Overcoming the ick factor: Composting takes off during coronavirus pandemic

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Austin Murphy | July 10, 2020

Santa Rosa winemaker Kathy Inman has long been on the cutting edge of sustainable, organic agriculture. So it’s not surprising that Inman, owner of Inman Family Wines in west Santa Rosa, nourishes her vineyards with a “tea” made with worm manure, among other forms of compost.

A decade or so ago, after buying a machine to brew large batches of that tea, she listed the expense on her tax return under “farm equipment.” Confused about the kind of tea Inman was brewing, her accountant switched the category to “office supplies.”

“Trust me,” Inman informed the accountant, “you don’t want to drink this tea.”

As composting has become more mainstream, such misunderstandings have become less likely. That learning curve has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. Since mid-March, when Sonoma County imposed a public health emergency stay-at-home order, residents have been filling their green, curbside bins with record amounts of compost: yard waste, mostly, with a mix of kitchen scraps.

Staying home or close to it aligned perfectly with the spring explosion of greenery, said Fred Stemmler, general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, the south Santa Rosa recycling center. The amounts of compost picked up by Recology’s trucks “exploded with it.”

“You’re stuck in your house, you’re going stir crazy, now’s the time to weed, to garden,” Stemmler said.

The pandemic has brought the impulse to compost “to front of mind,” said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology in San Francisco. People are making more meals at home, with some of those meals featuring food they’ve grown themselves.

Those new to composting must sometimes overcome what Reed calls “the ick factor” — the mistaken fear that collecting coffee grounds and banana peels in a pail in the kitchen might create an odor.

People quickly find out the opposite is true, he said. By isolating those items, there is less odor.

Napa Recycling & Waste Services, a giant plant in American Canyon, saw “record tonnages” of compost this spring, said Tim Dewey-Mattia, the company’s public education manager.

Where the importance of recycling of bottles, cans and cardboard has been accepted for decades, he said, “people are still learning that organic material” — yard waste, eggshells, carrot peelings — “is valuable.”

“It’s not just icky stuff you throw away,” Dewey-Mattia said. “Once you learn how it works, the argument is pretty compelling.”

How does it work?

Dewy-Mattia described a simple, elegant loop: People discard compost, “which we turn into a soil amendment, which then goes back into local soils, to grow more stuff.”

Bob Shaffer, a soil consultant and viticulturist who has spent decades working with dozens of Napa and Sonoma county vineyards, has been composting his crops since the 1970s — when the practice was limited largely to “hippie farmers trying to grow their own food.”

“There was a lot of laughing about this,” Shaffer said. “The bigger farmers were going, ‘Well, this is kind of silly. Look at these folks. What are they doing?’ ”

They were getting amazing results by harnessing what Shaffer called the “invisible forces” in compost — a quartet of hardworking microbes: bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoans. In addition to enriching the soil, those microbes help it hold on to carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere and slowing the warming of the planet.

Another major benefit of composting is that it keeps organic material “out of the landfill stream,” said Leslie Lukacs, executive director of Zero Waste Sonoma, the county’s waste management agency.

When organic matter ends up in the landfill it produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Collection of compost from county residents is up 10% in 2020, said Lukacs, who attributed the spike to home isolation in the pandemic, but also to the fact that folks are “becoming more educated, and more knowledgeable about what’s compostable.”

The environmental benefits of composting in Sonoma County are undercut, slightly, by the fact that it lacks its own organic-processing facility. Much of the compost collected in the county is trucked to plants in Mendocino and Marin counties. Zero Waste Sonoma is in negotiations with a company called Renewable Sonoma to open such a plant at the site of the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant, said Lukacs, who could not say when an agreement might be reached.

The more local the processing plant, the better, said Petaluma farmer Bob Cannard, who’s been running strictly organic operations since the 1970s, with excellent results. For nearly four decades he’s sold produce to the famed Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley.

“I haven’t used a fertilizer in 50 years,” said Cannard, taking a break Friday afternoon at Green String Farm, his 140-acre spread on Old Adobe Road.

Putting chemical fertilizer on crops, he said, is “like giving them street drugs. It’s crazy how we ignore the opportunities and blessings of nature, and actually strike out against it.”

Cannard was in his barn, seated on an impromptu sofa made up of flour sacks. The flour had been discarded by a Penngrove milling company. He’d convinced them not to throw it away, but to give it to him. He uses it as compost.

When he went fully organic, Cannard recalled, “I thought, ‘In 20 years, we’ll all be organic.’ Well, that 20 years came and went, and we’re still poisoning ourselves.”

There are no such things as pests in agriculture, he said. “Properly grown plants don’t get bugs.”

Properly grown plants, he said, have complete mineral nutrition.

“And when you eat them, you get complete mineral nutrition,” which fortifies the immunological systems, Cannard said. “Then you don’t have pandemics. You don’t get sick.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.