Blessing makes sure he’s counted
MILLFORD, Del. — Bruce Blessing was only 22 years old in December 1985 when he and his “magnificent seed-cleaning machine” were featured on the front page of The Delmarva Farmer.
The article by Sharon Morgan described how the young man had created a homemade seed-cleaner and a homemade trailer to haul it. With this portable equipment he launched “Blessing’s Seed Cleaning Service” for small grains and soybeans. He could clean 100 to 150 bushels an hour and charged 50 cents a bushel.
His entrepreneurial spirit has served him well.
His most recent invention is a “de-watering trailer” that reduces the volume of waste products he hauls away from poultry processing plants, and he’s ready to build Phase I of an $18 million indoor composting facility, the first such plant on the Eastern Shore. He’s often called the “King of Compost.”
The “king” rose from humble beginnings and has worked hard from an early age. He grew up on a 20-acre farm in Houston, Del., where his large family raised cows and pigs and grew grain and other crops.
When Blessing was 17, his father became ill and the high schooler helped support the family by working the night shift at a local chicken processing plant, going to school by day.
He quit that job the day he graduated from Milford High School, vowing never to return. However, his father died that autumn, leaving him responsible for the farm, and much of his work since then has been associated with the poultry industry. He hauled chicken waste to be applied on area farms, becoming one of the largest organic waste handlers on Delmarva.
Recognizing the need for a more environmentally friendly way to utilize that waste, he began composting on a large scale. In 2002, Blessing got his first permit from Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control for composting, mixing carbon sources such as wood chips and yard waste with nitrogen-rich sources such as poultry waste at the former brownfield site where Draper Cannery had been located in Milford.
Blessing was choosy in the materials he used, opting for consistency in the ingredients of his compost in order to produce a consistent product. As a waste hauler, he diverted materials not suitable for his compost to other end users or, if there was no ultimate beneficial use, to a landfill. “We had to learn, to adjust, to identify what is great here on the Shore for compost and what is better for other methods,” he said.
Blessing’s life partner of 23 years, Marion Chandler, said he is able to look at material and determine how best to use it, a talent backed up by analysis.
Blessing also allows sufficient time to complete the composting process. “You can’t make compost in six weeks,” he said.
Blessing developed an in-vessel system that produced a superior product soon in demand by golf courses, gardeners and farmers. He uses the compost, called “Blessings Blends,” in the potting soil for his own greenhouse operation, which produces potted plants that are sold at a retail facility at the intersection of Route 1 and Sugar Hill Road in Milford.
Blessings Blends are in high demand by organic growers since receiving an OMRI (Organics Material Review Institute) Listed Seal. He has further improved some products by adding increased nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Natural fertilizer products from blood meal, bone meal and feather meal are expensive, he said, because they are also used in the pet industry. “With my process, all these are already in the product.”
Blessing had been composting for years on a commercial site he said is surrounded by land in agricultural preservation with no possibility of building more homes, yet there were neighbors who complained. Legal battles ensued, resulting in a conditional use permit that was later withdrawn and the eventual shutting down of his composting operation. Blessing sued Sussex County, winning a settlement agreement that will allow him to resume composting operations only in an indoor facility, which he had planned to build anyway. After years of consulting with college experts and engineers, he has developed plans that are currently under review by Soil Conservation Service. He hopes to start construction next year on the first phase, which will cost about $6 million.
“We’ve had to reinvent ourselves multiple times to meet different needs,” Blessing said. There are challenges with composting outside, including humidity and rain. An indoor facility will allow him more control over the process. “Most successful composting operations in the United States are indoors,” he said. “I knew eventually the right process would be to put it inside.”
The 160-foot by 250-foot building will have positive and negative aeration pressure, with air exchanged four times an hour.
The facility will have the first submerged gravel wetlands, he said, substituting for the required stormwater ponds. With a stone base covered with soil, these wetlands will be planted with plants that take up nutrient-rich materials and, to the delight of Chandler, that attract pollinator species. The entire perimeter of the property will have a buffer planted in butterfly- and bird-attracting plants and trees. Chandler has overseen the planning of this aspect of the project.
On the existing concrete pad where he had been composting, a butterfly sanctuary will be built. Eventually it will be open to the public. Blessing noted his operation is adjacent to Prime Hook, which attracts hundreds of tourists each year.
A heat recovery system will remove warm air from the composting buildings and direct it to Blessing’s greenhouses to heat the floors there. He anticipates getting millions of BTUs from the compost.
Once the first building is complete, hopefully in December 2022, Blessing will be able to resume his composting business. He said he already has a waiting list of potential distributors of his product. At present he is being allowed to sell previously produced compost from his site.
For now, as his waste hauling business continues, he has a joint venture with McGill Environmental Systems in Waverly, Va., which does composting, and with Trenton Biogas, a food waste recycling and renewable energy facility in New Jersey, to accept certain materials.
“I have been tasked to clean up the wastewater lagoon at one integrator’s facility since 2018,” Blessing said. “I purchased a floating excavator for this purpose.”
This is where the dewatering trailer proves useful. With the cost of transport, being able to reduce the volume and weight of material being hauled by as much as 50 percent saves money for him and for his customer. By draining off water and leaving it to be treated and recirculated by the poultry processing plant’s wastewater treatment system, he can reduce what’s being hauled and provide a more suitable product to his venture partners.
“It is difficult to dewater waste from poultry processing because of the fat,” Blessing said. “Our method uses gravity and polymers that start the draining right away.” He developed a custom dewatering fabric and metal screens which can be installed inside a tractor trailer or removed so the trailer can haul other materials.
Blessing summed up an interview by quoting a good friend who warned him, “Just remember, pioneers get scalped.” Blessing quipped, “I haven’t been scalped yet, but I’ve come close. I know my product is superior to what’s out there.”