Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what happens to waste once it’s been thrown out or flushed away.
But Mark King and the other members of the Maine Compost Team are not like most people. King, an environmental specialist with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, has spent many years learning and teaching the finer points of composting food scraps, dead animals, human waste and other types of waste products. And he is very proud of the Maine Compost School, an award-winning, internationally-acclaimed program that is the longest-running such school in the country. Students from all over have come here for the last 20 years to learn cutting-edge compost technology.
“In 2014 there was an outbreak of avian influenza in the midwest that was getting worse and worse and worse. They didn’t have any experts to help with composting [the dead birds], and three of us from Maine were asked to help,” he said. “I think we’re leading the way. We have a huge abundance of composting expertise in the state of Maine.”
More than 1,000 students have graduated from the Maine Compost School, which is taught twice a year at Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, the University of Maine’s apple, small fruit and vegetable research facility. The farm has a state-of-the-art composting facility where students receive classroom instruction, laboratory experience and hands-on project exercises at the school that has received the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence and a special national award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, among other recognitions. Students spend a week digging into the art and science of composting, King said a few days after the fall class had finished, learning everything from how to correctly manage a small backyard bin to a large community compost facility.
“We teach the skill. We talk about the systems. We talk about how to build a pile and how to manage a pile,” King said. “It’s a program that fills up every class. It’s citizens, municipal officials, regulators. We accept anyone. Our philosophy is we’ll train anybody that wants to learn about compost.
While at the school, students spend busy days learning about the biology of compost, different compost systems, the importance of carbon and nitrogen and more. They take field trips to various Maine compost facilities, including a facility in Farmington that uses horse manure to compost all the food scraps collected from the University of Maine at Farmington. That facility is a collaboration between the town and the university. Other stops include a visit to businesses that turn cow and horse manure into compost and one that turns composted human waste into a product that can be used in agriculture. One featured speaker is compost guru Will Brinton of Woods End Laboratories in Mount Vernon. The world-renowned expert has consulted with Britain’s Prince Charles, a fan of organic gardening, and talks to the students about compost maturity and what makes compost suitable for a greenhouse.
“He’s a great treat for the students,” King said.
Students spend some time trouble shooting compost piles that had intentionally been made with bad recipes.
“One was too dry, one was too wet, one had too much nitrogen, one had too much carbon, and, following the Goldilocks story, one is perfectly balanced,” King said. “They have to figure that out based on the tools they’ve learned in class.”
In the end, students who pass a test go home with a coveted certificate of technical ability, which is accepted in all 50 states. But they hopefully also leave the Maine Compost School with enthusiasm for turning waste into compost, King said. That takes it out of the landfills and puts nutrients back into circulation, which is a win for everyone, he said.
“I love connecting with people and helping them develop operations that are there five, 10 years down the line,” he said. “And I love seeing these nutrients get recycled back into their communities.”
The October 2017 session of Maine Compost School has already passed (and was completely full). Check out composting.org to watch for future school dates and other learning opportunities.