An Island rich in black gold

Island Grown Initiative sparks a future fueled on food waste.

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It’s just before 10 on a Monday morning when Aaron Lowe arrives at Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven. He parks his teal Subaru in the dirt lot; his phone balances between his shoulder and ear. “It’s just one thing after another,” he says in between calls, before quickly picking up the next one. He climbs into a dark green dump truck with a white sign on the side that reads “Island Grown Food Rescue.” And that’s what we’ll be doing for the next three or so hours — driving around, rescuing food. But let me back up. 

Island Grown Initiative (IGI) was founded 12 years ago to improve the local food system and support local farms. “We were kind of like a renegade group,” said Ali Berlow, founding executive director of IGI (and founding editor of this magazine). “What does sustainability mean to us? And what were we going to do about it? We were a group of eaters looking to support people who were growing our food — a potluck with a purpose.” 

Today, IGI is one of the Island’s largest nonprofits. It has three major focus areas. The first is the Farm Hub at Thimble Farm, which IGI acquired in 2011. The acres of land serve as an education, resource, and innovation site for local farmers and growers. The second focus at IGI is community food education, which embeds garden education into Island schools. Food education also has a resurgent focus on regenerative agriculture — a form of farming that simultaneously increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and builds on ecosystems. The third IGI focus is food equity and recovery. Equity is about making local, healthy food more accessible to people, and recovery is about capturing and reusing food that would otherwise end up in the trash. Enter Aaron Lowe and the Island Food Rescue Program.

“I think we’ve got somewhere between 15 and 20 stops today,” Aaron tells me as the truck rumbles into drive. He references a spreadsheet of over 30 clients, mostly restaurants, enrolled in the Food Rescue Program — a pilot project that aims to use food waste in ways that enrich the Island community and local food system. It’s mid-May, not quite high season, so Aaron’s collecting food waste about three times a week, “but it’s more like five to seven times in the summer,” he says. We make a right out of the driveway and head toward Edgartown. “I like to get Sharky’s out of the way,” he says.

IGI launched the Island Food Rescue Program in 2016, around the same time they released their strategic action plan. 

“It was really our time to focus on IGI’s unique ability to influence food production and food equity issues on Martha’s Vineyard,” executive director Rebecca Haag said. “That was around the same time we were reading all of these concepts related to regenerative agriculture and the idea that agriculture itself, the food we eat, food production, is a critical contributing factor to some of the climate changes we’re experiencing. Fortunately, [agriculture] can be equally as important in helping remediate some of the climate change issues.”

Common agricultural practices like tilling soil, driving a tractor, overgrazing, and using fossil fuel-based fertilizers result in significant carbon dioxide release — a main driver of greenhouse gas emissions, and one of the leading causes of climate change. Since compost is made of one part food waste and three to four parts carbon organic material (coffee filters, napkins, shaved cardboard, etc.), the recipe for compost actually presents an opportunity to recapture carbon, put it in the soil, enrich the soil, and increase food production.

“If you think about Martha’s Vineyard, one of our most precious resources for farming is land,” Rebecca said. “So if you have a limited amount of land and you want to grow more fresh food and be more sustainable, we need to improve the soil.” 

It’s around 10:15 as we pull around the back of Sharky’s in Edgartown. Aaron parks the truck and fetches a 32-gallon toter filled with Sharky’s weekend food waste. He lowers the truck’s hydraulic lift and attaches it to the top of the toter. He presses a button to raise the lift, and another one to dump the waste into the truck. He recoil-starts the power wash spray system, which bellows loud as he climbs up the side of the truck to hose down the toter, getting every last scrap until it’s rinsed clean. He hops down, lowers the toter, and detaches it from the lift. 

Buttons. Lifts. Recoil-starts. The truck’s built-in features make Aaron’s job a lot easier than it used to be. When he first started making these food rescue runs about a year ago, IGI borrowed a pickup truck from the M.V. Shellfish Group. 

“The lift on the old truck couldn’t handle the weight of the toters,” Aaron said. He used to manually haul each toter into the bed. “I can get a lot more done in a day with this,” he said of the new-to-them truck. IGI purchased the dump truck from a compost collection company in Rhode Island early this year. The purchase was made possible through the Fink Family Foundation. 

“They live here on the Island and are very supportive of the food waste issue,” Rebecca said of the Finks. They’re also founders and supporters of ReFED, a national multi-stakeholder nonprofit committed to reducing U.S. food waste. “Because they live here part-time, they want the Island to serve as an innovation center for some of these different techniques, so they agreed to help us financially.”

In addition to the truck, the Fink family funded IGI’s new in-vessel compost rotary drum — another investment that will allow IGI to collect, process, and compost more food waste than before. In 2016, they collected 17 tons of food waste. In 2017, 75 tons; and in 2018, 160 tons. It is projected that in 2019, through the use of the truck and in-vessel composter, IGI will be able to recycle 360 tons of food waste. Eunice Youmins was hired to oversee and manage the project — another investment made possible by the Fink Family Foundation. 

“Part of Eunice’s job is to try to figure out if we can double that capacity” to 720 tons, Rebecca said. “How much can that vessel really handle? And what are the costs of running it?” 

“How do you drive this thing?” I ask as Aaron navigates the narrow streets of downtown Edgartown. “Carefully,” he says. We pull into the loading zone outside the Port Hunter and Aaron rinses clean another couple of toters. I peek inside the truck. It’s a colorful, cringe-worthy medley of food waste. The kind of thing you’re used to, though, if you’ve ever worked in a kitchen. 

“I worked at L’Etoile all throughout high school,” Aaron said. “I was the sous chef, went to culinary school, did some private chef work, catering …”

Aaron graduated from the New England Culinary Institute where he studied food and beverage management with a specialization in sustainability. For his capstone project, he researched sustainability in business, and focused on Island Grown Initiative. 

“I came here one weekend, interviewed Rebecca Haag, and thought, Wow, they’re doing some pretty cool things,” Aaron says. “Someday down the road, I thought it would be an interesting place to work.” He joined the Island Grown team in April 2018. “It’s nice to still be involved in food production, but seeing another side of it.”

In May, Aaron was named a 2019 Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellow, which means he’ll receive a grant to further develop the Island Grown Food Rescue program — which originally launched through Sophie Abrams’ Vision Fellowship in 2016. Sophie is the director of food equity and recovery at IGI. 

“It’s rewarding doing something where you see a positive impact as far as local benefit,” Aaron says.

It’s just before 11 and we’re on our fourth stop — L’Etoile. Longtime owner Michael Brisson, Aaron’s former boss, stands outside. “We’ve been involved since day one,” Michael says. “This program furthers how mindful we are with our waste. We have our recyclables picked up more than our rubbish.” Michael points to where they keep their plastics, food waste, oyster shells, and cardboard. “We’re chronic recyclers.”

Why might a business participate in the Food Rescue program? One, it saves money on trash bills. Sure, it costs money to enroll (between $60 and $270 a month, depending on toter size and number of pick ups per week), but food scraps tend to be heavy, so separating them lightens the load on dump runs. The program is also convenient. All you have to do is collect the food waste, and IGI handles the rest. External pressure is another driver of the food rescue program. In 2014, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection instituted an organics ban on businesses and institutions that dispose of more than one ton of materials per week. The ban is one of the agency’s initiatives for diverting at least 35 percent of all food waste from disposal by 2020. Island Grown’s goal is to reduce food waste on Martha’s Vineyard by 50 percent by 2030, according to Rebecca. 

Now we’re on our fifth stop — Kitchen Porch Catering. Owner Jan Burhman texted Aaron earlier in the morning to let him know her toter was full. Alex Parris, IGI’s assistant greenhouse manager, assists Aaron with the food rescue rounds a few times a week. “He usually does the Monday collection,” Aaron says. That frees up more of Aaron’s time so he can manage administrative tasks. “Overseeing logistics, technical stuff, compost productivity, and compost sales are all in my wheelhouse.”

Part of IGI’s goal is ensuring the program is a cost-effective method for handling food waste. Through thorough data collection and presentation to stakeholders, Island Grown hopes to lay the framework for other businesses to follow. But businesses aren’t the only ones that can get involved in Island Food Rescue. Island Grown has secured sites at the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Chilmark, Aquinnah, and West Tisbury transfer stations. It costs $2 for anyone to drop off a five gallon counter compost container at their local transfer station. Counter bins are available free at each participating transfer station. 

It’s about 1 pm when the rounds are done, and Aaron and I drive back to the Farm Hub at Thimble Farm. We meet among the dark rich piles of finished compost and long lines of open windrows still composting. Windrow composting is the process of piling organic carbon material and food waste, and mixing it daily. It takes about one month for windrow compost to turn into semi-finished compost.

“When compost is still composting, it’s going to be really hot and kill anything you’re trying to grow in it,” Sophie Abrams, IGI food equity and recovery director, has told me. “That’s because the organisms are still heating up the temperature, so you want to cure it until it’s a stable product.”

Curing is the final stage of the compost process. It takes between six and eight months, and is considered finished when the temperature is under 60 degrees. “That’s how you know it’s done,” Eunice Youmans said. “Take its temperature.” Finished compost also feels and smells like rich, dark earth, or “black gold.”

The in-vessel drum still needs to be wired and welded, but once it’s up and running, food waste and carbon material will be dumped straight into the vessel, and come out the other side as semi-finished compost in three to five days. “It still has to be cured for up to six months, but the composting time will be reduced significantly,” Sophie said. “It will allow us to handle a large volume of food waste, without some of the problems that came with windrow composting.” The soaring seagulls overhead gave me an idea of the problems she was referring to. 

“Once the in-vessel is running, my job’s going to get really interesting,” Aaron says as he hops in a tractor to begin building a carbon bed of dried leaves, twigs, and soil before pouring today’s food waste on top. “What’s the best ratio? How will it compare to open windrow? I’ll try to make it run as efficiently as possible.” 

IGI also uses compost to feed their chickens, so Aaron builds a couple of carbon beds in the chicken coop, too. Then, he goes back to the food rescue truck and releases about 2,000 pounds of today’s collected food waste over the carbon bed. Avocado halves. Pineapple tops. Broccoli stalks. Sharky’s rice. Aaron fearlessly sifts through everything, picking out plastic offenders. He tractors a couple scoops over to the chicken coop. “It supplements their diet,” Aaron says over the chirping of hundreds of eager chickens. “They’re healthy and lay great eggs.” 

Aaron uses the tractor to mix the food waste into the carbon bed, and pushes it all to the nearest end of the open windrow. He covers the top with a tarp to for insulation, to retain moisture and keep away pests. The tarp will stay on for the first couple of weeks, and the pile will start to look like compost after about five, Aaron says. Then, it begins its six-to-eight month curing process. 

“We actually had our compost tested by Landscope,” Eunice said. “Ours tested back much higher in pH, which is good for our soils here. It also tested higher in organic content, so it’s a superior product.” 

Once it’s finished, half of the rich “black gold” is bound for IGI’s farm, farmers, and schools; the other half they’ll sell, and “experiment with,” according to Rebecca. Andrew Woodruff of Whippoorwill Farm, for example, is creating a rotation plan on eight acres of IGI farmland to showcase how compost can enrich soils. Compost could also be used to mitigate flooding. “If you can process and screen compost to a bigger particle size, it can absorb a tremendous amount of moisture,” Eunice said. This year, IGI plans to install a black soldier fly system to transform food waste into animal feed. There’s a theme emerging here: “Compost is the new answer,” Rebecca said.

“The veil around food waste has been pulled back,” Ali Berlow said. “The rectitude of making local soil from our local food waste is a binary and simple good-feeling conclusion. And it is, on the surface. But we can’t stop there. Feeling righteous about composting food waste shouldn’t preclude addressing the systematic issues that create the problem to begin with. I think that like so much of where meaningful change is coming from today — those fundamental and tectonic system-level shifts will inevitably be created by grassroots organizations like IGI, leading the way.”