Compost Fuels an Iraq Vet’s Future

by Katherine Gustafson on December 10, 2013
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When Justen Garrity (pictured) returned home in 2009, after serving five years in the U.S. Army, including assignments in Iraq and South Korea, he found himself unemployed in one of the worst job markets in decades. He quickly realized that he would have to use the leadership skills he had acquired in the military to create his own source of income.

After studying emerging business trends, Garrity chose a wide-open field with no entry requirements or formal training: organic compost. It amazed him that about two-thirds of garbage can be composted, yet the field was relatively dormant.

“If you could teach yourself how to do it, you could get in on it,” he said. “It’s the wild west of industry. I had no business experience and no compost experience other than my backyard.”

Yet in 2010, he launched Veteran Compost. He learned by doing, and now the sky’s the limit. “My goal is to build a network across the mid-Atlantic and see where it goes from there,” Garrity says.

Veteran Compost collects compostable waste throughout the Delmarva Peninsula and processes it at its headquarters in Aberdeen, Md. The company then sells its organic product to gardeners and small farmers in the region.

Garrity currently employs two full-time and six part-time workers, and he plans to expand the business rapidly over the next year. Adding more composting sites and upgrading to bigger equipment will allow him to seek larger-scale customers, such as major farming operations, landscapers, and government, he says.

Aside from being a “green” venture, the company distinguishes itself from competitors by hiring veterans and their family members.

“People appreciate what we’re doing in terms of being a triple bottom line-type company,” Garrity says. In 2012, the Harford County Chamber of Commerce named Garrity as Entrepreneur of the Year and Baltimore Business Journal recently included him in its “40 Under 40.”

Leveraging His Military Experience

Veterans and others with an itch to start a business may wonder how Garrity leveraged his military experience into entrepreneurship and succeeded in an emerging field about which he initially knew very little.

“The whole idea of mental and physical toughness is a huge help,” he says, reflecting on how his time in the Army gives him with some important advantages in the trenches of entrepreneurship. No matter how tough the going gets, he says, “I’ve had worse jobs in worse places. On a rainy day on the farm, I can say, ‘at least I’m not in Afghanistan.’ That, and I’m really good at operating on very little sleep.”

His choice of composting was a strategic one, based on an examination of trends in sustainable business and recycling. “I looked for a field that was wide open,” he says. “There is no huge barrier to entry. There are no credentials required. I just went out and did research and taught myself the trade.”

He cautions other veterans not to pigeonhole themselves when choosing which field to enter. “Just because you swept floors in the Navy doesn’t mean you have to open a floor-sweeping business,” he says. “If I stuck to what I knew and was looking for a job to blow stuff up, I’d be five years out of work right now.”

He emphasizes that the attitude and general competence gained in the military are far more valuable: “Your base ability to learn and adapt and succeed; that will carry you pretty far. If you were able to find IEDs [explosives] in Afghanistan, chances are you’ll be able to start a business.”

Giving and Getting Free Advice

Garrity’s basic advice is to just get going. Start small and gather all of the advice you can as your operation grows.

“Instead of starting a huge food business, why don’t you try selling a few jars of your salsa at the farmers market instead of renting a huge factory and trying to get your salsa into Safeway?” he says. “I took my first bag of compost down to the farmers market and asked people, ‘What do you think of my labeling?’ They were brutally honest and that was free advice.”

He cautions that entrepreneurship can be a challenge, but points to the wealth of free resources available to small-business owners (such as development centers and SCORE). Opportunities abound for those who want to grab them, he says, veterans and civilians alike.

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