News from Friedman: Composting Comes to Campus

by Erin Child

On April 9th, four new compost bins appeared next to the usual trash and recycling options in the Jaharis, Sackler, and the M&V buildings. These small green bins are a pilot composting initiative run by Michelle Lee-Bravatti, student life representative of the Friedman Student Council, and her team of compost volunteers. Getting these bins to campus took time, effort, and coordination between multiple players. The Sprout sat down with Michelle to learn about her hard work to bring composting to campus, and what she wants to students to know about this new option for food waste.

The entire time I’ve been at the Friedman School, students have grumbled about our lack of composting services on campus. The Tufts Medford campus, the Veterinary School in Grafton, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts have composting, so why can’t we? It never seemed clear as to why we couldn’t, or didn’t, have composting. My only experience with trying to get composting to come to campus was for the 2017 Student Research Conference. We were told that we would have to transport any compost back to Medford ourselves. As the person on the committee with the car, I perhaps-not-so-politely declined the offer. After this experience, I was delighted to find that composting had indeed come to campus the exact weekend of the 2018 Student Research Conference.

At the end of the conference, I noticed Michelle Lee-Bravatti determinedly pulling compostable items out of the trash and into big compost bags. It was clear that students were going to need some time to get used to the new compost and learn what they could and couldn’t put in the bin. Though I was too busy to reach out to Michelle at the time, a week later I sat down with her to learn about the new composting initiative.

Compost At Friedman Student Research Conference

Michelle Lee-Bravatti and some of the Compost generated by the 2018 SRC

Michelle Lee-Bravatti is a second-year Nutrition Epidemiology and MPH student. In January, she ran for Student Council on the exclusive platform of bringing composting to the Health Sciences campus. Though Michelle has since to stepped down as Student Life Representative (for personal reasons), she and the Friedman “Composting Committee”—Silvia Berciano, Becky Cohen, Jessie Kim, Danielle Krobath, Leah Powley, Jifan Wang, and Sara Waszyn—have succeeded in bringing composting to campus. In our interview, Michelle emphasized that bringing composting to campus would not have been possible with the support of Shoshana Blank at the Tufts Office of Sustainability, Cory Pouliot at the Tufts Boston Campus Facility Services, funding from Student Council, and the current student volunteers—Priyanka Basnet, Carl Bender, Becky Cohen, Brooke Colaiezzi, Jessie Kim, Jifan Wang, and Alison Watson.

The goal of this pilot composting period is to raise awareness with students, see how much compost students generate, and determine what can be improved for this fall. Currently, compost bins have been placed in three high-traffic kitchen areas: The first-floor Jaharis Café (one bin), the fourth floor Sackler Café (two bins), and the student lounge in the M&V building (one bin). [For those not familiar, the M&V building is to the left of Jaharis, otherwise known as the Biomedical Research & Public Health Building.]   Ideally, the number of compost bins will increase over time; however, the composting service relies on student volunteers who monitor and remove the bags from the bins so the number of bins cannot be more than students can supervise.

Overall, the approval process to get composting service to come to campus was supported by all parties. The two main hurdles that had to be addressed were smelliness and sustainability. Facilities staff was concerned that the compost bins would smell (and the outdoor toter would attract rodents), therefore the compost cannot contain meat or dairy products (egg shells are okay). The other issue was ensuring that the project would have continued support. Staff in charge of trash and recycling do not have composting as part of their contractual responsibilities, so it is up to student volunteers to monitor the compost bins to make sure they don’t overfill or smell. Students monitor the bins twice daily and take the bin bags out if necessary. The bin needs to be emptied every two to three days—full or not. Students deposit the bags into a large outdoor compost toter in the Jaharis driveway. This is picked up every Friday but the same company that services Medford’s composting program.

To bolster this new composting initiative, Michelle has applied for Tufts Green Funds. If the funds are awarded, the money would be used to compensate student volunteers for their time monitoring and emptying the compost and expand the locations of the compost bins. Hopefully, this expansion will also include the Food 4 Thought Café in Sackler.

From my interview with Michelle, it seems like the composting pilot is going reasonably well. The biggest hiccups so far seem to be that signs directing students to the compost bins have been repeatedly taken down and not many students from the other health sciences schools know about the initiative. Additionally, there is some confusion around where napkins and other soiled paper goods go, as both the trash and compost signs include these items. Michelle wants to be clear, “all napkins, soiled paper goods, cardboard, etc. can go in the compost.”

Composting Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition

Have you seen these around campus?

For the record:

What Can Go in the Compost:

  • Paper towels, paper plates, soiled cardboard, napkins
  • Coffee filters, coffee grounds, tea bags
  • Plant-based waste, egg shells
  • Biodegradable plastics (these must have the #7 PLA symbol—see the sign on the compost bin)

What Can Not Go in the Compost:

  • Dairy and Meat Products
  • Stickers found on fruit or produce
Composting Bins Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition

What can and cannot go in the compost bins

 

The success of this pilot period depends on how much students compost and the dedication of student volunteers. If you’re interested in volunteering, please contact Michelle Lee-Bravatti at michelle.lee_bravatti@tufts.edu. In the meantime, please compost!

 

Erin Child is a second-year NICBC student in the dual MS-DPD program (she’ll be graduating in December). Growing up in Maine, her family always had a giant compost pile and turning it was her least favorite chore. Despite her gardening family, Erin has the opposite of a “green thumb” and has managed to kill both aloe and spider plants. She plans to stay far away from her roommates’ garden beds this summer, but still appreciate any bounty that comes into the house.

 

Farmer Profile: Visions for a New Sustainable Vegetable Farm in Putnam, CT

by Nako Kobayashi

Farmer Yoko Takemura hopes to incorporate aspects of her Japanese heritage as well as her academic background in environmental sustainability into her new farm business.

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko on a large bag of potting soil. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

While farmers represent an increasingly aging demographic group, a growing number of young farmers in New England and across the country are working to change the food system. Many of these new farmers, like Yoko Takemura of Assawaga Farm in Putnam, Connecticut, do not have farming backgrounds but instead have experiences that bring different perspectives and ideas into their farming practices. Yoko, who I was introduced to through my former boss at Cloverleigh Farm, is drawing inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural practices in her effort to make her new farm a truly sustainable operation.

Growing up around the world due to her father’s occupation, Yoko always had a passion for the environment. She never thought, however, that she would end up becoming a farmer. After graduating from a university in Tokyo, she briefly worked in investment banking so that she could save money for graduate school. She eventually quit her job and moved to New York City to study environmental sustainability in graduate school. Living in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, she became a member of a community garden and started developing a passion for growing vegetables and the way growing food can bring people together. It wasn’t until she joined her first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group while working for a consulting firm in NYC, however, that she really started to think about starting her own farm. Yoko’s “a-ha!” moment came to her when she visited Windflower Farm in upstate New York for the annual CSA member’s potluck. “On the ride back to NYC,” she reminisces, “I couldn’t stop visualizing myself as a farmer!” She then applied for apprenticeships on vegetable farms outside of NYC and eventually found Riverbank Farm in Western Connecticut, where she worked for 3 years.

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and her husband, Alex, in front of a farm building they constructed. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

To start their own farm business, Yoko and her husband Alex bought 22 acres of land in Putnam, Connecticut in 2016. Because the land had been previously used to farm hay for decades, Yoko and Alex had to build all of their own farm infrastructure from scratch. However, this actually works to their advantage as they now have the freedom to design their infrastructure with their specific sustainability goals in mind. For example, they were able to build their greenhouse in a way that accommodates SolaWrap, a durable greenhouse cover that lasts much longer than many other plastic films used in greenhouses.

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm's new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

SolaWrap being installed on Assawaga Farm’s new greenhouse. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex take a lot of inspiration from traditional Japanese agricultural methods in order to achieve their sustainability goals. The couple spent some time travelling around Japan and visiting many farms and learning about the various ways in which some Japanese farmers have cultivated a harmonious relationship with the natural environment. While organic agriculture can often be heavily dependent on inputs from fossil fuels, Yoko hopes to take her greenhouse off the grid by incorporating the Japanese practice of fumikomi-onsho, which involves mixing a large amount of leaves with some rice bran and chicken manure, applying water to it, and stomping on the mixture in order to generate heat. This variation of composting creates a fairly steady level of heat for weeks. This allows farmers to start their seedlings as well as have heat in the greenhouse without the use of electricity.

Building a relationship with the forest is another aspect of traditional Japanese agriculture that Yoko became enamored with when visiting farms in Japan. “The forest gave the farmers mulch, wood, bamboo, inoculant, etc. and the farmers gave back by maintaining and taking care of the forest through selective cutting, cleaning up, etc.” In comparison, Yoko explains that “the health of our forests around here” is “terrifyingly bad”. Yoko hopes to actively help better the condition of the forests that encompass her land in the coming years “because the forest is as much part of our farm as is our field.” One way Yoko and Alex want to give back to the forest is by applying “humanure” from composting toilets to the neighboring forests, after a two year composting period. For various health-related reasons, the “humanure” will not be used for their actual farming operation, but it is one way Yoko and Alex can create a more harmonious relationship with the forests that surround their land.

Yoko and Alex's DIY composting toilet. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Yoko and Alex’s DIY composting toilet that will help them give back to their forests. (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

For Yoko, the terms organic and sustainable are not one and the same. While Assawaga Farm has applied for organic certification, there are some additional practices that Yoko and her husband want to incorporate in order to reduce as much waste associated with and inputs required for their farm as possible. In addition to some of the Japanese practices they want to try out on their farm, there are many other sustainable practices not included in the certification that Yoko and Alex hope to take on. For example, they hope to use minimal amounts of plastic by not using any one-time drip tapes or plastic mulch, often used by organic farmers to help suppress weeds. They also plan to eventually create all of their own fertilizer, compost, and potting mix using the Japanese bokashi method of inoculating fertilizer with local culture taken from the nearby forests.

Believing that “organic originates in soil”, Yoko wants to take special care of the soil on their farm by using minimal tilling and eventually transitioning into no-till agriculture. This will help them “keep the delicate web of microorganisms and mycorrhizal fungi intact,” in addition to preserving the soil structure, maintaining carbon in the soil and keeping a steady release of nutrients in the soil “rather than short bursts of it.” They plan to have at least one field in their farm dedicated to cover crops year-round which will help prevent the depletion of nutrients and accumulate biomass. The couple also hope to save their own seeds and breed seeds that are adapted to their local environment.

In addition to using Japanese farming practices, Yoko also plans to grow many Japanese varieties of vegetables on her farm. When asked why she wanted to grow Japanese varieties, she responded simply that she just wanted to grow vegetables that she craved from home and that she wanted to eat herself! In addition, growing Japanese varieties helps Yoko target a niche market within the oversaturated market for organic produce in the Boston area. She is particularly excited about growing edamame, as “it’s just not summer without edamames!”

Alex seeing Assawaga Farm's first crop - garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

Alex seeding Assawaga Farm’s first crop – garlic! (Photo: Instagram @assawagafarm)

In the next few months, Yoko and Alex will be busy getting ready for their first growing season and transitioning into the full-time farming lifestyle. They start seeding in three weeks! Look for Yoko and Alex in farmers markets in the Boston area this coming season (locations yet to be decided). They also have some CSA shares available through their website.

Update, March 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article failed to clarify that the composted humanure would be used on Assawaga’s surrounding forest land only, and not on the farm itself. This has been updated for clarity, and we apologize if our omission was misleading to our readers.
-Editors

Nako Kobayashi is a first year AFE student from Japan who has experience working on a small organic farm, a biodynamic vineyard, for the agricultural sector of a Japanese municipal government, and on a food hub development project. Having a B.A. in anthropology, she loves talking directly with farmers from various backgrounds and hearing about their unique perspectives of the food system.