Maine Composting School is the Gold Standard For Turning Garbage Into Treasure

Aug 17, 2017

A few times a year, people from all over the US — and well beyond — come to Maine to learn the science of all things rotten. The Maine Compost School has been teaching people how to turn organic trash into treasure, and glop into gold, for 20 years, making it the longest running program of its kind in the US.

Making a good compost is not for the faint of heart. It involves lots of things that stink, several things that crawl, and trillions of things you can’t even see.

The class is held at Maine Cooperative Extension's test site, Highmoor Farm in Monmouth.
Credit Nick Woodward/Maine Public

On this hot, summer day at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, flies are zinging about several shaggy piles of wood chips, egg shells, peelings, scraps, and grass clippings and chicken manure…each pile a curated blend teaming with hungry bacteria. Mark King, a compost team member from the Department of Environmental Protection, points to a pile that has a problem.

“Like this one right here,” King says. “This is the wet pile. And the way you can tell is because of all the leachate around the base of it. Leachate is liquid loss of nutrients.”

It’s also incredibly smelly and if you have too much of it oozing from the bottom of your compost pile? Then the microbes within can’t do their job as well.

“And we do this test called the squeeze test, where you grab a handful of the material and you squeeze real hard,” says King. “If water shoots out between your fingers, then it’s too wet. If you open your hand and it crumbles out, it’s too dry. If you open your hand and it makes a wet little ball? Then it’s perfect.”

The Goldilocks Pile: Expert Mark King paws around in a pile of rich, dark compost that neither too wet nor too dry.
Credit Nick Woodward/Maine Public

Then King points to the "goldilocks" pile. Not too wet…not too dry…its just right. And it’s a perfect mix of nitrogen, carbon, oxygen, and water with an earthy smell that’s well on its way to becoming a rich, fertile material that will help plants grow. Troubleshooting compost is just one of many lessons offered at the Maine Compost School, which has been teaching the finer points of decomposition to students from all 50 states and dozens of different countries, since 1997.

“It’s the best in the world, from what I hear,” says Jake Smith. he made the trip from Nashville, Tennessee, where he works for a company that designs a type of barrel composter.

“We manufacture it and then sell it to the local poultry farmers there in Tennessee and the Carolinas, says Smith. “A lot of growers down there are composting with their litter, and also their mortality.”

Mortality, as in farm animals that have died. Its become a major focus for both farmers and the Maine Compost School in recent years.

Instructor Bill Seekins gives students the basics in the classroom before they're taken to farm sites to see the process.
Credit Nick Woodward/Maine Public

Instructor Bill Seekins, who is retired from the Maine Department of Agriculture, says mortality is an unavoidable part of farming, and some of the old ways of disposing of the large carcusses are no longer acceptable.

“The practice of just dragging the cow out and dumping it over the stone wall and hoping that something will carry it off is being frowned on,” Seekins says.

At one time, another option would have been to send the animal to a rendering facility, to be converted into other products such as tallow and bone meal. But there are fewer of those facilities now — and none nearer than Massachusetts. Enter composting. Composting can be used to safely break down pretty much any organic matter — even with risky conditions present. In 2015 when the avian influenza outbreak hit the poultry industry, experts from the Maine Compost School were flown out to Iowa to teach farmers there how to safely dispose of diseased carcasses. Mark King with DEP, was part of that group.

“We had one farm that had over six million birds on it, and we basically created the best recipe, and we ended up with about 16 miles of windrows,” says King.

The Maine Compost School teaches the right way to compost with a series of test piles.
Credit Nick Woodward/Maine Public

That's a 16 mile long mound of compost — and that was at just one farm. King says in years past, all those birds would have been incinerated or buried. But incineration is not environmentally friendly he says, and recent research indicates that diseases like avian and swine flu, can survive In buried carcasses, and infect ground water systems. With composting, the biological processes neutralize pathogens, leaving nothing behind but the basic building blocks of organic matter.

Composting is also gaining popularity as gentler, greener way to handle the remains of beloved pets, spawning at least one business in Lewiston, which specializes in composting horses. In fact, the next compost school, in August, will focus on how to compost large animals, but the class is already full.

The classes held two to three times per year, have always been full. George MacDonald, a team member from DEP, says students have come from 42 different countries — some with significant development challenges.

“A number of our students from other countries are interested in trying to better manage their solid waste streams, so that the organics — which have value to soils — don’t end up in the landfill,” says MacDonald. “One of our students came from the Galapagos Islands, and any organics they can recover and use to improve the soils on their islands is critical.”

The Maine Compost School is now in its 20th year, making it the longest running program devoted to compost education in the country.
Credit Nick Woodward/Maine Public

The team was first formed in Maine in 1990 to help address a growing concern over how to handle organic wastes — especially from the seafood industry, where piles of reeking fish guts and lobster shells were fouling the air of seaside communities.

It has since composted everything from simple grass clippings…to entire whales. The DEP’S Mark King says the team recently got a call from the FBI, which studies human remains at a test location popularly known as the body farm.

“And what they wanted to do was, they wanted to compost a body, and then they wanted to have a cadaver dog go and see if they could tell if there had been a body in the compost,” says King.

King says when the FBI is ready to move on that project, the team will be there to help.

The stinky wet pile: unbalanced, wet compost can become a breeding ground for maggots and produce a poor product.
Credit Nick Woodward/Maine Public

This story was originally published Aug. 16, 2017 at 5:35 p.m. ET.