Composting for Food, Economic Security

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Tompkins Weekly 1-27-21

By Adam Michaelides

With temperatures hovering around freezing and the ground blanketed with snow, it is hard to remember the lush green of spring, the heat of summer and the bounty of fall. However, they are coming. The days are growing longer and lighter, and before we know it, warm days will return.

Last weekend for kicks, I stuck a long-stemmed, compost thermometer in my bin and found that it was at 60 degrees! Even with no visible growth in the yard and daytime temperatures in the 30s, my compost continues to actively work away. Hopefully by spring, the compost in my bin will be mature enough to use in the garden.

Composting and gardening go together — each activity supports the other.

Compost can be used to topdress veggie plants. Photo provided.

If you are a gardener, you know that you have weeds, trimmings and inedible parts of garden plants to compost. Add to this all of the organic discards that most residents have like food scraps from the kitchen and leaves from the yard.

Altogether, there is plenty for the compost, which is good because the more fresh material you have, the larger and more active your compost will be.

Similarly, the home gardener also benefits from their compost pile. Gardeners know that finished compost is like gold. If you are just starting out and do not have “black gold” (compost) for the garden, there are other ways to amend the soil. However, if you have finished compost, adding it to the garden helps to maintain soil health in a number of ways.

For starters, compost replenishes organic matter that is naturally lost over time. It adds beneficial microorganisms that contribute to overall soil health. Compost in soil helps hold moisture even during the driest summer drought and much more.

If you are not (yet) a gardener, composting your food scraps offers a simple way to help the environment. With even the smallest of yards, you can set up a simple compost bin.

No yard at all? It may be possible for you to compost indoors using a worm bin or a bokashi compost bucket. If you would rather send your food scraps elsewhere, Tompkins County Recycling and Material Management offers 14 drop-off locations. Or you can join our Compost Learning Collaborative and compost your food scraps at one of our three current locations (Ithaca, Freeville and Groton).

Not sure which of these options is best for you? Look into it by visiting and, ask a master composter or call the “Rotline” (compost helpline) at 607-272-2292. We are happy to help you!

With a little additional information and guidance, we hope that you become a successful composter. Composting food scraps and other organics here in our community — instead of putting them in the trash — helps the environment and, in turn, ensures food security.

The process of transporting heavy food scraps and disposing of them in distant landfills generates untold greenhouse gas emissions. We can instead do our part to slow climate change by composting organic discards as close to home as possible.

Farmers and gardeners rely on gentle, consistent rain, seasonable temperatures and predictable weather. Composting is one of the ways we can reduce our carbon footprint, protect the environment and lend a helping hand to everyone who grows food.

Once you begin your composting journey, you may find yourself thinking about delving into gardening as well. After all, if you compost at home, you will produce black gold in six months to two years, depending on your methods. What will you do with that finished compost?

If you have no yard, you can try gardening in large pots or 5-gallon buckets with holes in the bottom. These containers can be placed on a sunny porch, stoop or steps. Imagine eating fresh cherry tomatoes in the summer or picking fresh basil for sandwiches.

Finished compost can also be used to generally amend the soil around the property. Lightly dig it into the root zones around trees and shrubs or just broadcast sifted compost around the lawn. The soil and natural life on the property will thank you.

Or, if you prefer, you can donate your black gold to a neighbor who has a better use. If you help your neighbor with his garden, he might just have an extra bunch of kale for you at the end of the season.

During times of economic strain and uncertainty, the practice of composting can also help you save money. If you pay for trash tags, you will need to purchase fewer of them because you will have less trash, and it will be lighter and not putrescible. Maybe you will only need to put out the trash every other week instead of every week.

If you have trash pickup, you may be able to either downsize your container or have it picked up less often. And if you bring trash to the transfer station yourself, you will make fewer trips and pay less when you do.

The practice of gardening can also support you economically. There is a reason why “victory gardens” were so popular during World War I. Last spring, when the pandemic started and people were at home more, there was a renewed interest in home gardening. Growing more food at home can help save money on groceries.

Having both a garden and the knowledge about how to garden helps you to become more food secure and sovereign. The practice of composting supports this effort. By using homemade compost, you reduce your reliance on outside inputs like chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This in turn will, again, save you money and help you to grow healthier plants.

If you need help with any of this, feel free to contact us. The “GrowLine” at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County is prepared to help with gardening questions, while master composters are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about composting.

Each year, between 15 and 18 Tompkins County residents become master composters. Volunteers train in the late winter and spring and are ready to teach others as the gardening season begins.

Some master composters have community projects of their own or are resource people for local organizations, cooperatives or groups. You probably know someone who is a master composter. Ask them your compost questions!

If you are interested in deepening your knowledge about composting and helping others in the community to compost, the Master Composter Program is for you. This year’s training classes will take place on Thursday evenings from 6 to 8 p.m. starting March 4 and ending May 13. Training will start remotely over Zoom and finish in person, outdoors.

Trainees will learn about composting in depth while engaging in several practical class projects and volunteering in the community. Master composter training is taught by Compost Program staff, experts in the community and veteran master composters. We strive to have fun and make a positive contribution.

For more information and an application, please visit or call the Rotline at 607-272-2292. The deadline to submit an application for the 2021 master composter training program is Friday, Feb. 19.

Thank you for your interest in composting. May it be one of the solutions that helps support the natural world and everyone in our community.

Adam Michaelides is the Program Manager for the Compost Education Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. The Compost Education Program is sponsored by the Tompkins County Department of Recycling and Materials Management.

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