Composting Helps Nourish Communities in the U.S. and Beyond (feat. ECO City Farms)

Date: 3 Feb 2020 | posted in: Composting | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
Benny Erez

Welcome back to the Composting for Community podcast! On this episode, I’m joined by Benny Erez of ECO City Farms, who I consider to be a composting mentor. Benny talks about the role ECO City Farms plays in providing affordable fresh produce in two food insecure neighborhoods near Washington, D.C. We discuss his compost training work locally in the D.C. Metro Area and abroad in Zambia, Ghana, and Palestine.

We also discuss:

  • ECO City Farms’ composting process
  • The benefits of combining hot composting and vermicomposting
  • Co-developing the Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training
  • The importance of always being open to learning

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

I was over there engaging with the local women, mostly, that wanted to learn how to do compost. It was an incredible experience. They were terrific students and [it] really was an experience that I will not forget. Being able to improve people’s lives is so precious and so unique.

Linda Bilsens Brolis Across the country, the community composting movement is growing. Small-Scale composting provides communities immediate opportunities for reducing waste, improving local soil, creating jobs, and fighting climate change. You’re listening to the Composting for Community podcast, where we’ll bring you stories from the people doing this work on the ground and in the soil. I’m Linda Bilsens Brolis of ILSR’s composting initiative, and I’ll be your host today. We’re joined by someone very dear to me, someone I consider to be my first composting mentor, Benny Erez of ECO City Farms in Edmondston and Bladensburg, Maryland. Say hello Benny.
Benny Erez Hello everybody! This is Benny.
Linda Bilsens Brolis So I first met Benny when I first started at the Institute back in 2014, we were preparing to launch our Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders composter training program, which was developed in partnership with ECO City Farms and is based a lot on Benny’s immense knowledge of composting. So I’m thrilled that you all get to meet him today too. So Benny, for folks that may not have had the pleasure of meeting you yet, tell us about yourself. Tell us about ECO City Farms and how composting fits into your work.
Benny Erez Okay. First of all, as you will learn, I have a little accent. I was born in Israel. I was born on the kibbutz, which is a collective farm. And that was my first connection to composting, one of the pioneers when I was about 10, talked to me about compost. And that created a big impression on me. And years went by and I worked for the University of Maryland as a researcher and I had an opportunity to start a composting operation. And that’s where I got a lot of, of my experience doing research on composting. Later on I retired and joined ECO City Farms, which is an urban farm out in the suburbs of Maryland. We have two small acre farms. One is about one and a half. The other one is about three acres. We don’t use all of it for growing, but the most important part is to try to change the soil. And we had no choice but to organize a composting operation there to improve the soil. So that’s where I’m here right now working. Most of the time we’re dealing with making compost solely for the improvement of the soil on our two farms. We’re producing vegetables for two markets. One is a CSA and the other one is we’re selling at a farmer’s market in Riverdale. As we speak today, we are creating boxes for the holiday folks and we will bring it over to the farmer’s market today and folks will have fresh vegetables that were grown on our farm and were picked actually today. So that’s the goal of ECO City Farms, is to produce fresh vegetables for local people, for people that usually cannot get fresh vegetables. As a matter of fact, one of our farms is on a food desert, a location where there is no outlet for actual fresh food and receiving fresh food. So this is one of the goals of our farm is to be able to produce and disperse good food for good people.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Mm-Hmm. I would say you guys are definitely achieving that goal. Benny could you tell folks a little bit more about the type of composting that you’re doing and maybe what materials you’re composting?
Benny Erez So our compost is mainly involved with vermicomposting right now. We used to do a lot more of regular hot compost, but at the moment I’m concentrating on vermicompost. We have a special hoop house, big, a 30 by 60 feet hoop house that we have about 15 boxes. One of them is actually a CFT, which is a large composting, vermicomposting with a way to feed at the top and harvest from the bottom. We receive all of our food waste from a local grocery store that I pick up. We used to be supplied by a company called Compost Cab, but right now we are picking it up ourselves. So we use food waste and we use local leaves that we get from the city and I get lots and lots of wood chips. And the combination of those together we are able to re-compost the material in an aerated system using a blower. Gets hot to about 150 degrees for about three weeks in order to to get the appropriate temperatures. And after that we feeding it to the worms in a small layer up at the top. Usually it’s about one inch, two inch, twice a week. Then it goes through the process of the worms up actually are eating it and producing cast. Then we sift it. Obviously you have an homemade made sifter that we made ourselves, it works very well. And then it goes, all of this material goes back to the soil and improve the soil structure, improve our production at the farm. And that’s kind of a cycle. We used to make lots of windrows for composting in the previous years, but right now we’re concentrating basically on vermicompost. I find the vermicompost operation much more useful in our situation. We can control vermins much easier. And the quality of the compost is so much greater that we don’t need to use as much to improve the soil. Kind of in a nutshell, what, what we do as far as composting.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Yeah, that’s great. That’s a great overview of the composting process. And I know that at Rhonda Sherman’s she’s with North Carolina State University, her vermicomposting conference. I think that that sort of pre-composting, so you hit thermophilic temperatures and then feeding to worms after that is she talks about being sort of a best management practice for, for vermicomposting. So you’re, you’re definitely demonstrating that. And for folks that don’t know as much about maybe our Neighborhood Soil Rebuilder program, its based on sort of the master composter model, which exists in a lot of places around the country, but Benny’s composting process when we were teaching it together, you were doing the windrow style composting and then a little bit of vermicomposting as well. But it takes people from the beginning of the process, I mean it’s from the science, the basics, all the way through to the finished compost and testing the compost. So you can know that it’s good to be used in your soil. And how much compost are you all producing? Do you know?
Benny Erez We probably produced, I would say at the moment, we pick up compost, compostables from a Yes once a once a day we pick up about I would say 25 to 30 pounds of compost from one store. And all together through the years, we’re probably making maybe 30 cubic yards or slightly less. That’s my basic estimate, and that’s including the, the windrow composting. Right now we’re probably going to continue because we are trying to prepare for the spring and this is a good time to start upping the, the amount of compost that we will need for the spring time. Eh, it’s not a lot, but I’m hoping to increase the number of bins that we have in our operation and increase not so much the windrow composting, which is a much more labor intensive because you have to turn it. And I like to increase the, the number of bins, especially the CFTs bins in order to increase production and possibly even being able to sell it because the value of vermicompost is much, much greater than the value of regular hot compost.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Mm-Hmm, and the benefits also.
Benny Erez And the benefits are obviously enormous. Yes. There is, there is a plan to try to increase production and mainly increase the vermicompost operation.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Well good luck. We will look forward to hearing more about that. We’ll check in with you again in the future. So Benny, I’ve had the pleasure of both being your student and then being a co-instructor with you and you have this like really special way of teaching people about composting. Like your enthusiasm around composting and just your skill with it is just, I think it really, it engages people, it gets people excited. So I wanted to ask, how long have you been teaching people about composting? And then I know you’ve taught composting in some really interesting places in different parts of the world. So if you could tell us maybe a little bit about that.
Benny Erez Yeah, I, okay. So I started teaching at the University of Maryland in the Better Compost school at the university. We had a large operation compost operation with a windrow turner. And it was unique because I was teaching something which is called CMC compost, which is originated in Europe, in Austria. I actually went and learn the technique over there and I brought it back to the university and the compost was mainly using cow manure that was on the site. And when I got to ECO City Farms, I started doing food waste. And food waste is a challenge by itself, but it is a possibility to do it all over the world. So one of the things that I had the privilege of doing is going to several countries in Africa. After working with folks from Ghana and Zambia that came over to the farm to learn about what we do over here, and the State Department paid for me to go and continue the work in those two countries. The interesting part about it is that at both places I was working with local people that were interested in improving small holding operations. Mainly women that needed to improve their production around the house and improving nutrition for the families that are in desperate need. For instance, I can give you in Zambia, when I was there, they were telling us that there is a malnutrition of about 43% of young people, mainly from the age of one to five. They simply don’t have the right kind of nutrition. So by improving the ability of a family to produce fresh food around the house, they can actually improve the nutrition. And that was the goal. There was a guy that was over here by the name of Xavier that we work together, and for about two and a half weeks I was over there engaging with the local women, mostly, that wanted to learn how to do compost. It was an incredible experience. They were terrific students and there really, really was an experience that I will not forget. Being able to improve people’s life is so precious and and so unique that it’s really, really set an impression on me for life. So the same thing that happened in, in, in Ghana, I was working over there mostly in Northern Ghana where there is very hot situation as far as the weather. They’re suffering from climate change and they’re losing the ability to grow. So we introduced a compost as a way to absorb more water and, and retain the water in the soil for a longer amount of time. Most of the soils there are dry and clayish like and introducing compost there was also a revelation for people. They used to have systems like this, but over the years they sort of forgot and they sort of relied much more on commercial fertilizers and got into problems because of it, because of the fact that they haven’t introduced any organic matter into the soil. And right now there is a movement trying to re do this by teaching farmers to actually introduce compost into their systems. So that was another exciting trip that left me with a great impression. They’re all trying to improve their lives and they’re all trying to learn as much as they can from everybody that goes over there and, and is willing to spend some time with them. And it was just a wonderful, and I’ve learned a lot from them. I’ve learned tremendous amounts from them. They taught me a lot of stuff. So that was a tremendous experience from both places that I, and I would love to do it again. I would love to teach people what I know and that’s, that’s actually something that I always would like to do.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Well, you are very good at it and I couldn’t think of a better sort of ambassador for small scale composting for community composting than you. But it is pretty powerful being able to see how something as simple as composting, how it can really improve people’s lives. I think here in the US sometimes it’s a little harder to see those benefits just cause our infrastructure, our world is so much more complicated in certain ways, but I think it’s very powerful nonetheless that something as simple as composting can really improve people’s lives. So that’s a really beautiful, beautiful thing. And like you said —
Benny Erez I have to mention one more. You know, since I’m from, from Israel, I had also an opportunity to work with Palestinians in the West Bank. And that project I sort of did on my own. I was asked by an organization from Switzerland to go and work with a Palestinian in nonviolence organization in the West Bank. And also for about two, three weeks I worked with the organization trying to create vermicomposting operation and also regular composting, hot composting. I will continue this project in the near future. It is very important to this organization because there’s so much turmoil, and the ability of improving the soil over there and the soil is connecting to the soul to try to calm down the anxiety of people by being able to produce their own food and being able to be connected to the land in a good way. I see that also as a calling, I will be probably going back there and trying, I’ll try to continue that project as well.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Wonderful. That’s really inspiring stuff. Thank you for, for doing that work. And I think that’s a good example of how composting is a tool for self-reliance. But it’s also sort of a, a therapeutic exercise maybe under conditions where folks don’t have a lot of control over the conditions or like the world around them to be able to take care of your own soil and grow your own food means a lot. I’m sure. So Benny, kind of to close things out, I was wondering if you could share some advice for any new composters out there that might be listening to this podcast. Anything maybe you wish you knew in the beginning or just any sort of wisdom you’d like to impart?
Benny Erez Well, that’s a hard question to answer, but I think that what people have to say to themselves always, I don’t know enough always. I need to learn more. I need to go and dig more information. Learning is not a one time deal. You have to continuously dig for new stuff. There’s lots of lots of information on the internet. There’s lots and lots of all sorts of webinars and YouTubes that are helpful. My education is never ending. And I think that that’s important for everybody to understand that we don’t always know everything. And if you say to yourself, I’d like to learn more, you can always find some more stuff to dig in and to learn and to try new ideas and just keep your mind busy all the time. That’s what I do anyway. I always go and dig some more stuff. I am very much interested in the biology of the soil and it was for a long time a black box that people just knew a little bit about it. And slowly through biology it, it becomes more and more understood and it’s very difficult to keep up after it because it’s developing so quick. So it’s, it’s always something that you have to learn more and more.
Linda Bilsens Brolis So stay humble but also keep learning and stay open to learning more. I like that.
Benny Erez Yes, yes, that’s, that’s really important. Yep.
Linda Bilsens Brolis That’s good life advice. I feel like whenever we ask this question to folks, it’s like, it’s advice for composting and life. So that’s very appropriate. So Benny, thank you so much for joining us today and thank you all for listening.
Benny Erez You’re sure welcome. My pleasure.
Linda Bilsens Brolis Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the Composting for Community podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This episode is produced by myself and Hibba Meraay. We’ll be back again next month with a new episode. Our theme music is I Dunno by Grapes. Be sure to check out the rest of the ILSR podcast family, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and Community Broadband Bits, at



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

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Linda is the Senior Program Manager for ILSR’s Composting for Community Initiative and Neighborhood Soil Rebuilders Composter Training Program.