Dan Matsch, compost program manager at Eco-Cycle, put it this way: "Any land from which nutrients are harvested, whether it’s a lawn from which the clippings are removed and leaves are raked up, or a giant agricultural field, needs to have those nutrients replaced one way or another or the soil becomes depleted over time."
But the transition is relatively slow, particularly in urban areas, where farming is on the rise around the country but where soil tends to be nearly devoid of nutrients and microbial activity, which Maxfield says is the key difference between soil and dirt. Urban areas also produce huge amounts of food waste that are, in most cities around the United States, treated as trash and sent to a landfill – preventing the nutrients from ever reaching the soil again while also contributing directly to climate change.
So Maxfield started a company, Waste Farmers, that takes organic waste collected from around Denver and produces organic agricultural inputs like fertilizer, potting soil, biochar, and compost tea. Waste Farmers currently sells products in bulk and is preparing to move into the retail home and garden market in 2012.
Ultimately, the objective is to develop a stronger market demand for compost. The products that Waste Farmers make are essentially a delivery mechanism for getting compost back into the ground and part of the food-production system again.
"At the retail level most people don’t really know what to do with straight compost, so it makes good sense to package it in a more ready-to-use form as [Waste Farmers] is doing," said Matsch. "The company is "not marketing straight compost – tea, char, and castings are all ‘value-added’ additional ingredients that make it an entirely different product."
By getting compost into people's hands in these more usable forms, the company is essentially creating a closed-loop process for agriculture and the organic waste stream.
To explain the function of Waste Farmers to people without an agricultural background, Maxfield asks you to picture a farmer using biodynamic principles, which are designed to be self-sustaining: