crew home, we have probably 6,000 pallets on the ground and we have about 60 bags per pallet. That’s enough inventory to get us to the latter part of April, but by that time we’re bagging again. We try to not let demand get ahead of supply. The summer is usually quiet for us and then we do a lot of shipping in the fall again.

Q. How did this year go, with the harsh winter?

A. It looked like it wasn’t going to be a good year, but we ended up having a very long season. It never really got hot and a lot of times things slow when it gets hot. We had a nice, long summer and we’re probably going to end up the year up 16 percent.

The thing about this business is it tends to be recession-proof. When the economy is bad, people have a tendency to stay at home and tend to their gardens.

Q. What’s next?

A. We’re trying to expand our business geographically. There’s a limit for how far we can travel from eastern Maine, probably as far as the Hudson River and northern New Jersey. Beyond that, trucking becomes far too expensive. There comes a point where the cost of getting it to your customer overwhelms you. We’re in the process of establishing product capabilities in other locations. We’re looking in the mid-Atlantic now and thinking of setting up our own production capability around the Chesapeake Bay. We have a production facility in Michigan in a partnership and also one in southern Ontario, which helps us reach upstate New York and Pennsylvania. I’ve long wanted to do something in on the West Coast. A lot of the same conditions that allowed us to get going in Maine are in northern California, with the vineyards and fishing.


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