Self-Reliance & Transformation Through Composting (feat. Terra Nova Compost) – Episode #1

Date: 29 Nov 2017 | posted in: Composting, waste - composting, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Welcome to the Composting for Community podcast!

In this episode, we talk with Corinne Coe-Law, Co-Founder and Director of the Atlanta-based Terra Nova Compost CooperativeTerra Nova Compost aims to teach underserved communities the value and importance of soil building as it relates to urban agriculture, food justice and climate change. Corinne also led ILSR’s first national replication of its Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders composter training program in Atlanta in 2016. These students are now leading nine projects around Atlanta at a time when support for community composting in the area is growing.

Corinne discusses her successful replication of the NSR program, and the ability of localized composting to support community self-sufficiency, food sovereignty, and social justice.

Listen to this episode, then check out more episodes of the Composting for Community Podcast.

…aside from building our soil, growing our food, and feeding us [the power of compost is] really about transformation. Turning something that some would consider waste…into something really beautiful and abundant.

View the full transcript of the podcast here:

Corinne Coe-Law: We need to grow soil scientists, we need to grow composters and we need to do that locally.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Welcome to the first episode of the Composting For Community Podcast, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. My name is Nick Stumo-Langer, ILSR’s communications manager. This episode is recorded during the US Composting Council’s annual conference in Los Angeles in January of 2017 and features Corinne Coe of Terra Nova Compost in Atlanta. She and I discussed the exciting power of compost holds for revitalizing underserved communities and how her experiences are shaping the growing community composting movement in Atlanta.

This podcast is the first in a special promo series for the fifth annual Cultivating Community Composting Workshop and Forum in Atlanta in January of 2018, sponsored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and BioCycle Magazine. Register and learn more at That’s Be sure to rate this podcast on iTunes or wherever you receive your podcasts. It helps us to continue to create great content for you, such as ISLR’s other podcasts, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and Community Broadband Bits. Finally, be sure to visit for the latest on our work in all sectors of community development and now, here’s Corinne.

Sitting here with Corinne Coe of Terra Nova Compost from Atlanta, Georgia, and just say hi. 

Corinne Coe-Law: Hi, everybody!
Nick Stumo-Langer: All right, so this is the first in a series of interviews we’re doing with community composters, talking about the impact that the programs are having in their community, as well as the larger benefits. I’ll start out with the softball question, what do you think the power of composting is?
Corinne Coe-Law: I think it really is, aside from building our soil, and growing our food, and feeding us, it’s really about transformation. It’s a wonderful metaphor for transformation. Turning something that some folks would consider waste, or perhaps is waste into something really beautiful and abundant.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s a good transition to talk about your work. Why don’t you talk a little bit about Terra Nova Compost, kind of about the programs that you’ve done, kind of give us a little run down of that?
Corinne Coe-Law: Sure, after two years living abroad I returned to the United States, and I chose Atlanta because my only sibling, my younger brother lives there, and we’re very close. I got there, and I found, into 2013, a very robust urban agriculture scene but very few farmers, and very few people were talking about composting. I was a little bit shocked at that because I had been doing composting work for probably six years at the time and also growing food. I thought, okay, here’s a fantastic opportunity for me to do some work that I’m already passionate about.

I started Terra Nova Compost in October 2013 after being in Atlanta for about six months. Terra Nova compost is exclusively an education and consulting organization. We are for-profit, and what we do is teach people how to compost, either at home, in their schools, in their community gardens, even on urban farms. I’ve certainly worked with some farmers, who either have existing compost systems or want to start them, want to improve them. Farmers are very busy, and so some farmers just need a little bit of support.

In 2016, I led the first national replication of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Program in Atlanta. I called it the Community Compost Advocate Training Program. It ran for three consecutive weekends. I had 16 students and four children tagalongs, and it was a total success. For sure, to date, it was the most, the hugest success I’ve enjoyed professionally and it was just so much fun.

My students now, those 16 people, some of them are working together so we have now 10 community composting projects in four of Atlanta’s five metropolitan counties. I am tracking their progress and helping them, offering technical support, offering emotional support, whatever kind of support I can give. I’m proud to say that I really believe that all of my students got something big out of the program. Each of them perhaps something different, but it was really, it was really fantastic.

Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s excellent. What kind of a role does the NSR replication, and kind of the work you’re doing, help in build the infrastructure for compost? You were saying earlier, there’s a big urban ag scene. There’s a big kind of push for growing locally, buying at farmer’s markets that type of thing, as there are in a lot larger cities in the US and how does your role fit in with building that infrastructure out to make it not necessarily, not to make it, just something oh, composting is an interesting thing you can do, but kind of weaving that into the fabric of urban ag?
Corinne Coe-Law: Well again, if nobody is talking about and nobody is doing it, then the infrastructure obviously isn’t there and can’t be there. What I found, in 2013, nobody’s talking about it. A couple of farmers are doing it. A couple of community gardens are doing it somewhat poorly, and probably some folks are doing it in their backyards. Then, in 2016, I really wanted to do the Community Compost Advocate Training Program, the replication of the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders, in Southwest Atlanta, which is where I live. I don’t really like the term underserved, but people probably understand what that means to some degree and is an underserved neighborhood. What I found was there was no place to do it. There was no place to do it. I couldn’t do my program there.

I did it in Candler Park, a really fantastic older neighborhood in Atlanta at a community-owned land trust, which is really fantastic because it’s a permanent land trust, nature preserve, community garden, public space. The bin that we build, the three bin system will be there for perpetuity. It’s a really fantastic bin, designed by Urban Farm Plans, I’m proud to say.

Nick Stumo-Langer: Good, a nice little shout out there.
Corinne Coe-Law: Yeah, shout out to our friends. But that was important to me to because land access is an issue, gentrification is an issue in Atlanta and having it at a land trust that’s owned by the community, it’s been there for longer than I’ve been alive, felt really good. However, now, my next project that I really haven’t told too many people about yet, is called the West Side Compost Project. I have identified a fantastic group of people to be on the board of directors and we’re starting a compost project on the west side in the neighborhood that I kind of wanted, this NSR replication to be, but we didn’t have a space for it.

The role of the NSR program is to get people excited, to get people enthusiastic, to start the conversation, and probably to some degree to get some money. I mean, again I have a for-profit business, but I’ll tell you that teaching composting doesn’t yet pay the bills for me, for sure. That’s not why I do it of course, and the West Side Compost Project will be a non-profit, I won’t make any money off of that. Terra Nova Compost won’t make any off of that. But, because of the success that we had with the NSR replication, I feel like I have the leverage to start this new project and I have a really great, strong board of directors, and hopefully get some funding to build infrastructure on the west side of Atlanta, so that perhaps we could do another NSR replication in a year or two.

Nick Stumo-Langer: We’re excited to, hopefully, partner to do that type of thing. Going back a little bit for the NSR replication, I know that ILSR staff member Linda Bilsens came down and you had a number of other experts. So, why don’t you talk about kind of how important it is to share the knowledge?  Making sure that you’re getting that knowledge-base from all these different experts who have been doing this for so long and kind of transplanting that into, communities that may not have that existing knowledge or that wealth-base, too, because it seems like, you’re building out in areas specifically where you want to build that community wealth.
Corinne Coe-Law: Absolutely. I mean, I was lucky enough to know the instructors that I brought in ahead of time. They happened to be the same instructors, some of the same instructors that Institute for Local Self-Reliance had used in their Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Programs in DC and Baltimore but I also knew them. So, when I called them up and I said, “Hey, I’m working with Brenda, I’m working with Linda, I want to do this.” I didn’t come out of nowhere. I mean, obviously the support of Brenda and Linda, probably would have offered me the at opportunity anyway, but Benny Erez can down from ECO City Farms. Rhonda Sherman came down from North Carolina State University. Linda and Eriks came down from DC from ILSR and Urban Farm Plans.

On top of that, I actually added into my program, a compost entrepreneurship portion, which was led by Chris Cano of Gainesville Compost and Bike Compost, also a friend of mind, and a social justice piece that was led by Sundiata Ameh-El of Tallahassee, Florida and his project is called Compost Community, and that was really important for me, because to go back to what I said about what the power of composting is, I really do believe it’s about transformation.

Working in underserved neighborhoods, I want to show people that anything is possible, right? We can create abundance out of almost nothing, and almost without any money at all. We just need to do it together, to be patient, to do the work. I’m really proud of the group of instructors that I chose. In some ways, they chose me, ILSR chose them, but I added to that mix and what I would, what I envision, long-term, that this program either leads into, feeds into, becomes whatever, something like the nation-wide Master Gardener Program that is in almost every county, in every state, across the whole country. It’s led by really skilled, knowledgeable people, right, and they’re knowledgeable about horticultural, agriculture, and I think that we need to grow that.

In five years, do I want to have Rhonda, and Benny, and Linda, and Eriks come down to Atlanta again? The answer is no. As much as I love them, I want them to come stay with me, go out for Mexican food, but we need to grow soil scientists, we need to grow composters, and we need to do that locally. I think that the more we’re able to replicate this program and honestly, in the same city, over and over again, to bring more people into the fold, we won’t have to use fossil fuels to move people to share the knowledge.

Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s good. That’s a great way to say that. I’m sure, and I’m sure you know, I know Linda and I’m sure that she says, “I don’t want to come. I want to come down for Mexican food. I want to come down and hang out and see Corine, and all that awesome stuff she’s doing.” But, that’s exactly right. We want to make sure we’re building those local experts, making sure that it’s a foundational part of the community.

I’d be remiss, because I do work for all the ILSR initiatives, to not talk about the economic development potential and to talk about how, this isn’t just about training folks to get more connected to the soil, to be able to kind of do those types of things. It’s also about building wealth in communities that have been sapped of wealthy, due to a variety of circumstances. I know, I’ll have you repeat a little bit of what you said in a panel a couple days ago, talking about why you don’t like the term food deserts. Why you don’t like some of the ways that we talk about these communities, because in a lot of ways, it doesn’t capture the full story. What composting, what community composting, what the work you’re doing in training and consulting can help to do to build that community wealthy, and that kind of underground structure of what a community looks like, that’s healthy, that’s vibrant, that’s doing great work for its people.

Corinne Coe-Law: Nick, that’s a big question, but I feel like it’s the question. It really, I feel like I’m getting teary-eyed.
Nick Stumo-Langer: It’s a podcast, no one can see if you’re getting teary-eyed. It’s okay.
Corinne Coe-Law: It’s important though. That’s how passionate I am about this. It is crux of why I do this work, okay? We need to be able to be able to take care of ourselves and admittedly, I’m a revolutionary if I might call myself one. I hope I am. Capitalism has isolated us from each other and from the Earth. Along with compost, I think seeds are critical to survival, social justice, food sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and that’s actually my next project that nobody knows about, except Ron Finley who I was luck enough to visit yesterday. He’s a friend of mine here in Los Angeles. If you have seeds, and if you have soil and water, you can take care of yourself.

This work, I aim to show people again, the power of transformation, that they can take of themselves, that everything we need has been provided for us by some miracle of God, or Allah, or whatever you choose to believe in. Brenda talked yesterday about social economics, environmental economics and of course, that doesn’t boil down to money, but I’m sure, anyone listening to this podcast probably has heard the saying that like, “Once we’ve cut down all the trees.” I don’t even know the whole saying, but basically, you can’t eat money, right?

Again, this work is about transformation. It’s about self-sufficiency. It is about job creation and community building, that’s why I brought Chris Cano, up from Gainesville, Florida, is to talk about how he created this business to do composting. One of my students now runs a young adult environmental training program, that she works for an organization called the Greening Youth Foundation and they have a training center focused on young adults, focused on environmental issues. She’s now teaching composting in her program because of my class. Her volunteer hours are actually paid hours, but she’s training young people to do the composting. They get paid to be there at this job training program for young people.

I also think, I had a conversation this morning with somebody, with J.D. that was the moderator of the panel yesterday, that you were at, or Brenda spoke at. There’s room for backyard, not only is there room, these are all critical, and they’re all necessary. Backyard composting, community composting, industry-scale composting. We need all three because not one of them can meet all of our needs. We have to have all three.

Nick Stumo-Langer: Yeah, there is the, I think, a common thread through a lot of what we’ve been talking about has been, community composting has all these intangible benefits, all these things, whether it’s strengthening the fabric of a community, whether it’s building those jobs in the community and it’s excellent and it’s something that we’ve talked about the benefits of, over and over again. Something that gets a little bit lost in that is that commercial-scale composting matters for the stuff that falls through the cracks, the stuff that maybe there isn’t a strong community base because that’s how these places were intentionally designed. What is an industrial park look like that’s isolated from an actual residential community center that people could actually live in? That type of thing.

It’s definitely something that where I know that, at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance we love the community scale, we love being able to do that, but something like composting is too important to just limit ourselves to one thing and also, realizing that there’s a lot of potential. There’s a lot of really great people who are thinking about this critically and how you can build wealth this way.

Corinne Coe-Law: It’s also the most fun. Backyard composting is you, your partner, your kids, maybe your neighbor, industrial-scale composting is really loud. You’re not going to make friends at an industrial-scale composting site. Community composting is really fun and I learned that, I knew that already, but I learned it, it became very clear, very clear, through my 2016 Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders replication in Atlanta.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Great. All right. This has been a great interview. I’ll end it with one final question. Doesn’t have to be a book, doesn’t have to be anything to heavy, do you have a reading recommendation, or a listening recommendation for our listeners here, so they can go directly from our conversation to something you like?
Corinne Coe-Law: I do think that the book Teaming With Microbes is fantastic if you want to get deep into soil biology. Basic composting, I would say The Rodale Guide to Composting is great. I will tell you too, I’m going to write a book about composting and social justice with Ron Finley.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great.
Corinne Coe-Law: You heard it here first.
Nick Stumo-Langer: This is the exclusive, this is breaking news here on the podcast.
Corinne Coe-Law: This is breaking news.
Nick Stumo-Langer: All right. Well thank you so much for being here and for talking with me here at the USCC Compost Conference and I’m happy to do it. I’m happy to help lift up these stories.
Corinne Coe-Law: Thank you Nick, thank you so much. That was fun and all that’s true.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s also the benefit, right? Where it’s all accurate. Thank you so much for listening to this special episode of the Composting For Community Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Thank you to Grapes for his track, I Dunno, license on Creative Commons. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and Community Broadband Bits at Have a great day.


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Audio Credit: I Dunno by Grapes. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Photo Credit: Terra Nova Compost Cooperative

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Nick Stumo-Langer

Nick Stumo-Langer was Communications Manager at ILSR working for all five initiatives. He ran ILSR's Facebook and Twitter profiles and builds relationships with reporters. He is an alumnus of St. Olaf College and animated by the concerns of monopoly power across our economy.