Coffee grinds, apple cores and curly orange carrot peels: straight to the trash they go in most households. But on Island farms, these food scraps (along with egg shells, wilted greens and watermelon seeds) go to the compost. For the farmers, this trash is treasure.
“It’s like crop insurance,” explained Jim Athearn of Morning Glory Farm last week as he stepped down from his tractor.
“We have sandy soil,” he continued. “The goal of every farmer or agriculturalist is to increase the organic content matter of their soil so things will work better. This helps a lot. Things grow more uniformly. They grow faster and lusher.”
He looked out over the green corn stalks now coming up in his fields along the West Tisbury-Edgartown Road. In just a few short weeks the stalks will reach shoulder height. In a few more, Mr. Athearn will harvest bushels of the large, sweet ears.
“Before we added the compost here, we could not produce a marketable-sized ear. There was not a full yield. Along where it was super sandy, it would grow only four or five feet high, even with all the water,” he said.
“Now that we have compost on it, we can expect to get corn along the whole length of the road. It’s bolstered by the soil, which adds nutrients. It just sort of adds life to this soil.”
Behind him was an empty field with soil a light brown. One small patch, however, was a dark espresso color, having just been covered with the fertilizer Mr. Athearn makes behind his farm stand.
A good fertilizer takes 18 months to make. It starts with heaps of food scraps and yard waste. Moisture builds over time and nutrients develop. Three times a year, Mr. Athearn turns the piles of dirt, grass cuttings, vegetable scraps and leaves. In the spring, he spreads it over his fields, mixing the rich soil with the sandy stuff. “It turns barely farmable soil into uniform soil,” he said.
More than 10 years ago, Mr. Athearn received a license from the state Department of Agricultural Resources to operate a composting site on the farm. He invited Island landscapers and local families to leave off their household food and yard waste. The compost is one of only a few places on the Island where the community can come dump its organic waste. The Edgartown transfer station accepts yard waste, but no food scraps, as does John Keene at his excavation pit in North Tisbury.
“It’s a good thing to do to open up the compost to the community,” Mr. Athearn said. “It’s keeping all of this material out of the landfills.”
All Island landfills are capped and all trash is shipped to the mainland. Donald Hatch, district manager at the Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District, said a study done last year estimated 40,000 tons of waste are hauled off the Island each year, a figure which is hard to calculate exactly because more than one operation collects and transports waste.
With fuel costs and Steamship Authority ticket prices rising, it is an expensive operation. “It now costs $500 round trip for one tractor trailer,” Mr. Hatch said. “And one truck can carry 22 tons.”
Keeping natural waste on Island farms reduces the amount of trash shipped off-Island and helps cut some costs for Vineyard farmers, who pay a premium to buy fertilizer from off the Island. “It turns the garbage into an asset and a resource,” said Rob Kendall, a longtime board member of the Vineyard Conservation Society.
This summer, the society has teamed up with the Whippoorwill Farm Community Supported Agriculture program to start a community compost on the farm for members. “It’s critical to our goal, which is to improve the soil health and to grow our crops organically,” said farm owner Andrew Woodruff.
The society will soon make available countertop composting bins made of recycled milk containers to members.
“We are encouraging members to bring their food scraps back to the farm,” said Kaysea Cole, communications, membership and development coordinator at the society. “We are encouraging people to reduce their waste and give back to the community, to think locally so we don’t have to ship compost in from off-Island.”
In mid-July, the farm will start building its piles and each week, will offer prizes to kids who bring in the most compost. Mr. Kendall hopes local chefs and stables will participate as well. By next year, Mr. Woodruff hopes to have his own fertilizer he can use in the fields and even in the greenhouse.
“A farm like this will always need as much organic waste as it can get,” Mr. Kendall said. “You can’t just plant and grow in the soil, you have to replace [the nutrients].”
The Whippoorwill Farm composting area likely will be a busy place. Over at Morning Glory, signs in both English and Portuguese mark the site entrance. Down a small dirt road sit two heaps of compost. Reaching up to 12 feet high in some spots, they stretch back 150 feet.
Since it opened, a gate leading to the compost has gone unlocked. The site went unmonitored and workers could dump for free. But as the piles have grown, the compost has taken up more of Mr. Athearn’s time. He scans the heaps daily for bottles and branches, which he has to remove, and turns the piles periodically.
“Without turning it, you won’t get the oxygen in there. Without the oxygen, there’s no decomposition,” he said.
It is the decomposition which turns the grass, the fruit rinds and vegetable peels into the rich soil Mr. Athearn will then spread on his fields and mix with the existing dirt, another time-consuming process. “I till the soil a lot more frequently than a hay farmer,” he said. “It takes a lot of time to spread on the fields. It delays the planting and requires special equipment.”
For Mr. Athearn, using his own fertilizer also increases the per acre cost of producing a crop. “You pay $250 per acre with fertilizer and $600 per acre to use compost once you’ve paid for the work and the tractor and hired the man to drive it,” he said.
This year, Mr. Athearn has for the first time hired a compost attendant to monitor the operation and he will charge a fee of $5 per truck load and $1 per garbage can to dump. The program is still in the experimental phase and prices could change, he said.
But, with healthy fields and thriving plants, Mr. Athearn said making his own compost is worth the extra effort. “It makes the soil useful,” he said.
In other news, today is the first day of the new Harbor Farm Market at the Tisbury Wharf. Featuring all Island-grown produce and locally made goods, the market will be open Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon. And last Tuesday was opening day of the Whippoorwill Farm Community Supported Agriculture program. Pickup days are Tuesday and Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. A limited supply of full and seasonal shares are still available. Call 508-693-5995 or visit whippoorwillfarmcsa.org for details.
This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at email@example.com.