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New sources for compost

Here’s another product that’s made locally—by experts

Daniel Ash, co-founder of Farmer Pirates, with neighborhood children at his East Side farm, Cold Spring Cooperative in 2012

Photo by kc kratt


Most gardeners know, and nongardening homeowners are quickly learning, that compost is the answer to most soil problems. If you have clay soil, you need compost. If you have infertile, polluted, or compacted soil, you need compost. If you have overly sandy soil or too much shale, you need compost.


Compost improves soil texture, increases its air and water holding capacity, and adds living microorganisms to the soil. Those organisms are the vehicles that help plants acquire the nutrients they need. In short, compost “feeds” and enlivens the soil. Compost also tends to correct pH extremes, and even has fungicidal properties. Gardeners who continually enrich their soil with compost never or rarely need fertilizers. A compost-rich soil is all you need for a good lawn, vegetable or flower garden, or landscape bed.


Where to get it?

Many gardeners make their own compost in backyard bins, although it’s prohibited in many cities. (Done properly, it doesn’t attract pests, like rats, but that’s the concern.) Some bagged, premade compost is great, and some is unknown. Composts are made from many products, including cottonseed meal, manures, seaweed, shellfish parts, and other organic material. Most bagged compost is made and trucked in from elsewhere, such as the high quality Bumper Crop Soil Builder from Coast of Maine Organics.


The relatively new and popular Big Yellow Bag of Black Garden Soil is highly refined, screened, and tested, and a generous cubic yard is conveniently delivered in a neat bag. It’s not compost but compost-rich soil. It’s a step between bags and bulk. Many homeowners buy compost, topsoil, or compost-enriched topsoil in bulk by the truckload or half truckload (an eighteen-foot truck holds three or more cubic yards).  The largest producer is C. J. Krantz of East Amherst, which has provided topsoil, mulches, and compost (a popular choice is its Organic Leaf Compost) for area landscapers and consumers for seventy-five years. Many nurseries and garden supply businesses, such as Reboy, also buy bulk compost and resell it to consumers. Some nurseries make their own compost using plant material or manure from horse farms.


Townships such as Orchard Park and Amherst gather the leaves and brush that was pushed to the curb, age it, and offer it back to residents as mulch or compost. The quality can vary greatly, but may work for some needs.


Compost with a higher purpose

Beyond the typical yard-waste-turned-compost operations, a few committed local entrepreneurs are making compost from some carefully selected ingredients for very particular reasons, which include: keeping food waste out of landfills, picking up garbage in underserved communities and returning it as compost for their gardens, and scientifically designing compost for large-scale, urban, and ecofriendly landscape projects. These local compost visionaries include the Farmer Pirates, Eco Verde Organics, and Dave Majewski’s Sustainable Resources Group of Buffalo—three composting businesses with great goals.


Farmer Pirates—serving the community and the soil

From the Farmer Pirates’ website:

“Did you know that most of what you throw away is not in fact garbage, but a highly reusable resource? The majority of this waste takes a long, fossil fuel-powered trip to the landfill where, as it slowly breaks down, it emits methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas more than twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) and is equal to around 20 percent of the carbon pollution output of coal-fired power plants.”


These “pirates” are rebels in a positive way: they are resisting the traditional industrial food system, one that has resulted in food deserts (lack of available healthy food in many urban settings) and a societal distancing of people from primary food sources, like farms. The Pirates turn organic waste into compost that is then used by member farmers and gardeners in the area. It’s a win-win for local business, community health, and sustainable agriculture. Environmentally, this reduces methane, which is produced by landfills; takes away the need for gasoline-powered vehicles to truck away waste and bring in soil; encourages plants and the pollinators that use them; and encourages communities to eat local, healthy produce. Ultimately, these practices can help turn around at-risk neighborhoods.


The Farmer Pirates project started when two visionaries, Dan Ash and Mike Raleigh, bought empty lots on Buffalo’s East Side to make them  available to farmers. They formed a cooperative for mutual benefits (equipment, learning, support) that now consists of these member farms: Wilson Street Urban Farm, 5 Loaves Farm, Michigan Riley Farm, Common Roots Urban Farm, West Side Tilth, and Promise Valley Farm. Their produce sells through CSA programs, farmer’s markets, and onsite farm stands.


From the start, the urban farmers’ biggest problem was damaged soil, so they formed a crew for pickup of food waste and for compost production.


The garbage-to-compost deal

For an annual fee, the Compost Crew provides the customer with a five-gallon lined compost bucket. Every two weeks, the Crew arrives to each home’s designated spot, empties the bucket, and leaves a fresh liner. (Commercial users get a thirty-two-gallon tote with a choice of weekly or biweekly pickup.) At the end of the year, the customer is entitled to receive some of the finished compost. Non-member gardeners can buy affordable compost from the site (2 Gittere Street, Buffalo), whether they arrive with their own containers or trucks, or buy it by the bag. The compost is made from food waste (sorted to exclude meat and trash), horse manure, and yard debris from tree services. It goes through a mixing, draining, turning, and curing process, and then is tested for maturity after the composting period.


The benefits: the compost makes soil better for the farms and neighborhood. The Farmer Pirates Compost Crew includes Daniel Ash, Ignacio Villa, Terra Courtney, Tucker Stevens, and Mark Stevens. Learn more at farmerpirates.com.   



EcoVerde Organics: reducing food waste with ethical business practices


John Diebel of Eco Verde



When Warren Emblidge, owner of McCullagh Coffee, noticed how much coffee grounds and other scraps his 3,000 customers were throwing out, he started to learn about composting. Emblidge was already personally invested in the belief that business decisions should serve the greater good—his coffee suppliers in Central America and Southeast Asia are structured to ensure fair farming practices and financial return for the farmers. Emblidge advocates that financial investments should be based on stakeholder benefits and vetted social and environmental outcomes, as well as financial return. He connected with the best brains in the composting, water quality, and soil protection world including USDA, DEP (Department of Environmental Protection), Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper (now Waterkeeper), WNY Land Conservancy, and Cooperative Extension experts.


The result: Emblidge founded EcoVerde Organics two years ago, with the plan to produce “full circle” compost using food waste (plus plant material and manure) from local sources. His team learned that for every restaurant customer, nearly one pound of food is wasted. John Deibel, an agronomy consultant with a long track record in farming and large-scale compost production, became the technical advisor and compost maker. Emblidge found land, approached institutions and restaurants, and signed up food sources, starting with assisted living facility Fox Run of Orchard Park and Christ the King Seminary. At the source of food waste, it’s all about the sorting; meat and fats are not welcome, though carefully selected clean manure and yard waste are part of the composting ingredients for some EcoVerde Organics products.


After identifying land, dependable and well-sorted raw material sources, and equipment, the composting began in 2017, with incoming food, manure, and plant material gathered at an East Aurora site. By summer 2018, EcoVerde compost will be improving WNY garden soils, and lawns.


The science is important

Composting is not simple on a large scale. It’s about balancing input to achieve the right moisture levels and C/N (carbon to nitrogen) ratio. Carbon material, such as plant debris, decomposes slowly, while manure is nitrogen-rich and heats quickly. Food scraps are a variable and have high moisture content. The incoming matter, the ratios, the piling, turning, and timing all govern the final quality and content of the product.


The process is important

Deibel uses fresh horse manure with bedding to retain and support beneficial bacteria. The aerobic composting fosters microorganisms while the right amount of heating reduces weed content.


Testing is important

Home gardeners can take chances with variable compostables and can use incomplete compost. Not so with a commercial compost producer. EcoVerde Organics tests Full Circle Compost until they know—and the consumer knows—that what they are getting is consistent, has minimal weed seeds, and is filled with healthy microbial life.


Costs are important

In addition to land, staff, and equipment, the cost of trucking (material in/compost out) becomes prohibitive. Even if food waste producers pay for the pick-up (offsetting their land fill fees), it is waterlogged, heavy, and costly to haul. Like the Pirates, EcoVerde holds that keeping the source materials, the composting facility, and the customer base close together is critical—just like the Pirates say. For more information, visit ecoverdecompost.com.


The EVO composting process

John Deibel explains the following process, its success dependent upon testing of ingredients and blends throughout:


1. Pile bulking material (bedded manure or yard waste) and turn it when it gets hot (140˚ F.)


2. Chop food waste and blend with bulking material at a 1:3 ratio (by volume and adjusted according to C:N content) using a rototiller or similar machine


3. Shape the windrow to fit the compost turner (8’ wide x 4’ high) and turn every five to ten days for nine to twelve weeks. Cover with fleece to allow gas exchange, consistent heating, and to maintain optimum moisture.


4. Test for temperature. Internal pile temperature will reach 130˚ to 160˚ F. and drops slightly over time. (Most weed seeds are killed at 120˚ F.) The pile is done when it reaches ambient temperature.



Compost for Greener Cities, the Majewski way


Dave Majewski stands next to the maple tree he is preserving for this client.



Dave Majewski has been a primary advocate for green infrastructure and ecological development in Buffalo and WNY for decades. He has consulted for Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, PUSH Buffalo, the Buffalo Green Code, and numerous private and government projects with green or ecosystem protection goals. He has received the EPA Environmental Quality Award. He is also the principal of Sustainable Resources Group of Buffalo (SRG), a consulting, design, implementation, and construction company with the following goals: green infrastructure, low impact developing, ecological site design, habitat conservation, and storm water runoff management.


What does compost have to do with it?

Just about everything, according to Majewski. He ardently believes that properly designed soil matrix is required to support healthy plant communities and handle storm water runoff. Projects such as the Urban Habitat Project (at Central Terminal) and the rain garden and bioretention system on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Complex are evidence of what works.


It is key that SRG’s compost is produced locally, using carefully selected raw materials. Production is meticulously managed with specific processes to produce specific products. SRG partners are proud to explain that they do not use industrial tub grinders or shredders, in order to minimize their carbon emissions footprint.


SRG’s composting process is designed to increase microbial life, suppress disease, retain moisture, increase aggregates (the crumbliness and texture), and increase porosity. It produces many different varieties of compost, applying “recipes” that tailor the product for particular sites or uses, based on laboratory testing. Some composts are fungal—generally suited for woody plants, resembling the forest floor—and others are bacteria based (suitable for garden crops or healthy lawns). Some are best for biofiltration or bioretention projects, others for rain gardens, urban farming, or general landscaping.



As Majewski explains, “Using fungal-dominated compost at the beginning increases the landscape plants’ chances significantly. In the right soil, they increase their root mass, and, if they don’t, the storm water runoff management projects can fail. This can take several years, but it is the soil that makes the difference.”


As the science consultant, quality control, testing, and protocol guy at SRG, Majewski studied for at least seven years to figure out what compost to produce for what purposes—and how to do it. He’s learned from microbiologists, botanists, and agronomists the recipes that serve the higher purposes of the magical “black gold” we consider compost.


SRG is no longer a start-up, but rather a model for future sustainable resource management and composting projects for our region. To date, its projects impound and infiltrate six-and-a-half million gallons of storm water runoff annually in Buffalo and Erie County. Visit srgofbuffalo.com to learn more.


It’s all good

From a newborn food-to-garden composting project (EcoVerde Organics) to an evolving urban farm and composting cooperative (Farmer Pirates) to the ambitious green infrastructure and ecological site design company (SRG/Sustainable Resources Group)—there is one central lesson. Use compost.  Buy the right one for you—locally.


Editor’s note: Sally Cunningham has endorsed the Big Yellow Bag (black garden soil), consulted for EcoVerde Organics, and has been friends with David Majewski since he began to study composting long ago.   


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