Food & Farming

It Takes People Power, Bikes, Buckets and Worms to Save Soil


Cushman Gillen, founder of the vermicomposting operation Magic Tree Vermicast, and his daughter, Luna, sift worm castings. (Emily Olson/ecoRI News)

Soil is under a lot of pressure. Intense cultivation, heavy fertilizer use, and contaminants from pollution negatively impact its function, and to make matters worse, poured concrete locks soil up, effectively stopping its life cycle.

Healthy soil is the most biodiverse habitat on Earth. The dirt beneath our feet bustles with life; burrowing animals, insects, and microorganisms live in symbiosis, manufacturing nutrients, easing the way for healthy plant root growth, and ensuring that life continues. Our communities above ground disregard the communities below at our own peril.

“There’s such a disconnect between soil and food and people,” said Ella Kilpatrick Kotner, Harvest Cycle’s program coordinator. “We’re sucking value out of our soils, and instead of returning resources to the soil, we toss those resources into a landfill and buy more fertilizer, continuing the one-way, extractive system.”

Ella Kilpatrick Kotner and URI volunteers process food scrap for Harvest Cycle. (Emily Olson/ecoRI News)

Harvest Cycle, one of the programs within Groundwork Rhode Island, collects food scrap from subscribing residents and small businesses, turns the scraps into rich, nutrient-dense compost, then returns that finished compost to their subscribers for use in their home gardens. The program claims about 500 subscribers in Providence and Pawtucket, who produce between 8 and 10 tons of food scrap for collection every month. Subscribers pay a monthly fee based on how often they fill a 5-gallon bucket, which they leave on their doorstep for weekly or twice-monthly pickup.

“We are a bike-powered operation,” said Kilpatrick Kotner, describing Harvest Cycle’s scrap pickup method. “Bikes are nimble, can easily maneuver through the city and are well-suited to making many stops for small volume pickup.”

Of those 500 subscribers, almost 200 deliver their food scrap to one of several drop-off containers Harvest Cycle maintains. “The drop-off program is efficient because we can pick up lots of scraps all at once,” Kilpatrick Kotner said. “It’s a good option for someone who lives outside of our collection area or who wants to drop off scraps on their own schedule, and we offer free access to SNAP recipients.”

Collected food scrap head to the Ring Street Community Garden in Federal Hill, where there are seven processing bins, or the Fox Point Community Garden, which has three processing bins. “Each bin holds about 200 gallons of food, 200 gallons of leaves, and 100 gallons of wood chips,” Kilpatrick Kotner said.

Harvest Cycle uses a hot composting process. Materials sit in the processing bins for four to eight weeks. Harvest Cycle workers turn the pile weekly to add air while microorganisms and bacteria biodegrade the materials. As the materials break down, the pile reaches between 140 and 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Regulations for compost redistribution require that hot compost piles reach 131 degrees for pathogen reduction. After the compost completes its thermophilic phase, it moves to a curing pile where it is further broken down in a fungus-dominated process. It remains in the curing pile for up to a year before it’s sifted and returned to subscribers.

Using this method, Harvest Cycle can process between 1 and 2 tons of the 8 to 10 tons of scrap it collects monthly. The remainder goes to The Compost Plant, a large-scale food scrap hauler based in Providence. 

Groundwork Rhode Island currently is developing a medium-scale operation, called The West End Compost Hub, on a vacant brownfield owned by West Elmwood Housing Development. The new facility will dramatically increase the amount of food scrap Harvest Cycle can process — from 1-2 tons a month to 3-4 tons a week — and the plan is to return much of the compost produced to West End residents.

“We’re partnering with West Elmwood’s Sankofa Initiative, which is dedicated to providing urban gardening space to West End residents, many of whom are immigrants and refugees,” Kilpatrick Kotner said. “With this new facility, we’ll be able to create a transformative resource that stays in its community and regenerates healthy soil.”

Carla Doughty, general manager of Bootstrap Compost Rhode Island, agreed that community composting keeps people aware of and connected to the food cycle. When she opens one of her organization’s 5-gallon collection buckets to find a banana peel, she sees not just the remains of an afternoon snack, but a radical step on the path to environmental transformation.

“Someone made the choice to collect that food scrap,” she said, “and it’s exciting when that banana peel becomes part of a big, steaming pile of finished product.”

Carla Doughty, of Bootstrap Compost Rhode Island, carries a bucket of food scrap to City Farm in Providence. (Emily Olson/ecoRI News)

Like Harvest Cycle, Bootstrap Compost collects food scrap from residential subscribers and local businesses, but the model of this for-profit business that operates as a social enterprise is a little different.

“Because we don’t own land, we rely on farm partners to manage our compost,” Doughty said. “We’re haulers. Instead of trying to purchase or lease land that’s largely unavailable in a densely populated area, we rely on farmers who already are using best practices.”

Bootstrap then buys finished compost from its farm partners and returns that to subscribers, who are entitled to a 6-gallon compost share each year.  

Doughty described the organization’s origin as “two guys and a bicycle,” and what started as a small food-scrap collection practice in Boston’s Jamaica Plain has grown to a multistate organization that not only continues to collect residential food scrap, but also offers white-glove collection services to businesses, provides educational outreach, and operates an aerobic food-scrap digester in Johnston.

“We feed [the digester] several times a day with food scraps and other materials, like sawdust from local woodworkers, and in 24 hours it comes out as fertilizer,” Doughty said.

The material is inoculated with a proprietary blend of enzymes and has its own microbiome. The air movement, temperature, and enzymes in the digester have to be meticulously maintained, and Doughty was watching the machine carefully after a power outage caused by February’s record freeze interrupted the operation.

“We process about one ton of food scraps per day. The goal is to reduce the volume by 70%, so we end up with about 100 gallons — two big trash cans full — of fertilizer every day,” she said. As they perfect the recipe, Bootstrap fertilizer will eventually make its way to store shelves.

Like Harvest Cycle, Bootstrap Compost collects more material than it can compost or digest, so it hires The Compost Plant to pick up most of the remainder, but also holds some back to feed its red wiggler worms, the speed eaters behind Bootstrap’s vermicomposting operation. “Red wigglers are really efficient at making big things smaller,” Doughty said.

Cushman Gillen, founder of the vermicomposting operation Magic Tree Vermicast, established last year, agreed. “Red wigglers’ power to quickly process food scraps in confined places blows my mind,” he said. “They consume organic matter and what comes out the other end is a transformed ingredient.”

Red wiggler worms will eat just about anything. (Emily Olson/ecoRI News)

What comes out the other end is worm castings, or vermicast, which Gillen described as similar to compost, but not the same.

“It’s a living soil amendment teeming with a different type of life than compost provides,” he said. “It isn’t rich in nutrients, but it’s rich in biology that acts as a bridge between nutrients in the soil and plant roots.”

Gillen collects between 400 and 600 pounds of food scrap weekly from small businesses in Rhode Island to keep his North Kingstown-based operation going.

“My true goal is to help build our soils back up and increase their capacity to sequester carbon and sustain us through healthy food,” he said.

And he doesn’t want to provide gallons of the stuff — he wants to sell yards of it. That sounds like a lofty goal, but Gillen said he’s only limited by his time and the people power required to collect food scrap.

“Worms do all the work,” he said. “There’s no pile turning at all. You just have to give them what they like.” And they’ll eat just about anything, because it isn’t the food scrap they’re after, but the bacteria breaking it down.

Gillen, a teacher at The Gordon School, is now beginning to turn his focus toward education. “Every classroom could have a worm bin, but the challenge is that they don’t have access to support,” he said.

He currently is working with the Block Island Conservancy and Block Island School to provide classroom worm bins and help teachers write the associated curriculum. In the summer, those worm bins will be relocated to the food-scrap drop-off center at the local farmers market. He’s also developing a program called Worm Lab Education that will allow him to expand his reach to other schools.

For at-home vermicomposters, he sells established worm bins that come with all the consulting and education to make their experiment a success, and his goal is to bring this to the masses. “Every three or four months, a worm population can double in size. So you can give a worm farm to a neighbor so they, too, can contribute to putting life back into the planet,” he said.

“Community composters aren’t this cute, side thing, but rather a vital part of the solution with the potential to have enormous impact,” Kilpatrick Kotner said. “Diverse ecosystems are the most resilient to any sort of disruption, and I think community composting is a key piece of building a resilient large-scale composting network. And when you have these small-scale, closed-loop systems, you can get people educated, excited and involved.”

Doughty considers soil rebuilding an “investment into ourselves” and feels that community composting helps solidify her place in the world. “I enjoy supporting, nurturing and watching microorganisms do their thing,” she said. “Doing something slow helps me feel grounded and gives me a sense of optimism in an out-of-control world.”


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  1. I would love it if restaurants would get on board with this! Especially for recapturing shells from local oysters, shellfish etc to return calcium and other much needed elements to local ponds and soils.

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