Part II of this Lessons In Community Composting series interviewed five enterprises — Schmelly’s Dirt Farm, Common Ground Compost + Reclaimed Organics, Rising Sand Organics, Loop Closing, and LA Compost — about their business focus and structure. Three of the five offer collection of residential and/or commercial food scraps, and the other two receive materials for composting. Each composts all or a portion of what comes to their sites. Part III takes a deeper dive into these enterprises’ approaches to collection and processing — and their goals for growth.
Schmelly’s Dirt Farm
Whether by bike, pickup truck or dump vehicle, many community-scale composters start their collection service with whatever means they already have or are available at a low-cost. ”We used a small truck, 21-gallon rolling cans, and shovels to start our business,” recalls Nicola Krebill, founder of Schmelly’s Dirt Farm in New Orleans. The company primarily offers commercial collection, while also servicing events and partnering with the New Orleans Public Library and Compost N.O.W. on a residential compost drop-off program located at 12 New Orleans public libraries.
As the business has grown, it has added a light-duty truck and a medium-duty truck that are customized for multipurpose use in both collection and delivery of their finished compost products. The company also has invested in new 32-, 48-, and 64-gallon organics Toters, hot-stamped with their logo.
Schmelly’s is located on a one-acre, former garden nursery site (Hollygrove Market & Farm), which enabled the operation to establish itself on a clean, uncontaminated space in an urban environment. The equipment that “changed our game” in creating their “Supernatural Soil Products,” was a used 2013 Kubota SVL-75 skid steer. “It was important that we did not buy an old (old would be over 10 years and/or over 2000 hours) machine because we didn’t want to risk leaky hydraulic systems that could contaminate our compost,” notes Krebill. “We received financing to purchase the machine for $24,000.” This year, Schmelly’s is hoping to expand to a second 4-acre site in St. Bernard Parish.
Reclaimed Organics, a program of Common Ground Compost in New York City, started its service working with restaurants and cafés, but realized that these businesses are often financially sensitive and have low margins. The focus shifted to events and collecting from offices. Reclaimed Organics’ office collection was catalyzed by $5,000 won during the US Composting Council’s pitch competition in 2018, which the company used to purchase a Main Street Pedicabs ‘PedalTruck’ electric trike (“Thunder”), allowing for increased efficiency and carrying capacity. Its fleet of cargo bikes includes an electric-assist bike with a Kanner Karts trailer, another Main Street Pedicabs ‘PedalTruck’ without the electric motor, a Cycles Maximus Trike, and a second electric-assist ‘PedalTruck’ coming soon. Thunder has capacity to carry 600 lbs compared to the e-bike with the trailer, which can hold up to 250 lbs.
For Common Ground Compost’s special events, the Clear Stream Recycling portable bins were an important early investment as they provide a simple, organized method for collecting materials. The company recently launched a residential collection program in response to the suspension of NYC’s food waste collection and drop-off programs due to COVID-19-related budget cuts. The service provides a 5-gallon bucket lined with a compostable bag for weekly pick up.
In 2018, the garden where Reclaimed Organics operates was partially destroyed after a fire in an adjacent building. The garden received a $5,000 grant at the end of 2019 to assist in developing a plan to rebuild the site, and while the plans were made and submitted to the disaster remediation agency, no work has been completed. The garden gate and greenhouse remain damaged, as well as brick paths that were destroyed by the fire trucks. The Reclaimed Organics team has been operating out of a shipping container across the street since October 2018, and has applied to the city for permission to add a second container. The material that the company collects is processed in the garden in two steps — first with bokashi in Bearicuda Bear Proof bins and finished through aerated static pile (ASP) composting. Some of the organics are trucked to a facility outside the city.
Rising Sand Organics
Rising Sand Organics, located on a farm in Stevens Point, Wisconsin handles its residential and commercial services using a Ford Econoline van to collect 5-gallon buckets with screw-on, airtight (gamma seal) lids as well as Rubbermaid Brute Trash Cans. When the weight warrants it, a Ford F350 flatbed truck is used to haul bins to the composting sites. Cleaning bins is part of the service, which worker-owner Kelly Adlington says takes “a significant amount of time and requires a lot of optimization.”
The goal is to replace the van with a bike for collection around town and use a truck and retrofitted trailer to add more capacity for hauling the material to the composting sites. Rising Sand’s service does not accept compostable products, including the liner bags. “I see it as an opportunity to educate people on the issue of the disposable lifestyle,” says Adlington.
Rising Sand purchased its 35-acre property with the help of a loan from the Farm Service Agency and received an operating loan to buy equipment for the farm. The worker-owned cooperative grows vegetables on between 3- and 4-acres of the land, and about a quarter of an acre is used for composting. Adlington, a self-described novice composter, processes material in windrows, mixing and turning with a Bobcat skid steer. Food scraps are also tipped at a nearby farm, Whitefeather Organics, and the compost produced is shared among the two operations.
At Loop Closing in Washington, D.C., the business was established to create a paradigm shift by eliminating the need for hauling food scraps and instead process them on-site where they are generated using in-vessel composting and vermicomposting units. Loop Closing has piloted a variety of composting systems, indoors and out, for the last five years throughout the Washington D.C. area, which is notorious for rat problems. “We believe it’s paramount to implement pilot projects to demonstrate these systems operating in the field for people to see, and smell, for themselves,” explains founder Jeffrey Neal. “They can understand that composting operations at this scale can be pleasant to be around and not attract rats and other rodents.”
The odor event of receiving food waste that has rotted anaerobically for days or weeks before arriving doesn’t happen in on-site operations, adds Neal. “Food from the back of house prep or even front of house scraps would go into the composting machine the same day, which allows no time for it to rot and smell.”
LA Compost, which receives food scraps via drop-off, processes material at its hubs where it is dropped. It uses three-bin systems and mainly hand tools like pitchforks, shovels and wheelbarrows to mix and turn piles. At the Community Hubs located at community gardens and other spaces, drop-off program participants weigh their food scraps, empty them onto the compost pile, and cover them with carbon material.
Participants are obligated to volunteer to help with the processing. One Hub has a three-bin ASP and LA Compost is working to secure a site for a larger ASP system that would be maintained with a skid steer. Its Regional Hubs are partnerships with city parks and properties through land-use agreements. “Opportunities are abundant as Michael [Martinez, founder of LA Compost] is really building a reputation and everyone wants compost,” says Lynn Fang, operations support.
Goals For Growth And Takeaways
Schmelly’s aims to increase finished compost sales and produce a bagged product, as well as expand its special events services (post-coronavirus restrictions). Another overall business goal is to create meaningful jobs. “We want a job at Schmelly’s to be more than just a good job — it ideally should be a job that cares about the person and recognizes that success in the workplace can be about addressing the social obstacles rooted in racism, patriarchy, gender-based discrimination, and poverty,” explains Susan Sakash, operations manager. One insight Krebill passed on is, “I feel like the process of learning how to grow a small mission-based business is just as important as the objective of the service/product that the business produces. Let the process be your guide.”
After successful feasibility tests and promising financial and capacity models, Loop Closing is getting ready to scale operations to achieve a “revenue positive position” and significant diversion rates of the Washington, D.C. food waste stream. The company’s next steps are to find the right early adopter market and establish pilot projects with a handful of these clients.
Adlington of Rising Sand believes that composting should be community-owned and focused. “There’s a meaning in what we do and a purpose to it and it helps you lead a more meaningful life,” she says. “People see it as a do-good thing, but it’s really about doing the right thing.”
Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, director of Common Ground Compost, says her main goal is to see more of the organics collected in Manhattan be processed in Manhattan — and amending soil in the Borough in any way, from parks to community gardens to rooftop, or containers gardens. Similar to Adlington’s sentiment, “People doing this work have so much perseverance,” she notes. “We all gain a lot of value from the work.” With the NYC Department of Sanitation suspending its organics programs and cutting funding to the projects that relied on that support, the fate of a lot of the decades-long work in the City is unknown. Advocates have teamed up to support the continuation of NYC’s programs and protect the community composting infrastructure.
One thing that resounded through my conversations is learning how to build and rely on your team. Neal notes that he has learned to “Stop operating like the lone wolf and to not only ask for help more, but be bold in the help I ask for … This movement needs to be bigger than any one person.” In Adlington’s words, “You don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s better and more fun if other people help.” And for Danberg-Ficarelli, “I’ve been teaching myself to let go and depend on people more. In having the team step in, we are building a stronger team.”
For my final edition of “Lesson in Community Composting,” I will speak to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, which has been instrumental in advancing and supporting the community composting movement.
Molly Lindsay is Director of Operations at the Community Compost Company, a food scrap collection service and compost production company headquartered in New Paltz, New York. She also serves as Editor of Livelihood magazine, a resource for good news on keeping money local, sharing abundance, and strengthening communities in the Hudson Valley.