When I was five, I used to run at the sound of the garbage truck. Not away from it, but toward it. I would perch on the backyard wall and watch the men picking up the trash. I still recall my utter fascination with the process. Lifting the heavy metal cans. Banging their contents into the backs of huge trucks. Tossing the empty cans roughly in the vicinity of their original spots. Then hopping up and holding on until the next stop. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
I remember thinking, “that’s what I want to be when I grow up.” Nothing against astronauts and firefighters, but for whatever reason, for example foreshadowing, garbage man was the dream job in my young mind.
And then I moved on. Aspirations of firefighting and aerospace made brief appearances. At one point I proclaimed that I want to be a truck driver, because it would be a good chance to meet people, but that never panned out. In seventh grade I wanted to be a doctor, and that stuck. Along the way I realized I didn’t have to be just one thing even if the one thing is really good, as doctoring has been for me. That notion made me a photographer, a basketball coach, a teacher, a writer and of late, a farmer.
Because we don’t use synthetic fertilizers, we have relied on compost to improve our soil. Compost can be bought easily enough, but that never made much sense to me, since nature will make the compost for you if you put in time to gather materials, pile them in close proximity and mix them periodically. Because we ran out of finished compost in 2017, I decided on a concerted effort to escalate our composting operation.
Up to that point we occasionally brought in pickup truckloads of manure, small amounts of food waste, leaves and abandoned pumpkins in the fall, and we composted everything compostable from our own kitchen and garden. About a year ago I started asking business owners and managers if I could collect materials from them. Within a couple months I had three coffee shops, two restaurants and a grocery store.
Out of curiosity I weighed materials for a couple weeks. We were converting a ton of food (so-called) waste a month. I think we are up to 3000 pounds at the time of this writing, which sounds like a lot, but represents a pittance compared to the billion pounds of food wasted each year worldwide.
One morning while parked on a downtown street, standing in the back of my truck, clad in stained overalls emptying a large bin of potato peels into a plastic barrel, it struck me: After all these years, I am a garbage man. I smiled at the idea of it, amused at the places life takes you when you let it.
A year later, the piles are big. No more mixing with a pitchfork. I turn them with the tractor’s front loader. Mixing hastens the process. I was surprised to see that some of the piles stayed warm into early December. I had read that the composting process ceases when ambient temperatures dropped below 50. I guess that’s only true for small piles.
Of course a large supply of compost is good, but getting it has been more time consuming than I ever imagined, enough to cause a critical assessment of the overall value of the operation. From a pure time and money point of view, it makes sense to buy compost, but that’s a superficial analysis, as my list of benefits of a farm-scale compost operation demonstrate:
diversion of useful substrate from the waste stream (where much of it would be converted to methane)
source of free supplemental chicken feed, much of it organic
ready supply of fertility-enhancing soil amendment and growing medium
habitat for composting worms, which help finish the compost
habitat for composting worms, which serve as a coveted free food source for chickens
exercise without paying a health club fee, not to mention massive upper body musculature, LOL
community building and brand exposure
potential revenue stream if there is extra compost to sell
Then again, maybe my garbage man metamorphosis is but another manifestation of an ever-building tolerance to eccentricity. Some might even say I'm absurd. But what could be more absurd than growing organic bananas in Ecuador, shipping them thousands of miles to Wisconsin and then throwing them in dumpsters? Could it be that my quest goes beyond the manufacture of good fertilizer? In a world where common sense has become an oxymoron, maybe the quest for sense motivates me more than anything else.