Building a Community…Compost?
By Melissa Miller
One great (and smelly) thing we do at my farm is our community compost. The farm is located right in the middle of our nation’s capitol, downtown Washington, D.C. It is about ½ acre and produces approximately 500 lbs of fresh produce a year, all of which goes directly back into the community. Urban farming has many obstacles to overcome, but surviving in a densely populated area also has its benefits. Cities have a lot of people and in return A LOT of food scraps. Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. does not have a city composting system and because of this community members need to figure out what do with their food scraps. There are great companies out there such as Compost Cab, which will pick up your food scraps for a small price per week (the last time I checked it was around $8), but with a lack of a yard and money most individuals tend to just throw their food scraps away.
We decided as a farm that we needed the community as much as they needed us in the composting war. We were spending money to ship in compost from outside the city and the community needed a better option than throwing away their food scraps or paying to have them picked up. Our solution: a community compost! Our community composting system is open, meaning people do not need to be trained in order to drop off their food scraps. We have two trash cans on the outside of our fence where donations can be dropped off. I throw (untreated) saw dust in them and make sure the lids are on tight to keep the smell down. We do have signs hanging on the fence with items that we want in our compost. We also have those items posted on our website. Things that we accept in our compost include:
- Coffee grounds and filters
- Tea bags
- Fruits and vegetables
- Used paper napkins
- Paper bags, ripped into smaller pieces
- The crumbs you sweep off of the counters and floors
- Paper towel rolls (ripped into smaller pieces)
- Stale saltine crackers
- Plain grains
- Used paper plates (as long as they don’t have a waxy coating)
- Nut shells
- Old herbs and spices
- Stale beer and wine
- Paper egg cartons (the light brown ones, ripped into smaller pieces – though your local egg farmer also might want these.)
Our open systems allow people to donate one time or several times, for free, and whenever they want. The farm gets about 668 pounds of food a week, which otherwise would be going to the landfill. On the farm’s end, we are now getting free compost, which we know is organic and full of micro and macro nutrients. The ideal situation is that the community members who donate their food waste will then buy produce from the farm. This system of composting creates a closed circle system and is a great example of using community resources for low-input farming. We also get happy plants, happy farmers and happy neighbors (as long as the compost doesn’t smell too bad).
I do not want to leave you thinking that this system does not have its downsides. We do allow everyone and anyone to leave compost and some people are not fully educated on what they can compost. We spend a lot of time picking through food waste and taking out what we do not want. Some community composting systems lock their donation bins and, in order to get the combination, one must complete a composting class. However, this limits members who do not have the time to go to the class.
One emphasis I do have for this model is that you do not have to own a farm to do this. I would recommend this model for any community garden, or a group of neighbors who have a passion for sustainability. What you do need is a space to compost. I recommend asking a farm or community garden for space. You can also go to the city and ask about using empty lots. Make sure you have a plan of attack and that all details of the compost are figured out before you approach a potential partner. You will be surprised about how many people get excited about composting. Which composting model you choose to use is your choice, but if you are in the city rats are always a real problem. We have two models at the farm: one is a hot compost pile, with a shell made out of straw; inside it is lasagna layered with carbon and nitrogen layers (a c:n ratio depending on the time of year). We also have Compost Knox, a critter-proof bin that we also lasagna layer and nest with straw. It has a paver bottom, chicken wire sides and a tin roof—this system is great if you are worried about critters. We use straw in both designs for smell retention and to fend off rats.
Compost is the key component to successful agriculture. It helps nourish the plants, fend off disease and provides great soil structure, among many other things. If you do not have the space to compost at home I would suggest looking for a community compost program or starting one yourself. In return, you will be helping the environment by eliminating landfill waste and giving yourself organic and nutritious compost to plant with. Community composting programs…I dig them!
Melissa is the Farm Manager at Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C. She graduated from Georgian Court University with a B.A. in English and a minor in Environmental Science. She continued her education at Georgian Court University to earn a Master’s degree in Holistic Health, where she studied urban farm design and worked closely with school systems to form successful kitchen garden programs. Melissa has worked on farms in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico as well as having urban farming internships in New York City and Boston. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org