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Perennial City Turns Food Scraps Into Compost

Beth Grollmes-Kiefer with one of Perennial City Composting's four-gallon buckets used by customers to store food waste. |photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)

August 08, 2018
The locavore movement — a term coined in 2005 referring to a push to consume only locally-grown food — has had a sweeping effect on the nation.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of small farms across America has grown 20 percent in the last six years alone. And St. Louis isn't impervious to its effects, with many "green dining" restaurants and businesses spawned in response to the locavore movement.

One business set on changing the way St. Louisans interact with food is Perennial City Composting, founded by locals Beth Grollmes-Kiefer and Tim Kiefer. For the past several months, the husband and wife duo has been collecting food waste from St. Louis homes and treating it in preparation for use on their "urban farm."

"Since we first met, we talked about urban agriculture and our passion for food and the city," said Tim Kiefer. "Beth read an article in Mother Earth News that highlighted a company in Phoenix. They were doing composting for residential areas.

"That was a puzzle piece that just fit so nicely," he continued. "We were like, 'this is it.' Beth quit her 'real job' ... and we threw ourselves into doing residential compost pickup, pretty much full time."

Perennial City, founded in the name of transforming vacant land into productive, food-bearing farms, began advertising its services in January of this year. Since then, its client base has grown to over 100. For a price ranging from $20 to $30 monthly, each customer is provided a four-gallon bucket to collect their food waste. Twice a week, Grollmes-Kiefer drives around St. Louis, picking up full buckets and replacing them with clean ones. The food waste is then taken back to Perennial City's 2.5-acre lot in the West End and Visitation Park neighborhoods north of Delmar, where it is treated using a special technique.

"Thermal composting, or hot composting, is different from backyard composting where you're constantly adding layers," said Grollmes-Kiefer. "We do a fixed ratio (of food scraps, wood chips and other materials) and put it all together at once. It gets hot and kills any potential pathogens and weed seeds."

Grollmes-Kiefer, who received her master's in nutrition and dietetics from Saint Louis University, is a student of soil expert Elaine Ingham, Ph.D. Ingham's website, soilfoodweb.com, includes a 10-step guide to thermal composting, which involves maintaining a perfect recipe of green, woody, fungal and nitrogen-based materials.

As microbes break down the organic matter, they produce heat. If routinely aerated and maintained at proper temperatures, the process creates viable compost at an accelerated rate compared to normal composting. Perennial City modifies this method with the introduction of chickens at the beginning, who pick through the scraps and add their "goodness" to the pile.

Perennial City Composting, founded by Beth Grollmes-Kiefer and Tim Kiefer, turn household food wastes into rich compost. |photo by Ursula Ruhl (click for larger version)

"It's amazing," said Kiefer. "It breaks down and decreases so fast from the biology from the compost piles. We're (collecting) over 1,500 pounds a week. Right now we have two small cubic yard piles, after doing this for over two months."

One of Perennial City's clients is Carol McCorkle of St. Louis' Parkview neighborhood. McCorkle discovered the service while searching for urban composting projects in St. Louis.

"I tried doing composting on my own and I was terrible at it. I could never get it right, but I really believe in composting and reducing waste that goes into a landfill. I was interested in finding a service that I could give my scraps to and have them make it into useful compost," said McCorkle.

McCorkle said her experience with Perennial City has been nothing but positive, from airtight buckets that don't stink up her kitchen to weekly text reminders to put out her bucket, to consistent, on-time retrieval.

"If I have a question (about what to compost) they're always really responsive. It's been so easy to work with them," she said. "They're really good at educating their customers so they're getting the most from you and you're getting the most from them."

Another customer, Kathy Rogers of the Central West End, expressed amazement at how many materials Perennial City can use.

"They take an incredibly broad number of things that I never thought I could compost," said Rogers. "The traditional food scraps you know, but they will take paper products, nut shells, avocado pits, coffee grounds. I've found very few things that cannot go into their compost bin."

As of now, Grollmes-Kiefer and her husband are working hard to turn their first batch of food waste into usable compost, which will finish in early fall. Once complete, Grollmes-Kiefer plans to give back some of the soil to her earliest clients. She's also preparing land to begin dense, high-rotation, no-till vegetable and flower gardens, the fruits of which will be available for delivery during compost collection runs.

"It's primarily going to be available to our subscribers. When we're going to pick up their buckets they can add on carrots, arugula, flowers, et cetera," said Grollmes-Kiefer.

Kiefer is also working on projects of his own. In addition to continued operation of his bike-based delivery service Food Pedaler, his plans include a self-sustaining "edible forest garden" and a truck optimized to clean and sanitize compost buckets on the go. But the current goal of Perennial City is to expand its client base to around 300, which Kiefer said is the optimized amount of food waste for their operation.

Though Kiefer admitted that agriculture is difficult work, he and his wife are in it for the long run.

"We love it, but it's definitely not easy," he said. "You can't rush nature."

For more details about Perennial City, or to sign up for its services, visit compost.perennial.city or email howdy@perennial.city.

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