Pedal-Powered Composters Support Local Food Movement (feat. Tilthy Rich Compost) – Episode #2

Date: 1 Dec 2017 | posted in: Composting, Podcast, waste - composting, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Welcome back to the Composting for Community Podcast! In this episode, we talk with Kat Nigro, General Manager of Durham, NC-based Tilthy Rich Compost. Tilthy Rich, a bike-powered food scrap hauler, aims to make composting a common practice accessible to everyone in their hometown of Durham. They are dedicated to paying living wages to their employees, supporting local agriculture, and advancing local compost production through advocacy. Tilthy Rich partners with other local organizations, CompostNow and Brooks Contractor, and serves residential and commercial subscribers in NC’s Triangle region (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill).

Kat discusses what it takes to run a bike-powered food scrap hauling business and the role the Cultivating Community Composting Forum has played in bolstering their successes.

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

…we believe the power of compost allows us to garner those nutrients that were going to be lost, use them to create healthy soil, and then use that soil to feed people. So our end goal is to feed people. And I think empowering people to reduce their waste, but also contribute to ending hunger in Durham is huge.

View the full transcript of the podcast below:

Kat Nigro: The power of compost allows us to garner those nutrients that were going to be lost, use them to create healthy soil, and then use that soil to feed people. So our end goal is to feed people.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Welcome to the second episode of the composting community podcast from the Institute for Local Self-reliance. My name is Nick Stumolinger, ILSR communications manager. This episode is recorded during the U.S. Composting Council’s annual conference in Los Angeles in January of 2017. It features Kat Nigrel, formerly of Tilthy Rich Compost now of Compost Now in Durham, North Carolina. We discuss the business model of Tilthy Rich and how bike powered composting works with the city of Durham and the network of community gardens that they interact with as well as the policy barriers to community composting.

This podcast is a second 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 podcast, building local power, local energy rules, and community broadband bits. Finally, be sure to visit for the latest on our work on all sectors of community development. And now, here’s Kat.

At the compost 2017 USCC’s composting conference here. So, why don’t you say hi?

Kat Nigro: Hey everybody. I’m so excited to be here.
Nick Stumo-Langer: And we’re going to get started and talk about what’s going on with North Carolina and what you’re doing in Durham and the excellent Tilthy Rich Compost and we’ll just kind of go into the conversation, so why don’t you start out.
Kat Nigro: Thanks, Nick. So Tilthy Rich, we are a 100% biocycle power compost service in Durham, North Carolina and what that means to us is we are committed to moving food scraps using human power and not fossil fuels. And right now, we act as a hauler and a processor. We partner with local community gardens and so all the food that we divert to those gardens stay in the garden where we make composts for them to use and feed people in Durham.
Nick Stumo-Langer: It’s great. You have the answer pretty prepared, so that’s good. That’s great. So, I’ll start off with the easy question. The power of compost and kind of start off all these interviews with that and we’ll see what you have to say about that, but it should be a softball you can knock it out.
Kat Nigro: Okay. Thanks, Nick. So for us, we think that food scraps have a bigger purpose than ending up in landfills. So for us, we believe the power of compost allows us to garner those nutrients that were going to be lost, use them to create healthy soil, and then use that soil to feed people. So our end goal is to feed people. And I think empowering people to reduce their waste, but also contribute to ending hunger and Durham is huge. And I think the power of compost allows that to be a reality right now and it’s been great.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great. That’s really good to hear. So, I know that you handle a lot of the hiring and doing that kind of staffing part, so maybe I’ll start there. What is, from a bike hauling perspective as far as doing that kind of collection, what is the most challenging part about doing bike hauling? I mean I know you can think about doing bikes, obviously lots of hills where you live. So, I mean that’s going to be a big part of it too, but what kind of a person does bike hauling compost collection attract, and how does that difficult? How is that good? And how does that contribute to the local economy?
Kat Nigro: That’s great. So what we found is that the people who are interested in Tilthy Rich, love the fact that we’re bicycle powered. They’re attracted to that first and what we found, is those people are really highly invested in our mission from that standpoint. So these are people who are super resilient and super determined. They will bike in the snow, in the hot, humid summers of North Carolina. They’ll bike up the hills. They’ll bike for 14 miles with 350 pounds of food scraps on the back of the trailer. So they’re really dedicated, but also they’re really fun people. They truly believe in the mission and they’re very sustainability minded, but also more than that. They just have a lot of fun. They recognize the fun thing that biking brings to the community and they really take that and roll with it. We have a really quirky team. We have a very, very quirky team and it’s been great. A lot of these people have a bunch of different jobs so being able to like plug in three hours a week on a bike and get that money is really important. And I think it’s been great. We’ve been able to hire a large diverse kinds of people and I think that that’s been really important in us growing as a company. So yeah, it’s been great.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great. So, how does kind of fit in with maybe the entrepreneurial culture in Durham? How does that fit in with kind of the local economy parts? And also, what communities are you serving? Where does with compost go and who does this effect?
Kat Nigro: That’s great. So, I guess the first part of your question that I want to address is, yeah, I think that something that we did was we just saw Durham. We saw what we had and we met them where they were at. So, we have a bunch of millennial people in our community who are piecing together a lot of jobs like I said earlier. So, for us we really took advantage of those people who do the things that they love and because they do the things they love, it may not be a full-time job. So they’re able to piece together a bunch of different jobs and so we found that these people are extremely committed even though it’s a short amount of time commitment. And I think that’s been hard to find at this conference. A lot of people have some staffing problems. We’ve been really thankful that that hasn’t been an issue for us.

And to talk about your second point is…the people we’re serving is on our community garden part, we’re serving those marginalized communities. So, one of our gardens, all of the food scraps, I mean all the food scraps that we make and turn it to soil is used to grow food and they don’t sell that food. They give it directly to the recovery center across the street. It’s a drug and alcohol recovery center. It’s non-profit. And so I think that’s been really amazing for us to see that, just right across the street we see the people that we’re helping feed. And it’s been really rewarding for us. So, I think compost is a way to bring communities together and I think this conference has been great because I’ve been able to talk to other people who’ve been doing that better. And now I’m able to come back to Durham and figure out how we can plug in a little bit more in these marginalized communities. Yeah.

Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great. So, a lot of the folks that I’ve talked to have really been kind of, they’ve been harping on the fact that what they have developed, the business or even the non-profit and some of the educational things. They are filling a need. They are filling a gap whether that’s…some folks say that there’s a lot of farmers around them and so they said there’s a really big opportunity for them. So, what kind of gaps does Tilthy Rich fill in Durham and you know, being able to help out these folks? Was there an existing network of community gardens that, you know, needed the compost, needed to revitalize the soils? Or is that something that your establishment helps bring up? Like what is that cause or relationship?
Kat Nigro: That’s great. Thanks, Nick. So for us, what we’re doing is we’re really connecting the dots. So people want to compost, they just don’t know how or they don’t have the time or the space. And so what we did, we connect the people who want to compost with the people who do the composting. So, on one side of the business, we haul for a large commercial composter so we aggregate all the food scraps. So we kind of just serve as the hauling purpose of that side of our business.

The other side we drop off at community gardens and what we saw was…we have a lot of community gardens in Durham. A lot of them did not have any existing compost infrastructure in place. They knew they wanted to compost, but they would just buy the compost from a local shop. I mean, it wasn’t a local source of compost. They would just have to buy. It was expensive. They wanted to change that. They wanted to create it. They wanted to use it as an educational aspect of their community garden. So, what we found is that we had the food scraps, they need the compost and it just made sense for us to partner. And we’re so lucky because we’ve been able to help them build the compost bins. We help them maintain it. We help them distribute it. We’re a part of the entire process and it’s been really rewarding to see all these local gardens like popping up now and being like, “Hey, we want to compost now.” So it’s been really great, yeah. 

Nick Stumo-Langer: So the cause is both.
Kat Nigro: Yes.
Nick Stumo-Langer: I mean it’s both sides of it and that’s excellent. Kind of being able to support the infrastructure for greater composting, you know, revitalizing soils. That type of thing. What do you think has been your biggest challenge, and maybe this is actually something where you can talk a little bit about what you’ve heard from other people. So maybe if there’s a challenge and then maybe a potential solution that you’ve seen from the conference. ‘Cause I know this is such a great gathering of people from all over the country doing these things. But something that Institute for Local Self-reliance likes to say and I know a lot of these folks, you know, do in practice is that there’s not a one size fits all model. I don’t want to make Tilthy Rich, Washington D.C. I don’t want to do Tilthy Rich, Minneapolis ’cause everything can be tailored and one for a local community. So, have you found any challenges and maybe solutions here?
Kat Nigro: Yes. So, for us a big challenge is our scope of reach. Being on a bicycle, obviously there’s some places we just can’t get to safely or the density isn’t there. So, here we’ve been able to talk a lot about that because I think that’s a priority of all of ours is to grow this movement and expand our service areas. And so, I’ve been talking with a lot of other businesses and people here and it’s been great. There’s been a lot of really great proposed solutions like pricing it a little bit more if it’s out of your service area. So, you can still get there, but you’re making it worth your while. Things like collaborating with other local businesses.

So, for us and the triangle, we’re really lucky. So we have us. We’re bicycle powered and we mainly do downtown. Compost Now, who uses sprinter vans, so they’re able to get in the outskirts and go to the suburbs. And then we have Food Ford who uses big trucks and they do mostly all the commercial. So, we’re able to tackle it in three different ways and I think that collaboration is so important. And I think what we heard yesterday was the city of Austin teaming up with Compost Peddlers to do municipal composting. And I think that’s what we really need and that’s what we’re going to see if we’re going to see this movement continue to succeed and grow. That’s what we’re going to find to be the driving factor. Yeah. 

Nick Stumo-Langer: In that vein, have you had any relationships with the city of Durham or maybe even…I know there’s a lot of economic development organizations in the triangle. Have you had those conversations with those folks and have they been fruitful? There’s always a challenge working with some of those groups too, so how’s that going?
Kat Nigro: Great. So for us, we have a really close relationship with the city of Durham. They’ve been so supportive of us and in return we’ve really driven the need and the market for composting and so a couple of council members reached out to us and said, “Hey, we’re thinking of bringing up like a pilot program from municipal composting in the next seven years. We would love to team up and figure out how we can do this, how we can partner up in a way and learn.” And so I think it’s been really great. It’s a very professional relationship, but also we respect what they can do and they respect our limits as well. So it’s very mutually respectful and I think, I don’t know. Some people, municipal composting could be scary for business like us ’cause it could put us out or it could push us out. But for me I think that’s our main goal is to make sure everybody can compost. Everybody should be able to compost and so I think being able to team up and figure out a way for us to both get to that end goal I think it’s really important.
Nick Stumo-Langer: And to prove that this works. I think that’s something that Tilthy Rich, a lot of the people that we’ve seen at the conference have been able to prove and you’re able to make that case and you’re able to collect the data points and do that. Because the people who want to implement a program are like, “Show me the data. Show me the numbers.” So, that’s a great message to say that a lot of people could be threatened by that, but it’s something that’s really, really exciting. So, here a lot of ideas floating around about, you know, investment and especially different forms of community composting, whether that’s very strictly volunteer based or it’s a hauler based. So, and then there’s some people that do the processing as well as the collecting. Is there any model that you are really excited about with Tilthy Rich or are you just like, “We’re great. We love our model. This is awesome. We have very few things we want to tweak about it.” Is there anything that really, really excited you about stuff you saw?
Kat Nigro: Yeah. Definitely. So for us, I would say number 1 is exploring more electrical assistance in terms of our bikes. I think that electric assist bikes would be amazing to have. It would allow us to expand our scope of reach and…
Nick Stumo-Langer: Get up those Durham hills, right?
Kat Nigro: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And our riders would love us. So, I’m really excited about that and that potential. And also, I’m really excited to explore more of the processing part of composting. So, right now, about a little less than half of ours go to community gardens and we’re not allowed to give…everything you compost on site at community gardens in North Carolina, has to stay on that garden, on that plot of land unless you’re permitted. And right now it’s extremely hard to be permitted in urban areas because of the restrictions. And so we’re working closely with North Carolina’s organic recycling sector and we’re trying to figure out a way to kind of loosen up those permits and make one exclusively for urban compost sites. And so that’s been really exciting seeing people like Rust-built Riders be able to process on community gardens. They have a lot looser of restrictions and it’s been really inspiring to me. It used to kind of hold me back like, “Ah, we have all these rules. We can’t do this.” But now I’m starting to push it and be like, “Alright. Now what we have to do is change these laws.” And I think that’s really exciting. I know it’s going to be very hard and slow process, but I’m really excited for what that’s going to do for North Carolina and like open up the potential. So, yeah I’m really excited about that.
Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great, yeah. There’s a lot of interesting policies are kind of floating around and it’s difficult because so much of the regulations, you know, lies in zoning which is like cities and counties. And then also, there’s things for farmers which are usually state. So, there’s a lot of different barriers, but there’s a lot of enthusiasm which is something that I think is great for a conference like this to see there’s people excited about this. Like there are people saying, “We love the dirt part. We love the compost part. We love getting our hands dirty, but we also love the policy part.” And so, that’s really been inspiring for me to see and I’m sure for you as well. Do you have anything else you want to tell us about Tilthy Rich, about compost, about your wonderful experience her in L.A. Whatever works.
Kat Nigro: Yeah, I think that…I love coming here. This is my second time and I can’t wait for Atlanta next year. And for me what really helps is, when we go back into our communities, we’re usually a lot of the time by ourself in the company or we only have everybody within your business to talk to and you don’t have anybody outside who can kind of give you a perspective of their own perspective and also an outsider looking in and being like, “Here’s what you need to do. ” And so coming here, I’m allowed to really like unpack all of our problems, basically and be able to get really solid answers and solutions that I’m excited to bring back to Durham. So for me it’s just building this community. People who know me ’cause they met me last year, people who know Tilthy Rich and they follow us throughout the year be able to give us some solid advice. And I love being able to write other people advice as well. Like we have some smaller, new startups just this last year like Apple Rabbit I think you just interviewed. So, it’s like been really cool to see that, see them come from the very beginning and be able to learn from other people and I’m excited to see where they’re going to be at next year.

So for me, it’s about the community and I don’t think we could get that anywhere else other than the conferences like this, so I just think it’s extremely valuable and I’m really excited to take it back to Durham. Yeah.

Nick Stumo-Langer: That’s great. We’re happy to work with you guys and do that type of thing. So, the last thing that I’ve been doing for everyone is asking for a reading recommendation or a listening recommendation. Just something where, you know, you can go directly from your perspective in this podcast to a good book or a good podcast or a good, you know, whatever. So, any recommendation you have for our listeners?
Kat Nigro: Ohh. Like about composts specifically?
Nick Stumo-Langer: Doesn’t have to be about compost. Can be about new economy type things. Can be about fiction. You know, whatever you want.
Kat Nigro: Okay.
Nick Stumo-Langer: It’s open ended. I know it’s pretty hard.
 Kat Nigro: Yeah, that’s a hard question. One of my favorite books I’ve read recently is a book called Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and I really, really like that book because she just…her main thing is being inclusive on not only as a feminist, but all in your daily life. And I think that, something that I was really interested in in this conference was our panel over social justice and making sure we include people, everybody into the composting process. So, that book really just highlights how to kind of do that and I don’t know if it’ll be everybody’s cup of tea, but I really do recommend it. She’s a great writer and I love all of her books. So, not compost related, but social justice related.
Nick Stumo-Langer: And life related.
Kat Nigro: And life related.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Yeah, to go back and forth and just be inclusive in your day to day interactions with people is something that I don’t think is talked about enough.
Kat Nigro: Yep. Yep. Exactly. I agree.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Alright, well thank you so much for being with us. Thank for taking the time to do this. It was great talking to you.
Kat Nigro: Thank you, Nick. I appreciate it.
Nick Stumo-Langer: Alright. Thank you so much for listening to this special episode of the Composting for Community podcast from the Institute for Self-reliance. Thank you to Grapes for his track, “I Dunno” licensed on creative comments. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family including, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and Community Broadband Bits and 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: Tilthy Rich Compost

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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.