Banking On Black Gold

On a warm, wet night this spring, a group of compost devotees booted up, trudging into and over a massive compost pile. Up they went, through discarded orange peels, bread dough and forks made from cornstarch, in order to avoid the six-inch-deep gray muck below. The spring ground is muddy at Cayuga Compost’s Trumansburg facility, but if you’re a dedicated composter, navigating the windrow field here is no issue at all.

“That’s devotion!” called out Adam Michaelides, program manager of the Master Composters. He brought his compost educator trainees here tonight for their culminating class. The visit happens every year, with every new class, to give a clear a working model of how to close a broken, wasteful food cycle in a community.These two organizations – Master Composters and Cayuga Compost – are two-thirds of a Tompkins County trifecta working to make “compost” a household word. With Tompkins County Solid Waste Management as their support and benefactor, Master Composters works to educate, and Compost Manager Mark Wittig and his folks at Cayuga Compost actively divert waste from the landfill.

The basics
Whether composting at home or commercially, you need the same basic ingredients: greens (food scraps), browns (things like leaves, hay or straw), water (piles must be kept moist) and oxygen (turning piles regularly keeps them healthy and aerated).

Cayuga Compost is made up of these basic, but important, elements. The first stop on Wittig’s tour is his greens – row upon row of big blue totes, the 64- and 98-gallon bins that come in weekly, filled with food scraps and other compostables from local businesses.

Next, he points out his browns – a massive pile of tree stumps and brush, leaves and already-chipped wood.

What’s chipped will be incorporated with food scraps into long windrows; what isn’t, waits to be shredded by a massive $500-per-hour machine.
Wittig said it takes six to eight weeks to build up a four- to six-foot tall, 300-foot long windrow with these two ingredient types, greens and browns. Once together, piles are turned regularly with a front-end loader, to keep them at a healthy temperature and to prevent them from becoming anaerobic. In a year to a year-and-a-half, what comes in will go out as finished compost.

Beating the bad rap
Cayuga Compost is a closed-loop system, explained Wittig. It began with the desire to fit this specific community’s solid waste problems.

“It has an organic smell – not certified organic,” he joked. “We’re in the belly of the beast here, but there’s no overwhelming stench.”

And he’s right. The four-acre composting lot smells of, well, earth – as it should. There’s an occasional waft of cedar mulch, and some pungent mud at your feet, but it certainly doesn’t smell like rotting or ammonia, or any of those other things you might think of when you think of decaying food particles. This is in large part because of good upkeep on Wittig’s end. He turns his massive windrows religiously.

That’s the trouble with composting: somewhere along the line, it got a bad rap. So, while Wittig is the compost farmer, the chef and scientist mixing greens and browns to derive black gold, the Master Composters are the local police and educational force working against that “compost is icky” stereotype.

The Master Composters program has been around since 1991, at a time when composting was alternative, strange and obscure, explained Michaelides. Today, he and Liz Falk run the group. Volunteer trainees spend 20 hours in the classroom learning about compost and how to teach others to do it, and then once trained, spend at least 20 more actively educating their communities.
“Our vision is that everyone in Tompkins County will know about compost and reduce their waste through practicing it,” said Michaelides.

Replicating a natural system
So far, the program’s done pretty well for itself. About 290 people have been trained as Master Composters, with 20 training in this year’s class. These volunteers have a heavy presence in the community. Many of them spend time manning compost education booths and assisting with food waste collection at local festivals.

Grassroots is the big event of the year. Since the group started collecting waste at the four-day-long summer music and arts festival, they’ve diverted more than 64 tons of food and other compostable waste from the landfill. In 2010 alone, 17,440 pounds of food and other waste were sent to Cayuga Compost from Grassroots.

Michaelides has been in charge since 2001, and Falk began when she relocated to Ithaca last year from Washington, D.C., where she started Common Good City Farm and was heavily involved in food security issues. Both are passionate about compost’s waste-reducing, garden enhancing virtues.

“Compost is magical,” Falk said. “It’s replicating a natural system.”

Falk added that convincing people they should compost can be challenging – there’s the notion it’s smelly, or that it’s difficult. People need to be held accountable for the waste they generate, she said, even if that means charging far more than current fees in garbage disposal.

“There’s a huge disconnect from what happens to waste,” she said.

Wittig agrees. He gets 4,100 compostable school lunch trays every day. In the past, before people in the region became so compost-savvy, schools used styrofoam trays that littered the landfill after their short lifespan was up.

A positive ripple effect
In 2009, Cayuga Compost diverted just under 4,000 tons of food waste from the landfill and created something like 3,500 cubic yards of compost. Wittig uses it in his own garden, and Cayuga Compost sells to landscapers, homeowners and gardeners, and about 10 farmers in the area. That means the program has also been pretty instrumental in creating a whole lot of good, healthy, local food.

“I like that ripple effect. I like taking credit for positive things,” he said.
Decay happens naturally, he pointed out, adding that he and his four or so coworkers just create an environment to maximize its function.
“I’m not a rocket scientist,” said Wittig.

But he’s being a bit modest; with so few people composting nationally, he is at the forefront of a movement in waste reduction that we can hope will catch on eventually.

Still, he insists that he’s only doing what nature called for.

“Compost has been happening since day two,” he explained. “Decay has always been around. Composting is not new.”


story and photos by Kara Cusolito