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Home - Pay Dirt – May/June 2009

At the Maine Compost School, businesses and communities learn the value of waste

Sure, it makes a clever slogan on a bumper sticker. But how does it happen? And who really wants to know?

As it turns out, more people than one would think.

Since its founding 12 years ago, the Maine Compost School at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth has served more than 600 students from throughout the United States and around the world. The school is an outreach effort of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension; Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources; Maine Department of Environmental Protection; and Maine State Planning Office.

Some who enroll in the certificate program want to learn how to manage organic waste more efficiently. Others come from municipalities in search of a cost-effective way to reduce what they send to the landfill. And increasingly, students come in the hope of starting a business.

“When we first started out, people didn’t understand what compost was; I don’t think the market was there,” says Mark Hutchinson, an associate Extension professor who is on the school’s faculty. “The demand has increased tremendously, which consequently creates business opportunities. Today, we’ve got people who can’t produce enough compost for the demand.”

For the uninitiated, compost is fully decomposed organic matter that is added to soil to improve its structure and nutrient profile. When managed correctly, a compost heap won’t attract vermin or other pests, and it reaches a high enough temperature to eliminate most pathogens and kill any weed seeds.

The end product plays a key role in soil fertility. Healthy soil is a “living biological system,” according to Hutchinson, and compost provides food for the organisms that drive that system. It makes nutrients in the soil more readily available to plants, and it improves drainage and air circulation, as well.

John Beyer of Commercial Landscape Management in South Portland knows compost is good for plants, but that’s not why he got into the business. He and his crew were producing 10 to 15 cubic yards of grass clippings a day, six days a week, 30 weeks a year – and paying $8 per yard to get rid of it.

“I kind of started experimenting with composting on my own, and I was doing a horrible job of it,” Beyer recalls. “I really thought all I had to do was lump up my products, but it became a big, slimy, nasty mess.”

When he attended the Maine Compost School four years ago, he learned how to combine ingredients such as leaves, sawdust, grass clippings and the like to create a balanced – not slimy – product. His company now offers a high-quality compost-loam mixture and straight compost to clients. And today, other landscapers pay him to dispose of their grass clippings.

“We’ll take it, turn it over and sell it the next year,” Beyer says. “It’s double-source revenue. From a business perspective, it has saved us on disposal fees, and it made us a greener company in the eyes of our customers.”

Image Description: University of Maine Cooperative Extension Educator Mark Hutchinson checks the temperature of a compost pile at UMaine's Highmoor farm in the Monmouth, the home of the Maine Compost School. Temperatures up to 160 degrees F facilitate decomposition. It's time to turn a compost pile when the internal temperature drops below 110 degrees F.

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