The United States has a topsoil problem.
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:
"What he can't consume, he feeds to his pigs and his cattle, and then they poop. And then a chicken comes through and picks through the poop," he said. "That becomes a refined product that then goes back to feed the soil. We kind of play the role of the chicken in this system, refining and adding value to this soil."
Matsch, whose organization has worked with Maxfield and is the largest community-based recycling organization in the country, chose to describe Waste Farmers another way, commenting on the shared goals of the company and Eco-Cycle. "What both [Waste Farmers] and Eco-Cycle are doing is to try to create an association in people’s minds between food waste and soil fertility and to create a very local circle of resource recycling – from plate to compost pile to soil and back to the plate."
The other thing that Waste Farmers' potting soil has going for it is that the presence of compost displaces the need for peat moss, a plant material sourced from limited supplies in sensitive ecosystems – and is found in just about every retail potting soil.
Waste Farmers, now about three years old, has seen impressive growth. Maxfield said at six months, they were operating with a pickup truck and processing about one ton of compost a month. Now they're up to about 300 tons a month. But the more notable achievement is the quality of the product they're retailing. Maxfield said that side-by-side comparisons of plants grown in Waste Farmers' potting soil and in their competitors' soil have produced double yields for the Waste Farmers soil.
Maxfield said the company brought in about $500,000 this year, and expects to grow to between $3 and $5 million by 2014. He bases that largely on the growing demographic of urban farmers, the support he has received so far from the local food community and from the city – Maxfield sits on the Denver Mayor's Seeds Task Force, which is focused on developing the infrastructure for urban agriculture, and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce named Waste Farmers the "2010 Green Business of the Year" – and on the interest that local retailers have expressed in selling his product.
"Costco said, 'Let's talk.' Independent lawn and garden centers have said, 'Let's talk," Maxfield said. "The conversation's the same: 'Tell us when you have your packaging.'"
The packaging isn't easy: "We tried compostable packaging. It composted. We tried a burlap sack, it composted the burlap sack," Maxfield said in the Waste Farmers testing lab. They expect to have a solution in time to start selling sometime this year.
For Maxfield, the big-picture plan for Waste Farmers is to expand to other cities, so that organic waste is collected, turned into compost, and put back into the soil all in a closed-loop, localized system.
Establishing smaller and more distributed systems in this way makes financial sense.
"The current economics of compost have a lot to do with proximity to agricultural markets. Compost is heavy (and so is food waste), and most commercial composters will tell you that 100 miles is about the farthest you can haul it and have the numbers line up," said Sullivan from BioCycle.
But for Waste Farmers, setting up shop in multiple cities is also part of the quest for sustainable answers to agricultural – not just financial – problems. He said, "What we want to do is decentralize a very centralized, failing agricultural system."
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