Denver’s Waste Farmers Bring Soil to Life
January 27, 2012 | Noelle Swan
“If we’re going to feed 9 billion people by 2050, we’re going to have go find new methods. Soil has been neglected throughout industrial agriculture. Anytime we harvest, we take something away and our agricultural model has been that we don’t need to put it back. We’ve got to go back and repair that.”
Maxfield comes from a family of farmers and ranchers. Many years ago, his grandfather was nominated Agricultural Citizen of the Century in Wyoming. He calls his grandfather his hero, but believes that his way of farming must become a piece of history if the agricultural industry is to feed the every growing planet.
In 2008, Maxfield set out to be the change. He launched Waste Farmers with $9000, a newly emptied retirement account, a truck, and two-fold mission: feed the soil and reduce agriculture dependency on synthetic fertilizers.
The Colorado native saw opportunity rotting in landfills and set out to transform truckloads of food waste discarded by area restaurants and municipal buildings into organic, regionally sourced, potting soil and a biodynamic compost with live microbes to enrich the soil. With no existing infrastructure for collecting organic matter for composting, Maxfield created one. He started a route collecting directly from kitchens around the Denver-area. That route grew into a competitive business in the waste removal industry. He quickly flipped the company and reinvested in soil and compost production as Waste Farmers.
Waste Farmers now buys compost (through the new market that Maxfield created) to produce and enrich its brand of potting soil. Using compost eliminates the need for peat, a prominent ingredient in most potting soil. Peat is nature’s compost pile and rich in nutrients that make up a great potting soil.
“Peat comes from very sensitive ecosystems. It’s a structure that needs to stay where it is,” Maxfield says. The spongy substrate found in bogs and moors is the result of accumulated decaying organic litter. Harvesting peat for potting soil withdraws nutrients from one ecosystem only to ship them to an entirely different ecosystem. Compost can function in the potting soil in the same way with organic matter that was just going to be thrown away.
At Waste Farmers, the collected waste goes through an initial composting process, then is refined with worms, enriched with soil microbes, and mixed into potting soil and compost. Maxfield places particular importance on the use of microbes. “Soil microbes are arguably the reason that we exist on this planet and they are essential for existence moving forward. Synthetic fertilizers set up precedents of feeding plants at the expense of all the microbes that naturally make nutrients available to the plants.” He refers to that aspect of the business as the Microbe Brewery.
His approach is so unique, Maxfield says that he doesn’t really have any competitors. There are several large companies that sell potting soil, but he says that his use of compost and biochar, a nutrient-rich charcoal sets his product apart.
Currently, Waste Farmers sells potting soil and its biodynamic compost in bulk to urban farmers and gardening groups that are able to make large purchases. He Maxfield hopes to enter the retail market with 2 cu ft bags of soil selling in garden centers by 2013. He would like to maintain a presence in both the retail garden space and organic agriculture. To get there, he will have to scale up production at the Microbe Brewery. Right now Maxfield says it can be difficult to keep up with his wholesale orders, yet he is still aiming upward. In the long term, he hopes to offer more products, expand into the Pacific Northwest region, and research new sources of fertilizer such as algae.
Maxfield says that the company’s rapid and continued growth has been a bit of a financial struggle. In 2010, he just about broke even, but quickly sank the money back into the business. He says that securing external funding has been the biggest challenge. “There has been so much interest in the tech and so many inflated returns for other industries that businesses like agriculture have been overlooked.” In the last six months or so, he has seen an uptick in interest in agriculture and is optimistic.