Master Composters Work for Sustainability, Have Fun

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Tompkins Weekly       1-16-17

By Ron Cunningham

My partner Kerra emailed me in January 2015, forwarding notice of Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Composter training. We talked about it. I liked the idea. Learning something new is good. Sharing it with Kerra is better. The possibility of getting free training by earning back the deposit was appealing. Now looking back at 150-plus pertinent emails in my CCE folder makes me realize the extent of our involvement. And the involvement continues.

We composted prior to Master Composter training, yet the fine-tuning we received has enriched our practice. The volunteer hours have expanded our hearts and horizons. The subject is diverse and complex, with an underlying simplicity and wisdom: Convert waste into resources. We were expertly piloted through 10 weeks of 2-hour, weekday evening classes by the Program Manager Adam Michaelides. Guest speakers were featured. Field trips were taken. Friendships were struck.

The class demographic was varied. Locals, nationals and internationals attended in balanced proportion. One classmate was from Tunisia. He went wide-eyed when I reached back nearly 40 years and sang my best recollection of a Tunisian folk song. I learned it from a borrowed vinyl disc. It was a stunning opportunity to share an obscure treasure. He helped me hone my rendition.

Ahmed and I teamed up with a young American musician and recycling enthusiast on a presentation about “carcass composting.” Who knew? This was, for some, an unsettling subject. My new friend from North Africa seemed a natural for the project. He was head of the Red Meat Quality Department of the Ministry of Agriculture of Tunisia. Researching this topic acquainted me with some amazing facts. I had no idea that tens of thousands of pounds of roadkill are composted each year; human remains are composted, too. The latter went beyond unsettling for some. I strongly support the practice.

There was compost-themed entertainment during training. The above-mentioned musician was one-third of a crew who custom-fitted composting messages to the tunes of classic hit songs. “Rot ‘n’ Roll” showed up at several Master Composter events and really broke it down. (Sorry about the pun – I’m inspired by them!)

Meanwhile, Kerra and I got the brilliant idea of collecting food scraps at Finger Lakes Runners’ Club trail racing events; a natural fit, we thought. Hungry runners generate a goodly amount of food scraps. Race directors manage the scraps. Most events have bins only for landfill and recycling. We got some collapsible trash cans and made some signs. We set them up and have now hauled off hundreds of pounds of watermelon rinds, banana peels and various cast-offs of race fuel. Now in our second season, we’ve expanded this volunteer service to Red Newt Racing events. Through this we’ve fed our home compost bins, and some at the Dryden Community Gardens.

Speaking of the Dryden Community Gardens, Kerra and I garden with someone who has been actively composting since World War II. We had the idea to introduce octogenarian Anthony Spellman to the compost program manager. From this idea came an interview, and then an article for the Ithaca Voice about this man’s perspective. We found out how composting helped Anthony in tough times during the war, and continues to enrich his life.

Needless to say, Kerra and I more than doubled our required 60 hours of volunteer time. So much satisfaction, so little resistance. Every event, including the Grassroots Festival, Ithaca Fest and other area, food-festooned wingdings required surprisingly little sorting of contamination. It seems the concept is gaining purchase.

Maybe the days of blithe waste are waning. Kerra’s youngest daughter completed Master Composter Training at 13. Maybe mindful management of resources is evolving toward – should I say it? – sustainability. In any event, a deeper understanding of this simple principle helps keep the ever-more-publicized ills of the world a little at bay. A little learning, a little labor, a little contribution feels like a big lift now and then.

Master Composter training is offered every year from February through April. The 2017 training will take place from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursdays, from February 9 through April 27. The application deadline is Monday, January 30. For more info and to apply, visit or contact Adam Michaelides by email at or phone at (607) 272-2292.

Have fun while helping others reduce waste, and improve soils. Perhaps we’ll meet at a Master Composter training class, the annual spring Compost Fair, or a running event over the summer. Or maybe I’ll come to an event that YOU organize as a new Master Composter. Wishing you and yours much learning and satisfying work in the coming year.

Ron Cunningham lives in the town of Dryden. He is a Master Composter with the Compost Education Program at Tompkins County Cooperative Extension; a program funded by the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division.

Photo: Ahmed (standing at left) and the author (advancing the slides on the right) give a presentation about carcass composting.

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