Fledgling compost business rebuilding lives, nourishing soil

  • Worker-owner Gerard Curtis unloads waste at Martin’s Farm.  Courtesy Brennan Tierney

  • Organic waste is unloaded at Martin’s Farm. Courtesy Brennan Tierney 

  • ​​​​Worker-owner Gerard Curtis unloads waste at Martin’s Farm Courtesy Brennan Tierney

Staff Writer 
Published: 2/13/2019 5:24:23 PM

“Compost nourishes soil,” says the website of a recently launched Franklin County Compost Cooperative, adding, it “rebuilds lives.”

That’s because the worker-owned co-op, which incorporated and began hauling organic waste to Martin’s Farm in Greenfield, is a project that not only aims to help businesses and residential customers get rid of compostable waste, but also give former Franklin County House of Correction inmates a chance to run their own business. 

The co-op, which now has one formerly incarcerated worker-owner, Gerard Curtis, along with two other tentative worker-owners and a couple of apprentices who hope to become additional worker-owners, is collecting compostable material three times a week from the People’s Pint, Hope & Olive, Magpie, Mesa Verde and the Town of Whately.

Real Pickles and other food processors plan to join, as well, and there are ongoing talks with Artisan Beverage Cooperative and Franklin County Community Development Corp., according to Reven Schendler, a founding worker-owner who taught a Greenfield Community College sociology course at the jail and had volunteered for a “co-op academy” think-tank  that spawned the idea for the co-op.

After more than three years of discussions, the co-op —  sponsored by the nonprofit Toolbox for Education and Social Action — raised enough money with a People’s Pint and Hope & Olive fundraisers, and won grants from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Markham-Nathan Fund and EcoSocialist Horizons, with $7,500 in online Indiegogo donations from nearly 100 people around the world. 

With a used one-ton pickup truck with a lift gate, purchased in October, the new business’s goal is to double the five tons of organic material a month it now collects within the next six months, and offer residential curbside pickup in Greenfield this year, says Schendler.

Plans also call for Schendler and Joshua Freund, another worker-owner who started the jail’s garden program, to step aside as unpaid worker-owners so that within five years, the business can be entirely owned by workers who were incarcerated.

The co-op is also working with Just Roots and Common Good to raise money for a washing and “graywater station” at the Greenfield Community Farm that will recycle waste wash water for irrigation.

“We’re a for-profit business with a nonprofit fiscal sponsor,” Schendler says, “so we can apply for funds to meet our social justice and environmental justice missions, like conserving water and diverting waste from landfills.”  

Operating with small margins, she says, “We still feel like its a viable way of creating living-wage work. It’s a real way to make on-the-ground changes in the way we live. We’re just doing it a step at a time. The greatest challenge is that we wish we could do more to stabilize people’s lives so they can contribute fully to the  business we’re developing.

From its startup in May, to 5 tons of waste a month, now, she says of the fledgling business, “It’s runing now. It’s almost flying.”

For more information, visit: www.thecompostcooperative.com 


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