The Ottumwa Courier

April 13, 2014

Recycling in a garden

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA --- Parents will tell you: They hate to see kids waste food. A gardner named Scott Koepke feels the same way.

“First, let’s get our food to people who are going to eat it,” he said. “It hurts me to see kids in the schools throw away an entire tray of food.”

Koepke was in Ottumwa teaching a class on composting to about a dozen people Saturday at the ISU Extension office. Extension, Ottumwa Wapello Recycling Center and the Solid Waste Commission brought Koepke to town from his office at New Pioneer Food Co-op; he’s an educator for their Soilmates program in Iowa City. Local organizers knew what the garden expert meant when he talked about wasted food, which he talked about even before he mentioned composting.

“Up to 25 percent of the food we buy in the grocery store ends up in the trash,” said Janice Bain, Ottumwa recycling coordinator.

That, added Jen Daugherty, the Wapello County Extension office horticulturist, is in a county where 14 percent of the people are “food insecure,” not being sure they’ll get a meal that day. More than half the children in Ottumwa schools are on free or reduced lunch, and for some of them, that may be their only full meal of the day.

Koepke said after working with farmers in Africa, he learned first hand not to take food for granted. In fact, waste, to him, is partly an ethical issue. But it’s also an economic one: He creates his own nutrient-rich fertilizer and soil to help grow the vegetables in his garden. And one of the ways he does that is by throwing food onto his compost pile.

“When we can’t get our food into tummies, let’s get it into the ground and make organic matter for [assisting in the process of] growing food. Composting creates food for food. And it’s [basically] free.”

Composting can also reduce the amount of trash going into the Wapello County landfill, which local department heads at City Hall have called a high priority. In fact Bain, from the recycling center, estimated that nearly half of what goes into our landfill is organic matter and paper, both of which are good components for composting.

Besides, added Koepke , local gardens and farms in Iowa produce so much, it seems strange that we would bring in most of our food from California. But we do, he said.

“It’s so easy to get started,” he said. “And it’s fun. I tell people that it’s not rocket science; it’s soil science.”

A compost pile is made up of two main ingredients: Browns and greens. Greens are nitrogen rich items like lettuce, coffee grounds, tomatoes or yard waste. The browns might include tree leaves, shredded newspaper or egg shells.

Some beginners don’t think the “browns” are important, which keeps their compost from breaking down, Koepke said. It’s a specific mix of carbon and nitrogen, though it’s not difficult to do, he said. As the pile heats up (to about 160 degrees), turning it over occasionally with a pitchfork can speed up the breakdown process. So can introducing worms, like Koepke’s favorite, “red wrigglers.”

Not everyone wants to do this at home, he said, and he understands that. But rather than taking up room in the landfill and “burying a resource,” please see if a neighbor into composting would be able to use the small amount of food waste a family generates in a week.

On his block, he is that neighbor. As a result, going to his compost pile usually means he’ll come away with some super-high nutrient soil that he calls “Black Gold.”

“Grow your nutrients,” he said, pointing at the wooden pallets he used to create a compost frame. “All this stuff is free. I’m building organic matter, which is what plan roots need. [Old food] helps create new food. It’s a beautiful cycle.”

Education reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark