Routt County, located in the Yampa Valley region of Colorado, is home to 25,000 residents who wake up each morning to mountains and pastures.
While community members in Steamboat Springs are surrounded by a region rich in resources and agriculture, composting and organics services have failed to thrive, causing a hiatus in waste diversion efforts.
Winn Bowman, founder of Cowgirl Compost CO, saw an opportunity to revamp composting just a year after the city ended its program in 2018.
“We lost it. We had this infrastructure in our capability area to support composting,” she explained at the 2022 Recycling Summit. “We had this great infrastructure where people were sorting. We hired people at this ski area to look for the materials and then it went away. It was heartbreaking as a community for the composting to go away.”
Leveraging her background in landfill consulting and waste diversion, Bowman founded Cowgirl Compost CO, starting in shipping and collection.
The company offers a sealed, leak-proof and odor-proof bucket for the collection of food waste at home, which is emptied weekly into “ambassador bins”. The bins are taken to Cowgirl Compost facilities to be composted with yard waste, creating a nutrient-dense soil amendment that can be used for landscaping and gardening. Subscribers receive nine separate months after enrolling in the program.
Bowman started with a truck, creating two-hour community events every Wednesday. Recognizing this as a short-term solution, it assembled “Composting Ambassadors” to guide its growth strategy.
“We started using people who are willing to cut a 48-gallon totter with the resistance top,” she explained. “We tried to get one in every kind of geographic neighborhood throughout the community, which we were successful at. And they would take it out every Tuesday and Thursday and empty their buckets into the barrel.”
Bowman began collecting trash on Fridays, shoveling the contents into the back of the truck with the help of her husband and son and driving it to the Cowgirl Compost facility, which is located about 20 miles outside of Steamboat Springs.
“I’m taking food scraps, compostable paper and then mixing it with wood chips that the tree services are bringing to me for free,” she added.
While small-scale facilities are exempt from Colorado state regulations, Bowman was required to appear before county commissioners and meet permit requirements that far exceeded the state level. One thing that made the Cowgirl Compost CO facility favorable to the official circuit was the use of a fence to block the view of the compost pile. Recent funding in the form of a grant from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will support future growth, something startups in the state desperately need.
“I do this in the evenings and weekends because I have another full-time job,” she explained.
Looking ahead, Bowman is seeking a move from a small-volume, conditionally exempt composting facility to a Class III operation. She explained her plans to have two locations or multiple locations, but that would require moving equipment. Despite the obstacles and frustration that come with the business and her role as director of waste diversion at the Yampa Valley Sustainability Council, growing Cowgirl Compost CO has been a fulfilling venture.
“Trying to move the needle on recycling and composting and all that stuff can be really difficult and frustrating at times,” she concluded. “Even though I was exhausted from working full time all day, the nights and weekends I’m out at that garbage plant have been my saving grace and my sanity — that practical component of being able to move the needle. and knowing that you’re actually doing something has been a big part of my life for the last couple of years.”
Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a three-part series exploring how three composting businesses in Colorado. In part one, Jamie Blanchard-Poling explains how beneficial partnerships can help business owners navigate relationships. In part two, Winn Cowman of Cowgirl Compost takes readers on a trip to Steamboat Springs in the Yampa Valley. In Part Three he takes readers to the high country in Salida with Julie Mach of Elements Mountain Composting.