A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Great Big Steaming Piles of…Compost

by Terence P Ward   

Erstwhile gardeners with a bit of extra space often try their hands at composting food scraps, but this is one case when allowing nature to take its course won’t necessarily yield a very promising result. As New Paltz’s based garden author, speaker, and consultant Lee Reich teaches his students, “Everything turns to compost eventually,” but to get the best and most expeditious results, you have to learn to “care for your compost pet”. Proper housing, feeding, and occasional doting are necessary to help your compost pile “cook,” a microbial process that generates heat as it breaks down organic material.

In New Paltz, a budding business called the Community Compost Company now picks up food scraps from local homes and businesses, charging $20 a month to collect and compost all the food waste customers can cram into a 5-gallon bucket. “Don’t pay us if you can do it yourself,” business owner Eileen Banyra says of the service. While she and her partner opted to make a for-profit business—in order “to prove that it’s possible to make money with this model”—much of what she and her staff do is actually educating people about the importance of reducing waste and composting in the first place. “It’s hard to get some people to understand why they would want to pay us an extra $20, when they can just toss everything in their giant garbage can,” she acknowledges.

Staffer Ariana Basco is part of the educational outreach, using concepts such as the EPA’s “Food: Too Good to Waste” program, which suggests simple steps like checking the refrigerator before going shopping, and donating food that won’t be eaten before it goes bad. “Only what’s left after that should be composted,” she says. Basco is also working with local schoolchildren in a grant-funded pilot “snack time education” program. She meets regularly with owners of large apartment complexes in the village New Paltz to discuss composting. One advantage of CCC’s service for landlords is that by removing the food scraps, they may be able to cut back on the size of garbage containers needed. Composting on large scale will require people who are unused to separating out food scraps to change their behavior, and Basco is working on ways to do that, such as a program she’d like to see launched on the SUNY New Paltz campus just to compost pizza boxes.

While good management practices always yield better compost in a shorter amount of time, winter is when unsuccessful composting is most strikingly evident—a proper compost pile is more likely to melt snow than freeze solid. CCC owner Eileen Banyra offers some tips on how to keep the home compost steaming. Over wintering a compost pile starts with making sure it’s compost in the first place. A pile of scraps that isn’t large enough to generate microbial activity is just a midden heap; it will break down over time, but without the heat that kills dangerous organisms and speeds up the process. Compost isn’t just for food; you can add all your weeds, wood chips, grass and plant clippings, as well as hay, straw, and old shredded newspaper (in small amounts). Small households may not generate enough material to reach critical mass—about a cubic yard’s worth of organic matter. In those cases, Banyra said, “They could just bury it, but it has to be deep enough not to attract wildlife, and they could be digging a lot of holes.”

Among the early adopters of the Community Compost Company’s pickup service are families which believe in composting but don’t generate enough scraps to do so, as well as those living in apartments and other situations where setting up a bin just isn’t practical. Once the service itself reaches critical mass, it will sell some of the compost created from all that organic material to home gardeners and others who recognize it for what it is: black gold.

Compost is packed with the nutrients needed by plants, and mixing it into soil is the best way to fertilize an organic garden. It also retains water much better than mere dirt, so it can reduce erosion as well as the need for irrigation of crops and gardens alike. But getting that compost cooking, a process which kills many weed seeds as well as harmful microbes, requires a bit of effort and attention. The keys, explains Banyra, are good proportions and proper aeration. The proportion is between carbon-rich yard waste (called “brown” material) and nitrogen-rich food scraps (called “green” material). While finding the right balance is as much art as science, Banyra says “usually about a 3:1 or 4:1 ratio is best.” To drill down into the specifics, she recommends taking a workshop offered by master gardener Lee Reich.

Hitting that magic proportion might mean setting aside some of the green or brown materials, and only adding them in good measure. Grass and leaves, cut up by a mower, are relatively easy to store if one has the room. Food scraps can stored outside during the winter without much fuss, provided the container is sealed against curious critters, but the Community Compost Company is now offering a four-month reduced-rate promotion for folks who just don’t want to walk out to their compost pile in the bitter cold.

In addition to striking the right nutrient balance, the proper green-brown ratio keeps moisture levels where they need to be. In general, a pile with too much brown material will be dry and inactive, while one with too much green will be wetter and probably smelly. Turning the pile with a rake or pitch fork as you add new material helps to keep the proportions right and to circulate air inside the pile, reducing odor and accelerating the process. “You want aerobic action, not anaerobic,” Banyra says. “Anaerobic action is what starts to smell.” Community Compost Company uses aerators on the large piles it’s composting at two partner farms, which will get a cut of the black gold as compensation.

Even without a home garden, composting is a sound environmental choice, particularly in Ulster County, where solid waste is trucked over 300 miles to the landfill it will eventually call home. By keeping food scraps and yard waste local, it supports all levels of agriculture, reduces the environmental impact of garbage disposal, and improves the quality of the local food supply. If you are eager to compost but can’t on your own and you don’t live in the Village of New Paltz, visit communitycompostco.com to let Banyra and her staff know where you’d like to see them expand next.