Patsy Parker's mind is in the dirt.
As in soil, and how to make it better, so it produces more and better food.
Parker and a passionate, like-minded crew are devoting a lot of time to compost this summer: teaching, blogging, building bins and conducting free workshops all over the Twin Cities.
They call themselves the Compostadores. And they're on a mission: to get more people composting and to make it easier for people to pool their compost resources, such as collecting coffee grounds and food scraps from local coffee shops and cafes and adding them to community-garden compost bins.
"We're keeping the nutrients in the neighborhood," said Parker, one of the lead Compostadores, a group of four committed core members who enlist a couple dozen helpers.
Parker, a medical educator and lifelong gardener, learned the benefits of compost firsthand in her own plot. "The tomato plant that got compost was a foot taller than the other tomatoes," she said.
Inspired by pioneer
But she got motivated to compost on a much broader scale after spending several months training last year at Growing Power, the Milwaukee-based urban-agriculture nonprofit founded by basketball pro-turned-farmer Will Allen, a rock star in the local-food movement.
"It was very inspiring," recalled Parker, who returned home energized. She organized a small CSA (community-supported agriculture) "farm" on several yards in south Minneapolis, started composting at her church and helped form a compost outreach work group through Gardening Matters, a local nonprofit.
"We started building bins at community gardens" that didn't already have them, Parker said. "It kind of spread."
This growing season, armed with a catchy new moniker, the group amped up its efforts.
So far, they've built about 10 compost bins in community gardens and have put on about 20 bin-building workshops all over the Twin Cities, free to anyone who wants to learn more about composting.
Even veteran composters can hone their skills at the workshop, attendees say.
"I was a bad composter before. I just threw stuff in there," said Kirsten Saylor, executive director of Gardening Matters. "Now I have a beautiful bin. Building a bin helps you understand how compost cooks."
In addition to building bins and spreading the compost gospel, the Compostadores also are tackling soil-enrichment at a macro level. They're working with the city of Minneapolis to establish and fund a network of interns on bikes to collect food scraps at restaurants and coffee shops and bring them to community-garden compost bins. Three bike interns are already making pickups -- about 1,000 pounds a week -- at a handful of local eateries.
"We're in the process of developing a neighborhood collection system, and bike pickup was the 'Eureka!'" Saylor said.
Hauling less garbage
The city is interested in composting because it results in less garbage and less need for costly solid-waste hauling, Saylor said.
And it doesn't make sense to truck yard waste to county waste sites for composting, only to have consumers drive there to buy it back and use it in their gardens, she said.
"Why not keep it all in the same loop?" Saylor said. "Healthy soil is the foundation of local food, and we have what it takes to make really good compost."
Current regulations don't fit community-based composting, but the Compostadores are hoping to change that. They're working on a pilot project with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) with the aim of developing new guidelines.
The MPCA's composting rules were last amended in the mid-1990s, and a lot has changed since then, said Ginny Black, organics recycling specialist for the state. At that time, composting was done either in back-yard bins or large-scale commercial facilities. (The former is not regulated; the latter is.)
"Things our size never existed before," Parker said. "But the urban-farming [movement] is pushing ahead different activities than anybody thought of having even two years ago."
Current rules prohibit transporting food scraps for composting, for example. "As soon as you take food off site, you lose a little control," Black said, increasing the odds that meats, dairy, fats and other "no-no" waste products accidentally end up in the compost. (Those wastes are discouraged in compost bins because they're harder to break down and require higher temperatures to ensure food safety.)
But combining "green" food scraps with yard waste, as home composters do routinely, produces better compost, Parker said. "It's more rich and complex. To make really good soil, you need brown stuff and green stuff. We're trying to grow better veggies. That's the point of the whole thing."
Parker is monitoring temperatures at one site, and the MPCA is reviewing that data, Black said. So far, community composting appears to present little risk, she said, and she expects to propose that the state not regulate it but defer to cities.
Meanwhile, the Compostadores are trying to minimize any risks associated with their project. "A lot of folks get nervous about bulk composting because of vermin," Saylor said.
So they build their bins using wire, even though it's expensive, as a deterrent to animals. "Wire won't keep out mice, but it keeps out other animals, like rats, raccoons and squirrels," Parker said. "It's important to be a good neighbor. We put coffee grounds and other 'browns' on top, because yummy food scraps attract flies."
Community-based composting's time has come, according to Parker. "The reality of our culture is going to change. People are going to have to figure out how to grow their own food. That's what I see coming down the road."
And with jobs hard to come by these days, locally grown food keeps more than nutrients in the neighborhood, she added. "It's hard to export a compost job."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784