Not Farm to Table, Table to Farm: Tilthy Rich Compost

It was easy to pass by the Geer Street Learning Garden, only to realize it was a garden with trellises and fronds of plants waving good bye those few seconds I was too late to turn in. The garden is elevated from the sidewalk by a few feet which keeps it hidden from the view of the street. The age of this part of Durham manifests itself through the beautiful, spiraling iron-wrought railings of the garden’s neighboring building with its once white brick now the color of glossy enamel. In a scene that could only be described as trippy, part of the brick building bends perfectly convex and edgeless from the center due to the swelling of the soil behind it.

I have been told that I have a bubbly personality, but upon meeting Kat I felt like a can of flat Coke in comparison. With a short dark brown bob, a black t-shirt that boasts the golden logo of Tilthy Rich Compost tucked into her high-waisted jeans, and ankle-high brown boots, Kat was smiling with glimmering eyes, and after shaking hands we were quickly walking to and fro in the garden. She was eager to show us all steps of the process as it was dispersed around the garden with its rich, dark soil and, having a peek of sunlight after showers all day, the dew glimmered on the leaves of the vegetables growing, their tendrils reaching outwards.

Leading me and Nicole, our photojournalism intern, towards the back of the garden Kat was telling us about all the moving parts set up at this location. “We are about to start doing vermiculture here which, as you probably know, is doing composting with worms,” she says, pointing at cement blocks forming square sections where the worms will help the breakdown of plant matter. Worms are particularly good at being able to break down and digest food scraps and help turn it into healthy, rich soil.

“If people don’t want their compost and they choose to donate it, this is one of the gardens where it can end up,” she explains as she looks over the garden. This is one of the unique qualities about Tilthy Rich’s model as a compost service, that after they have picked up your food scraps, sent it to be processed, and compost is made, you get compost back to use in your own yard. If you have an apartment or are not interested in the returns on your food scraps, the compost ends up at a variety of the gardens linked to the service, including the Geer Street Learning Garden.

 “Let’s come over here!” Kat says excitedly, pitchfork in hand as we duck underneath a small tunnel  that lead to the back part of the garden. Towards the front, there are a few different piles. One is solely food including old tomatoes to a clementine that we agreed still looked edible. With her pitchfork she helping rotate the vegetables in the pile slightly, “We got this squash growing here that really shouldn’t be, but…” she inspects the leaves of the squash plant, its orange blossom just starting to coyly peek through. It looks quite cozy and content being surrounded by the small pile of decomposing food, its leaves peeping through clumps of old carrots and melons.

“What do people say when they find out this is the kind of work you do?” I ask her as I observe her working with the pitchfork to turn over the vegetables and fruits.

“A lot of people think that this work is really smelly and dirty,” she says. “It really isn’t and doesn’t have to be though.” Instead, the goal for Tilthy Rich is for it to be a minimal amount of work on behalf of their customers. Her main priority is making composting less intimidating and helping people understand why it is important. “It’s amazing how much stuff ends up being wasted, that’s what we are here for.”

We walk over to the pile of finished compost, which looks dark, rich, and even fluffy in its texture. It even has that pleasant earthy and woody fragrance that makes you think of playing in the woods as a kid. This compost has 3 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen to make it so beneficial to plants. The compost that Tilthy Rich creates is made over in Goldstein, North Car    olina at a permitted plant that allows them to compost items typically left out of this cycle including dairy, meat, and even pizza boxes. Kat has a personal passion for soil, having studied soil science at UNC, and keeps her own compost at home. There she fiddles and changes parts of the composting process, measures it, and sees if there was a particular desired effect from her experimentation. But even doing her backyard compost, she says she notices how quickly the bucket of traditionally non-compostable material such as dairy, fills up.

We decide to escape the heat, going inside into the building that they share with other food initiatives including Farmer Foodshare. The space echoes with concrete floors and large fridges gently humming in the background. Even in a relatively bare space, there are still coffee machines and espresso machines just tucked out of sight. The sun shines through the glass garage door that is the face of the building. Sitting down with her, I ask her why she got involved with Tilthy Rich, wondering how someone happens to stumble into the composting business.

The story begins in 2012 with Chris Russo, the original founder of Tilthy Rich Composting. Where he lived previously, there had been municipal composting, and was confused at the lack of such a service in Durham. In his confusion and even frustration he went to the City of Durham asked about municipal composting.

“He kind of got the answer of, ‘Well we just got people on board with recycling, so we need another 10 years before we even get to composting.’” Kat explains.

Russo had just finished a cross-country bike trip and was obsessed with the idea of doing work with bicycles. He was also a follow of the philosophy that if you can do something on a bike, that’s how you should do it. “So that’s why our riders still work on bikes today. If we have a business that is all about sustainability, it only makes sense that we are doing it sustainably, you know?” She says enthusiastically. From there Tilthy Rich Compost was born.

Kat enters the picture two years ago in 2015 having just returned from working on composting in Nepal. “It just amazed me that people in third world countries can manage their waste better,” she says, and hence her passion for the mission was born. She started as both an administrative employee and a biker for the service. Eventually, as one of Russo’s side projects took off, she was delegated to take over. Her love for soil sciences and the importance of protecting the climate in the age of climate change are huge cornerstones for her passion at work.

“One of the biggest things that is missing when we talk about agriculture and climate change is the soil,” she explains to me. “Composting doesn’t only prevent climate change but reduces climate change. Honestly, if people want to help the environment the two biggest things they should do are become vegetarian and compost.”

“What is the kind of resistance you get from people about composting?” I ask her, wondering how many people are truly anti-composting.

“Well…the hardest thing is to tell people who think they are composting is that they are doing it wrong,” she shrugs. “Because a lot of people ask me why they should have this service if they already have a compost pile when, in reality, they aren’t composting or turning the pile regularly but are just rotting food scraps. There is a difference between composting and rotting food scraps.”

This is truly where the crux of the issue comes in with why composting has not rapidly proliferated as a norm. Aside from the misconception that composting has to be smelly and just rotting food, it is that people do not know what composting is. “It one, builds soil, and two, reduces methane.” This reduction of methane is what helps slow and reverse climate change. “The bad thing about rotting food scraps instead of composting it properly is that it is still releases methane, which is what happens when food is sent to a landfill.”

Aside from a few misunderstandings about how important it is to compost correctly, is people also do not think they should pay the monthly fee for the service. “People think that recycling and trash services are free, when really it’s coming from taxes,” she explains. Kat and Tilthy Rich want to have a commitment to people who are just focused on putting food on the table much less putting food into a compost bin. As a solution, Kat hopes they can eventually partner with the city to have a system of municipal composting where it can be paid by taxes, but until then they still need to charge for the service.

They recently partnered with CompostNow, which was born as virtually the same time as Tilthy Rich, but the service is over in Raleigh and uses cars. Now that they have partnered together, Tilthy Rich’s territory is still having their multitalented crew of bikers that are composed of yoga instructors, musicians, and artists go up to 18 mile rides to get the compost in downtown Durham. Meanwhile, CompostNow’s cars can access any areas that are too far of a reach for the bikers. They are quickly expanding and hope to be in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro areas soon, especially since the presence of bike lanes and current efforts for composting make the expansion look promising.

While the conversation of “farm to table” continues to grow, Tilthy Compost is here to expand and continue the conversation of “table to farm.” Over here at Keep Durham Beautiful we also want to spotlight and grow this conversation, as composting helps with our mission of reducing littering and helps build soil meaning healthier gardens. So let’s get talking, what do you still want to know about composting?