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Change Agent

John-Paul Maxfield aims to put nutrients from food waste back into the soil

Waste Farmers collects organic waste and creates organic agricultural products like fertilizer, potting soil, biochar, and compost tea.

By Rachel CernanskyDowser.org / January 30, 2012

A worker carries a trash can from an organic pile of refuse at the Simi Valley Landfill and Recycling Center in Simi Valley, Calif. Urban areas produce huge amounts of food waste that are treated as trash and sent to a landfill. But their nutrients could be put to use enriching farm soil.

Hector Mata/Reuters/File

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The United States has a topsoil problem.

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About 75 percent of it is gone, primarily because the large, single-crop farms that dominate American agriculture rely on chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to produce their harvests, depleting natural soil systems in the process.

John-Paul Maxfield thinks compost can help solve this problem. Environmentalists love compost for several reasons, including that it helps divert waste from landfills – the world's largest source of human-produced methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

But for Maxfield, composting organic matter isn't so much a waste-reduction issue as it is an ecological and agricultural one. He wants to create a market solution to get compost back into the soil.

He's part of a small but growing community of people and companies around the country that recognizes the lifecycle of the food supply, and the need to link the production of food with what happens to the scraps of food after it is consumed.

"We have been losing topsoil across the planet at an alarming rate over the past 50 years, largely due to poor agricultural practices," Dan Sullivan, managing editor of BioCycle magazine, said in an email. "Amending our soils with compost, basically recycling organic waste back into the earth just as natural ecosystems such as forests function, is really the only way we can correct that damage."

He said he's starting to see a transition even on conventional (nonorganic) farms from petroleum-based farming to compost, largely because of increasing costs of petroleum, but also because the advantages of compost are becoming ever-clearer.

"Compost use improves water infiltration and storage capacity, thereby protecting agricultural lands long-term from drought, while chemical farming tends to dry out the soil, deplete nutrients over time, and cause erosion," Sullivan said.

Dan Matsch, compost program manager at Eco-Cycle, put it this way: "Any land from which nutrients are harvested, whether it’s a lawn from which the clippings are removed and leaves are raked up, or a giant agricultural field, needs to have those nutrients replaced one way or another or the soil becomes depleted over time."

But the transition is relatively slow, particularly in urban areas, where farming is on the rise around the country but where soil tends to be nearly devoid of nutrients and microbial activity, which Maxfield says is the key difference between soil and dirt. Urban areas also produce huge amounts of food waste that are, in most cities around the United States, treated as trash and sent to a landfill – preventing the nutrients from ever reaching the soil again while also contributing directly to climate change.

So Maxfield started a company, Waste Farmers, that takes organic waste collected from around Denver and produces organic agricultural inputs like fertilizer, potting soil, biochar, and compost tea. Waste Farmers currently sells products in bulk and is preparing to move into the retail home and garden market in 2012.

Ultimately, the objective is to develop a stronger market demand for compost. The products that Waste Farmers make are essentially a delivery mechanism for getting compost back into the ground and part of the food-production system again.

"At the retail level most people don’t really know what to do with straight compost, so it makes good sense to package it in a more ready-to-use form as [Waste Farmers] is doing," said Matsch. "The company is "not marketing straight compost – tea, char, and castings are all ‘value-added’ additional ingredients that make it an entirely different product."

By getting compost into people's hands in these more usable forms, the company is essentially creating a closed-loop process for agriculture and the organic waste stream.

To explain the function of Waste Farmers to people without an agricultural background, Maxfield asks you to picture a farmer using biodynamic principles, which are designed to be self-sustaining:

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