Today, I am thrilled to release this interview with my friend, Francisco Niembro of Aldea Verde Lombricultura, a large-scale vermicomposting company based in Queretaro, Mexico about 2 hours north of Mexico City.
Today, I am thrilled to release this interview with my friend, Francisco Niembro of Aldea Verde Lombricultura, a large-scale vermicomposting company based in Queretaro, Mexico about 2 hours north of Mexico City. Aldea Verde's business is comprised of their own vermicomposting operations and a consulting/project management business where they help organic waste-producers recycle their waste into a valuable organic fertilizer that most of them use to increase the yields on their own crops by up to 80%.
By decreasing waste disposal costs, reducing fertilizer needs, and increasing yield, agricultural firms who work with Aldea Verde and consume their own by-product enjoy a win-win-win scenario.
When I first saw his presentation at the 2017 Vermiculture Conference, I was floored at what he was doing. “Ridiculous” is a word that I keep coming back to when I describe the scale of the operations Aldea Verde installs, as Francisco's largest clients produce a staggering 600 tons (1.2 million lbs or 550,000 kg) of organic waste per day. After a precomposting period where temperatures reach upwards of 140F, 10 to 20% of the compost gets processed further by tens of thousands of pounds of worms, who ultimately produce a potent and biologically-active soil amendment .
Those numbers are hard to get my mind around – and hard to communicate – but I'll say this; the smallest of Francisco's projects in Mexico are larger than most of the largest vermicomposting operations in the US.
But Francisco, a Worm Farming Alliance member who I hope to see every year at the Vermiculture Conference, is an engaging, charismatic personality who is willing to spend time with anyone he meets. Despite his rock star status at an event like this, he engages with everyone and truly takes an interest in other people.
I'm now thrilled to call him a friend and I'm even happier that he agreed to answer a few questions for me.
Please enjoy this interview with Francisco Niembro of Aldea Verde Lombricultura!
UWC: Francisco, I am absolutely blown away by the scale of your operations, but before we get into that, I have to ask: How on earth did you begin vermicomposting?
It all started when we were looking for an environmentally-friendly and sustainable project that could be the retirement job for my parents and two other couples who are friends with them.
My mother Aurora is the one who had the idea of becoming the largest producers of vermicompost in the galaxy, after a couple of failures on small-mid scale hydroponics projects. However, despite those failures, we knew there was a growing demand for these types of projects that achieve a healthier environment.
UWC: I think it’s fitting that the name of someone who wanted to create the largest vermicomposting sites in the galaxy would be named Aurora!
So if I understand correctly, you intended to be more of a vermicompost producer yourselves, only to learn that you could also be effective in helping others set up their own large-scale vermicomposting projects?
After the first four years of operations, producing and selling vermicompost and liquid extracts we adjusted Aldea Verde's core business in 2009. Friends and strangers were reaching us more with the idea of us teaching them how to do it, rather than buying our vermicompost, so we had the chance to start developing projects for others. We taught them, provided the worms, equipment, and infrastructure they needed.
While we have some smaller social projects, most of our clients are large-scale waste producers who want to recycle their waste into compost and vermicompost.
UWC: How people arrive in this industry fascinates me. You are a dentist! How on earth did that happen?
Being a dentist with a private practice, where I was satisfied and had quite good income, I do not complain at all. But you start having a very monotonous life, daily from home to the clinic, cover some teeth, fillings, clean mouths, put back some lost teeth, remove some broken teeth and from time to time, straighten something there to achieve a more pleasant smile.
But all this, within the same 4 walls, same floor, same roof and with the same patients, many of whom are sore, mad, full of complaints, fears, and have little desire to invest in their own health.
It also, bothering my own eyes, back and ears. Does all this sound funny? Doesn’t it sound more fun to chase millions of earthworms around? Under different skies, surrounded by trees, fields, rivers, animals, people and businesses full of desire to undertake something full of innovation, that brings benefits to them and the environment. This surely is more fun, eh?
UWC: Absolutely! I’m just curious about something. If someone asks you what you do for a living, do you say you’re a dentist or do you tell them about Aldea Verde?
I am still a dentist by profession, but I am constantly morphing into a composter-vermiculturalist, a promoter of quality environmental solutions that helps close the waste cycle, take care of the environment, and promote well-being.
But I am still a happy dentist the other 1 or 2 days a week that I am at my clinic.
UWC: How do your clients find out about Aldea Verde Lombricultura?
UWC: Once installation, training, and startup is complete, what responsibilities do you have to your clients?
We have a total commitment with each project that we install. Mainly, we work to achieve the objectives of each project, which can range from appropriately treating organic waste, creating a premium end product of certifiable quality. We work with customers of varying scales and offer research and education to help them meet their needs.
We even help them sell their end products.
UWC: Are your clients already knowledgeable about the benefits of vermicomposting when they approach you?
Most of them have the idea, yes, although sometimes those ideas are a little distorted, a product of some of the inaccurate information passed around on the internet.
UWC: Your clients are often agricultural firms like palm oil extractors and tequila producers. Can you provide an average amount of daily organic waste created by your clients?
It varies a lot, there are assembled projects that receive from 1 to 5 tons of waste per day, but there are projects of more than 500 to 600 tons per day of waste to be treated.
UWC: So your smallest clients are producing 1 to 5 tons of waste per day and your biggest clients generate 500-600 tons per day.
Sweet Mother of God.
So how much of that typically ends up as vermicompost?
It varies a lot depending on the type of waste to be treated and the technology that is implemented, but we can say that for every ton of waste that goes thru the precomposting and vermicomposting processes, about 600 to 800 lbs of vermicompost is harvested.
But we have many clients who do not vermicompost all of their organic waste. We have some clients who only vermicompost 20-40% of their waste and they create a mature, stable compost with the rest.
UWC: Do you have clients who simply want a sustainable way of recycling organic waste? Or do they all normally value the worm castings on the back end of the process as well?
We have clients with one, the other or both goals. What we do try is to guide them to the most appropriate solution depending on the objectives and needs of each project or the end use of the products.
UWC: For the agricultural clients who use the vermicompost they are creating with your projects, what kinds of results are they seeing in terms of yield?
Yes, our clients are increasing yields in a bunch of different crops, but most importantly, they are are restoring their soils, physically and biologically, and they are lowering their chemical inputs, which is a very great accomplishment, not only with environment but with their wallets.
But to answer your question, our clients are seeing yield improvements from 20% to 80%.
UWC: You normally work with larger agricultural clients. Are there other markets or clients that Aldea Verde would like to pursue?
Yes! Organic residues are trouble makers to large AND small businesses, so anyone that generates organic waste is welcome to contact us. Hotels, municipalities, universities, markets, food packers…it doesn't matter!
UWC: You have an interesting business relationship with David Escalera of Compostamex. Can you describe how you conduct your projects with him?
David and Compostamex have had a remarkable trajectory the last 30 years, not only in Mexico, but in many other countries.
Focused on large-scale composting, he has developed the most interesting projects in this sector in Mexico and without a doubt, in my opinion, he is the most experienced composter I know. Several years ago, his clients started to request he install vermicomposting projects for them.
He did not offer vermicomposting at the time, so he sent one of his collaborators to take one of the introductory courses to worm farming that we offer at our Aldea Verde production plant. The following Tuesday, David called me, and the following Thursday he came to visit us and boom! We started to work together.
Industrial composting and vermicomposting go hand in hand. In fact, precomposting is required for successful large-scale vermicomposting. So our combined expertise has resulted in the assembly of several plants together and this has brought more smiles than I could have been fixing in my clinic.
UWC: But you don’t actually want completely finished compost to feed the worms, correct? Do you have to stop the composting process early in order to have a compost that is a good food source for the worms? If so, how do you decide when it’s time to stop composting the material to feed it to the worms?
There are 4 main composting stages: mesophilic, thermophilic, 2nd mesophilic stage (cooling stage), then the maturation or curing stage.
In the thermophilic stage is where we can reach the PFRP** standards mandated by pretty much all the organic production regulator, like the National Organic Standards Board.
(**PFRP stands for “Process to Further Reduce Pathogens”.)
We achieve that in the first 15 to 20 days (if windrow turning is the technique) or in the first 3 to 6 days (if we are using aerated static pile or in-vessel composting).
We usually go a little further, and it can can take us from 3 to 5 weeks to adequately precompost our materials. This way, we accelerate and control the vermicomposting process, and provide a premium food for worms that is already clean and more digestible for them. This can vary from one type of organic waste to another.
UWC: So you build the facility and bring in the equipment to precompost the organic matter. Then you typically form windrows (long rows of piled organic matter) where the worms reduce the volume even more. Is that correct?
Something like that, yes, but we are based on starting everything with a good data collection. Then we design the project and we determine what is the appropriate technological route. We plan the site, propose the needed infrastructure, and then build it according to regulations and then put it into operation.
On the one hand we make compost, and on the other hand, vermicompost.
We don't take the worms to the piles of compost, but rather, in the composting area we will produce the best food for the worms, which will have their own area designed according to multiple factors, such as the climate, the volume of product that you want to obtain or the amount of investment that can be carried out.
UWC: What is the average size of a worm shipment to start the vermicomposting process?
The volume of worms depends on the size of the project and the growth that the project wants to have. They can range from 600-1000 lbs of worms to 18,000- 26,000 lbs of earthworms.
We just had a fairly large shipment of 19,000 lbs of worms make a journey of 3 days and 1600 miles to reach one of our projects. That was a very tense time! If the truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere, lots of money is at risk.
UWC: 19,000 lbs of worms. Incredible.
One of your clients is very enthusiastic about using continuous flow through systems, or CFTs. Can you talk a little more about the plans you have in store there?
This particular project is still in the evaluation of the investment phase, so I cannot speak much about the client just yet. But I can talk a little about the type of project. It’s a 75,000 square-foot facility with 44 CFTs, each of which is 36 meters long with mechanized feeding, irrigation and harvesting systems that can produce more than 6,000 tons of vermicompost initially and increase this volume as they grow their own worm density.
It's a very ambitious project, perhaps the largest in the world according to records that I have and the main objective is to increase the agricultural production of this client's crop fields.
UWC: So what are the benefits of using CFTs and why is your client so enthusiastic about them?
CFTs are up to 300% more productive, more advanced technologically, and they require less labor, which can save lots of money in the long run. They also have shorter production times aligned with production parameters that the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) and others require.
UWC: Are there some projects where you have to tell a prospective client that vermicomposting is not his or her best option?
Yes, several. Vermicomposting is not a solution for all projects. We can solve their problems or reach their goals with a good composting process, reaching a high-quality compost without investing in vermicomposting.
UWC: Do you ever do consulting work without actually supervising the site building or importing the equipment?
Infrequently, but we do offer the consulting service according to the objectives of each client. For example, we have advised projects that were already installed and that only need to improve processes, increase production or improve their technology.
But yes, we do offer consultation as well as our turnkey projects.
UWC: You have an extensive training program that you give your clients access to. Have you ever considered selling this?
Actually, we do sell it. As part of our proposals, we offer something called the “Technological Package” which includes a study of capacity, design of the site, training and education of personnel. We stay in close contact with the client as they progress and even monitor their certification processes with different certification agencies.
UWC: As part of my marketing relationship with Michigan SoilWorks, I have noticed that inquiries about vermicomposting capacity, for both expected input and output quantities, are extremely common.
How accurate are your initial estimates?
Sometimes we don’t reach estimated production that we offered on the first couple of batches, but once the operators learn more and the project matures, I could say we reach the production we studied from the beginning or even better.
UWC: Your smallest operations are bigger than most any vermicomposting projects in the US in terms of recycled organic waste. Have you had any thoughts about expanding into the United States? I would have to think that larger agricultural operations and organic waste producers would be very interested in vermicomposting as a method to reduce their waste.
Not only that, but to increase the fertility of their soils to produce a higher quantity and quality of crops.
We have thought about it, however. While we have not had the opportunity to work on a project in the USA yet, we have had a few inquiries though. It would be a pleasure if you know someone interested in our services let us know!
UWC: I'll do my best Francisco! What would be the most difficult thing about trying to do similar projects in the US?
The regulations are more demanding and tight, but we can work according to the rules. The climate is other important factor. Composting worms like a warmer temperature than you can find year-round in most parts of the US.
Nevertheless, a location can always be adapted to maintain good conditions for the worms, although this requires more investment. As long as it is viable and someone wants to do it, it is possible.
There are other factors that we have seen in some potential clients in the USA and to be honest, I think some of them feel that Mexican consultants and operators would be inferior.
But you mentioned it a moment ago. Our smaller operations are bigger than most operations in the USA.
UWC: Ugh. Yeah, that's pretty dumb!
Now, your projects require importing commercial composting equipment from all over the world. Can you describe this equipment and where you import the equipment from?
We usually import industrial composting equipment from Germany. We distribute equipment from the Eggersmann company (Backhus, Terra Select, Forus, BRT Hartner, Teuton), which are, undoubtedly, the best, most functional and cost efficient in the world. And we have a wonderful partnership with Jimmy Spoerry, who handles the Latin America market for Eggersmann.
On the other hand, we import other necessary supplies from the USA such as soil stabilizer for the composting platforms, measuring devices, aeration motors, etc. The rest of the equipment is sourced locally and we have very good results with them.
We know the sector globally and know what the best solutions are and where to find them.
UWC: Do your clients ever sell their vermicompost or do they normally use it in their own operations?
Both. The majority of our clients are “prosumers,” meaning they consume that they produce. But other projects are specifically assembled to market their end products.
UWC: Are you able to tell us the payback time on your projects? In other words, how long does it take a client to recover the cost of your project?
The quickest payback is for larger agricultural prosumers, who may see a revenue increase in the millions annually and conserve their soils, simply from using their own vermicompost and compost.
Payback can be very fast for these clients. For those who sell their worm castings, they can also have good results with paybacks ranging from 8 months to 36 months.
UWC: Does the size of your projects ever intimidate you? And do you ever feel scared after you signed a deal that maybe you can’t deliver on your promises? I’m pretty sure I’d be making “Steve castings” in my pants if I ever inked a deal as large as yours.
Of course, yes! Some ideas and project designs intimidate us, but it is part of the challenge that we accept day by day.
However, we do a very thorough preliminary study to be sure we can fulfill what we offer. We do not throw ourselves into the empty pool, ever.
UWC: What is a common challenge when executing your plans? Are there frequent obstacles to success that you have encountered?
The financing of the project is always a challenge. And many times, in the middle of the road, our clients become a little fearful. One of the main obstacles is more in our customers than it is in us. We well know the benefits obtained at the end of the day for these types of projects, but our customers are investing large amounts in something new and that always brings fear.
We take care to give them the confidence and support, and reassure them. For example, we introduce them to our other successful clients. Then, after listening to other happy customers, they feel better.
UWC: What do you wish you knew when you were first beginning?
The incredible potential around all of this. It is truly exciting to know the great potential and future that this sector has, in addition, all the smiles that are achieved, more than the ones in my clinic for sure.
UWC: You will be speaking at the US Composting Council Conference in Phoenix in early 2019. What topics will you be covering?
Composting and vermicomposting complement each other very well. We've set up over 70 projects like this and we will be sharing our lessons learned and talk about the learning curve we faced with hybrid projects.
UWC: Well firstly Francisco, thanks so much for agreeing to do this. If anyone has needs for large scale organic waste mitigation inside or outside of Mexico, can they get in touch with you?
Of course! It will be a pleasure. Write me at [email protected]. I will try to reply the same day.
Wrapping It Up
I'm not gonna lie. I'm happily married, but I have a severe hetero man-crush on this guy. He's doing huge things in the world…..and for the world. He is turning liabilities into assets for his clients and, to be honest, probably isn't being paid enough to do it!
His consulting projects, especially, are impressive in that he finds folks who are creating their own waste AND using their own product, which brings up an interesting point.
Vermicomposting is one of those strange things where size doesn't necessarily give you an economy of scale.
Folks who need to pay to bring massive amounts of waste on-site or find ways to sell their product off-site have obstacles that a small operation, like say, a household, does not. Households create their own waste, recycle it in-situ, then use it on-site. And so do most of Francisco's clients for Aldea Verde's consulting business.
And it appears that Francisco and his partners are doing a great job of making the case to large agribusinesses that they can achieve incredible efficiencies by recycling their waste on the spot. By removing most transportation concerns from the scenario, Francisco has eliminated a costly part of the process that bedevils lost of would-be waste entrepreneurs in the US.
But it's not just his business acumen that I admire.
I have assisted Francisco in networking with some other players in the vermicomposting world and I have to say that I consider him a man of integrity and honor, a mensch. He is in it for the long-haul, not a quick score. He is not interested in selling snake oil to clients who have no business worm composting their organic waste, for one reason or another.
It's one of the reasons I asked Francisco to join the Worm Farming Alliance, a group of like-minded entrepreneurs – some with existing business, some without – because I thought he had a lot to offer our group! And he hasn't disappointed!
If Francisco is someone you think you may want to partner with, he'd love to hear from you. If you are more comfortable chatting with me and asking me to make the introduction, I'd be more than happy to do that as well.