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Bicycle-powered compost co-operative may get rolling this year

  • Andrew Stachiw, Revan Schendler and Gerard Curtis look over brochure for The Compost Co-operative, which hopes to launch sometime early in 2018 in Greenfield. —Richie Davis photo

  • Andrew Stachiw, Revan Schendler and Gerard Curtis look over brochure for The Compost Co-operative, which hopes to launch sometime early in 2018 in Greenfield. —Richie Davis photo



Recorder Staff
Sunday, January 07, 2018

The new year could see a new Greenfield co-op off to a roll, after three years of development in a “think tank” at the Franklin County Jail.

It’s a worker-owned co-operative that aims not only to help businesses and homeowners get rid of compostable waste, but also to give former jail inmates a chance to run their own business.

The compost co-op is a product of a Greenfield Community College course offered at the jail as well as a “think-tank” discussion group there about how to give former inmates a foothold in re-entering society. The endeavor has been looking at building off potential anchor institutions like the Baystate Franklin Medical Center, GCC and the jail itself.

The idea, said Andrew Stachiw, who has taught GCC classes at the jail about food cooperatives for nearly five years, grew out of conversations “about how difficult it is, for folks getting out, to get your feet on ground, about how there’s a need for people to own their own business and control their own economic destiny, if you will.”

The discussions that grew out of the college’s food and farm systems classes offered at the jail were particularly exciting to the students, said Stachiw, who’s part of a worker-owned cooperative that helps other co-ops get started.

After “crunching numbers, spinning ideas and working through details with Martin’s Farm, the Cooperative Fund of New England, area businesses and Amy Dononvan of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District, it seemed that a viable, part-time business needs about 150 residential customers and $3,000 to $4,000 worth of monthly commercial business to be viable — along with at least $20,000 in startup capital.

That could happen this spring, or as early as February, said Stachiw, who’s still working on getting anchors and businesses to commit while seeking grant funding.

“For me, this project has come out of years of observation and conversation with incarcerated people about the kinds of supports they need to thrive once they’re released,” added Revan Schendler, who’s taught sociology at the jail and along with Stachiw has volunteered for a “co-op academy” in the jail. The academy includes Gerard Curtis of Athol and two men who hope to become part of the worker-owned business — one of whom was recently released with the third anticipating the end of his sentence.

Part of the enthusiasm comes from incorporating into the project Northampton’s 15-year-old Pedal People co-operative, which uses bicycles to haul compost as well as recyclable material, trash and more around that city and surrounding areas.

“You can be in the best situation when you go, in but when you spend all that time away and then come out, nothing’s the same,” said Curtis, who works in a Veterans Administration compensated work-therapy program. He was released from the House of Correction in September after serving a two-year sentence for assault and battery in his hometown. “You tend to lose a lot of things, you come out homeless a lot of times and you get out broke, with no employment, and now a criminal record. Just being able to live what most people consider an everyday, normal life that people take for granted, it’s really hard to get back to that.”

The 28-year-old veteran, who says combat trauma from four years in the military experience, including Afghanistan, contributed along with substance abuse to his criminal behavior, admitted, “I didn’t even know co-ops existed” before learning about them from Stachiw. “Knowing exactly what’s going to happen when I get out, just to be able to have something different, just seemed like a real rewarding concept to me. Having an opportunity to become a business owner when you get out, that changes everything. ... It’s being able to gain a little control over your life after being told how to live and what to do for so long.”

Number crunching

The business that began taking shape this past summer has involved number crunching, exploring logistics and working through technical details. It “takes time, because we can’t just snap our fingers and get a dump truck,” said Schendler, adding that this was part of the rationale for adopting the Pedal People model. But even $20,000 she estimates to buy a truck, forklift, bicycles and compost buckets, along with initial workers’ pay, insurance and other costs is “scraping it” compared to the more realistic $60,000 to $90,000 initial budget, said Stachiw.

Still, thanks to an anonymous donor’s doubling of the $3,000 raised at a People’s Pint fundraiser in November and an unsolicited $1,000 grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the organizers are looking at launching as early as February a scalable startup that could become a pilot project for other communities and add other worker owners as their sentences end.

“A huge part is to make it a replicable model,” said Schendler. “From this business, we can have other co-ops doing other kinds of things. We’re trying to build a model that supports people continuing their education and acquiring the necessary business skills. I do feel hopeful.”

Most businesses in Franklin County fall below the state’s threshold of one ton of food waste weekly mandating composting, said Donovan, although “many (small commercial) generators are doing it anyway, because they want to do the right thing. Everybody in this region should be composting.”

If just a handful in Greenfield sign up, Stachiw said, that would be enough to get the co-op going, and adding residential accounts along with food and paper waste from the jail and college or hospital could make the business viable.

“Most people just put things in trash; that’s the reality,” said Stachiw, “whether you’re a food business or someone else. We really want to encourage people to sign on as customers, even if you’re an office. You can pay $5 every other week and just have a 5-gallon bucket you could dump things into. That would be huge for us as a business.”

Stigma follows

The biggest obstacle, all three agree, is the stigma of re-entering the community after serving a jail sentence.

“From my perspective, an important part of this business is the educational component,” said Schendler. “People are not particularly aware of the reality of re-entry. One of the things people face is isolation, and that contributes to recidivism, because people don’t have the support they need. Ostensibly, in our society, if you serve a prison term or a jail term, you’ve paid your debt. But it has become very obvious in the course of this project, they’re going to owe forever.”

“The stigma piece is huge,” agreed Stachiw. “People have expressed genuine interest, but this is ingrained in people: ‘Wait, would this person be coming up to my door picking up this bucket?’ We’ve been public about it. That’s part of the mission, part of the conversation. People don’t think, ‘Should I get a background check on my garbageman?’ It is a no-brainer to use this service, 100 percent, but it’s interesting how there’s been complexity added because of the stigma. It’s so powerful.”

On the Web: thecompostcooperative.com