Most people see a field of wheat and imagine a loaf of bread. Heath Van Eaton looks at a grain field, wheat, barley, corn or milo and sees a durable, sustainably manufactured fence or synthetic wood decking for a patio.
Van Eaton has lived in Wellington since 2011 and owns WyoComp (short for composites), a custom harvesting business that serves parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska. He is a think-out-of-the box kind of a guy. He harvests small grains for area farmers and buys the residue left in his clients’ fields after harvesting.
He looks the part of a well-dressed businessman with shirt, jacket and dress pants and shoes. But the tiny, single earring he wears, a wisp of hair on his face and the long, braided ponytail down his back, makes it easy to assume he knows exactly who he is and feels good about himself.
“I cut my hair once,” he explained, “but it wasn’t me. I grew it right back.”
Van Eaton “bundles” his services to farmers with consulting, advising them on how to fertilize the soil and prevent erosion using some of the residue in their fields after harvesting. Then he buys the rest from them to process into biomass pellets. When combined with recycled plastic from milk jugs and detergent bottles, the pellets are transformed into durable, sustainable materials used for decking and fencing.
He may have grown up a Kansas farm boy, but Van Eaton has become much more. He combines 30 years of experience in agriculture, farm equipment and production with an impressive background in research, innovation and business management.
After a year of college in Fort Hayes, Kan., he was so anxious to get into the business world that he quit school and at the age of 19 was running his uncle’s food service management business. Anxious to move on to something new, he quit that job and moved to Cheyenne in 1994 to pursue his vision – to create a secondary income for farmers and promote sustainability at the same time.
While in Cheyenne, he met and married Amy. The couple lived in Sheridan while she earned a degree in dental hygiene and in Laramie where Van Eaton, who had picked up an undergraduate degree along the way, pursued a master’s in agriculture “to increase my credibility,” he said.
They now have 6- and 9-year-old daughters who attend Rice Elementary where their dad manages to find free time in his busy schedule to teach an enrichment class in guitar. Amy continues to work part-time in Cheyenne as a dental hygienist.
Van Eaton had long been interested in sustainability. Through extensive research, he found what he’d been looking for: A way to create value in the residue that remained in farm fields following harvest.
“I liked the idea that agricultural reside could be converted into products that could compete with fossil-fuel based products,” he said. He became a pioneer in the business of combining agricultural biomass and agricultural fiber with recycled plastic milk jugs and detergent bottles to create the materials used to produce wood-like material.
After years of research and engineering, Van Eaton became the prime mover in establishing Heartland Biocomposites in Torrington, Wyo., in 2005. Production began the following year. Heartland was a complicated venture, which included marketing, production, hiring, soliciting of investors and interacting with a board of directors. The business did well for several years and was a major supplier of “prairie fences,” primarily for commercial clients. The company shut down in 2009 as a result of the recession.
Van Eaton says the closing of the business was a relief in many ways because it left him free to pursue his research and consulting business on his own. He didn’t have to travel as much and was delighted to be able to spend more time with his family.
“Also, I needed to diversify and make my business model more efficient,” he said. He has been interested in the development of plant-based “green coal” and making use of biomass to produce high-value chemicals that can be used to manufacture plastic goods and carpeting. He has developed a reputation and contacts all across the country as well as in Europe and Canada. He is often asked to speak about his work.
Today, instead of manufacturing his own products, he has relationships with several plants around the country that buy biomass from him in pellet form, add recycled plastic and produce a variety of sustainable products. Prominent among the products are fences and decking.
These days, Van Eaton is looking for a location to establish a small pilot plant where he can experiment with his latest research and determine a future direction for his business. Meanwhile, he’ll be busy in the season custom harvesting and afterwards processing renewable, plant-based biomass materials and shipping them across the country to be made into environmentally sound products.
A fence, a deck, a loaf of bread — Van Eaton has figured out how to glean them all from a farmer’s field.