The process essentially turns trash – organic waste that ranges from leaves to sewage sludge to animal carcasses – into treasure. And it has large-scale composters seeing green, both environmentally and financially.
“Our landfills are starting to fill up, and transportation to other states is expensive, so many municipalities and farmers have decided to compost and market it to home gardeners as a soil amendment,” Hutchinson says.
That need is what drew Michael Conway of the Bethlehem, Pa., Recycling Bureau, to the compost school last summer. Annually the city collects 20,000 tons of leaf and yard waste from residents. When Conway and his colleagues decided to expand their composting capacity, they knew just where to turn for help: The Maine Compost School.
“It’s known across the country,” Conway says. “This is the primary compost school. It’s that well-known and the reputation is that high.”
The school is an outgrowth of the Maine Compost Team, which includes representatives from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources; the Maine Department of Environmental Protection; the State Planning Office and UMaine Cooperative Extension. When the team came together in 1991, there was no such thing as a compost industry in Maine.
The team was providing assistance to communities, businesses and farms trying to reduce, reuse and recycle their organic waste. Over time, more and more compost operations started with the team’s help. Training of the operators was done on an individual, as-needed basis. As the industry grew, the need for training also grew, to the point where individual instruction at each compost site no longer made sense. In 1996, the team decided it was time to look into offering classes on a regular basis.
After several months of preparing the agenda, planning program details and development of hands-on activities, they were ready to offer the program to Maine composters. But the team was shocked to discover the demand was not just in Maine. Students started showing up from all over the country and the world.
Over time, the school’s curriculum grew to include marketing and networking techniques, in addition to recipe-building, safety and vector management.
“We’ve had a shift in the type of people – from those who wanted to know what composting is to municipalities interested in waste management and people who are interested in starting their own business. They see this as a viable business,” Hutchinson says.
To that end, the team started bringing in industry leaders to serve on the faculty, such as Wes Kinney of Kinney Compost in Knox, Maine, and Carlos Quijano of Coast of Maine Organic Products in Portland, whom Hutchinson calls “one of the premier marketers of compost in New England, if not the United States.”
Today, the school is internationally known. The 2008 summer session brought in students from Puerto Rico, Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, Rhode Island and Maine. Since its founding, it has attracted people from 48 states and 28 countries.
The lectures are held in Highmoor’s barn, while the hands-on classes take place in a clearing down a dirt road that winds through the farm’s acreage. A recent $56,000 Maine Economic Improvement Fund grant provided an asphalt pad and buffer areas to catch any leachate that may run off from the long compost piles, called windrows, or the piles of raw materials, such as chicken manure, apple pomace, leaves and wood chips.
This is the learning laboratory, where students can experiment with different recipes and “ingredients.” Here, the team has successfully turned everything from horse carcasses to a dolphin – yes, a dolphin from the University of New England that had washed ashore – into “black gold.” And because the folks at the Maine Compost School really know what they’re doing, the only off-putting odor in the air comes from the pile of chicken manure. Everything else smells like moist soil.
Image Description: At the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport, Maine, food waste is collected and trucked to a local farm for composting.