February 2021
Turning Food Scraps Into Gold
Farmers Market starting municipal composting initiative

When Kathleen Yetman, director of the Prescott Farmers Market, found out in early 2020 about a USDA grant to fund municipal composting initiatives, she and PFM staffer Gabriel Kerbs approached the City to see whether there was support there for a project here. City officials were enthusiastic, so they wrote up a proposal.

They won the grant, and in late fall started collecting food scraps at the Farmers Market to get the ball rolling. The City has agreed to provide a site on the rodeo grounds off Schemmer Dr., as well as resources like water, woodchips and electricity. New signage will guide people to the site, though for the time being the collection point will remain at the Farmers Market.

Kerbs, a longtime gardener on the PFM staff for four years, can really wax rhapsodic about rotting food. He has been composting on his own for a while, reaching out to friends for discarded food scraps because the more material there is for composting, the faster it heats up and breaks down. For him the larger municipal initiative is a natural evolution of that effort.

Bucket brigade

Many of us practice home composting, reaping the benefits while not having to know the amazing science behind it. There are many benefits that we don’t even think about when tossing those eggshells in the bucket in the morning.

All things decay, but decomposition in a landfill goes very slowly due to the lack of oxygen. Composting is a controlled, accelerated process of breaking down organic matter by creating good conditions for the bacteria to do their job.

When the gardener or farmer undertakes composting, they add the right balance of “greens,” meaning fresh organic material like food scraps, grass clippings and coffee grounds, “browns,” or brown plant matter like leaves or wood chips, and water. Most important is oxygen. The pile must be turned regularly to aerate. When these elements come together in the right proportions, the pile heats up, which makes those microorganisms happy, working harder to break down the lovely mess into nutrient-rich soil.

Benefits all around

The broader value for the community is that composting reduces waste and protects the environment. The National Resources Defense Council reports that up to 28% of what we throw away is from our kitchens and gardens. Less organic matter in the landfill means less methane off-gassing. Adding compost to the soil increases its organic content, which conserves water. Perhaps most important, composting improves soil health, increasing yield and bypassing the need for synthetic fertilizers. It’s gratifying to know that we can reduce what we send to the landfill and improve local food production at the same time.

Municipal composting can be found all around the country, and some of the most exciting programs are in urban settings. Kerbs was inspired by the many composting sites in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York.

Such programs can get pretty big, involving large drop-off sites and heavy machinery to turn the piles, but the Prescott Farmers Market folks and the City plan to keep this fledgling initiative small to begin with. They want to focus as much on educating locals about the value of composting and its benefits to the community as on the actual production of compost. “We want people to learn about composting, to demystify it,” says Kerbs, “Then they can create a pile in their backyard, actively manage it and create something good for their own garden.”

For those interested in participating in the compost project, PFM is offering green five-gallon buckets at the weekly market’s information booth for ten dollars, along with a list of what items can and cannot go into the bucket. You can also collect food scraps in your own container if you like. Every week you can bring your bucket back to the market, where they will switch it out for a clean one.

With funding from this grant, Kerbs and a crew of volunteers will pour a concrete pad and a system of 4x4-foot bays. These hold the piles together and make it easy to shovel a pile from one bay to the next, providing the needed oxygenation. The market will be looking for enthusiastic volunteers who can turn the piles and help distribute the finished product.

Urban composting is a touchy subject and must be responsibly run. A poorly managed site can be smelly and a magnet for scavenging wildlife. A well-run site monitors what exactly can go into the compost mix and turns it regularly, so should have no odor or undesirable critters. The PFM folks on this project are veteran composters and will do a great job.

Part of the grant proposal included demonstrating community interest in starting a municipal composting site. Prescott College is developing a survey to gather data on who are gardening and composting locally. Involvement in the composting project will also be traced so that PFM can see who is benefiting from it. 

Our community stands to learn and to gain much from a cooperative composting initiative. It could grow to include school groups, retirement facilities and faith groups interested in environment-friendly activities. This is a great first step and the City of Prescott deserves acknowledgment for taking part.

For information about the Prescott Farmers Market composting project, contact Gabriel Kerbs at compost@prescottfarmersmarket.org.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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