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From Trash to Treasure: Tohono O'odham Nation Makes Compost From Food Waste

Tohono O'odham Nation turns trash to treasure by composting food waste, employs Arizona U students.
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The scene of the grime is the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Xavier Coop Farm in Southern Arizona, where crops have been grown almost since forever along the Santa Cruz River. Forty years ago, a group of O’odham landowners combined their allotments and began farming upwards of 900 of their acres growing wheat, corn, beans and squash. They decided that whatever was planted would be Certified Naturally Grown, producing healthy food without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or fertilizers—the only Native American farm in the state to do so.

“Our farm practices represent nature farming,” said Julie Ramon-Pierson of the San Xavier Cooperative Association Board.

It’s tough enough to grow crops in desert soil, even tougher without adding artificial nutrients. Organic compost is a key to agricultural success here. So when the University of Arizona Compost Cats began a food waste conversion program, O’odham farmers quickly joined by dedicating 10 acres on which incoming materials could be placed in windrows several hundred feet long—four-foot-high compost in the making. In return for the plot to convert the arrival of raw materials, the tribal farmers receive 20 percent of that yield to make their fields healthier.

“Everybody wins in this partnership,” said farm consultant Bob Sotomayor. “From the farm’s perspective, this has been a boon. We provide the site and furnish equipment for the students to turn the piles. The project keeps green materials out of landfills, and we can build up soil fertility to grow our crops.”

“We’ve wanted a composting operation on-site for a long time,” Propagation Manager Cie’na Schlaefli said, “because our soil is alkaline and lacks organic matter. We had land, equipment and water, but no manpower or infrastructure. It was the right idea in the right place at the right time.”

“From your plate today to your plate again in the future,” is how Fran LaSala explains it. As Environmental Services Waste Diversion Manager for the City of Tucson, he is a key part of the rapidly expanding effort he calls The 3-2-1 Project—three governments (city, state, tribal), two nations (U.S. and the O’odham Sovereign Nation) and one Earth.

The fledgling program, still less than a year old, is credited with giving new life to more than 3.3 million pounds of food waste, green waste and what’s euphemistically called Zoo Doo, courtesy of the ungulate population at the city zoo.

It began with a question by University of Arizona students: “Shouldn’t we be doing something better with food scraps than just throwing them into the landfill?”

“Forty percent of food meant for people never makes it to anyone’s plate before it heads for a landfill,” said Compost Cats Director Chet Phillips. “Add to that the food consumers leave on their plates. We wanted to come up with a better use for that waste than burying it. When the opportunity arose to turn waste into a usable soil amendment, we got to work.”

Beginning with just five students and a pickup truck in 2010, the effort has grown threefold, with students working part-time mulching, chipping and spreading windrows.

“This venture can sustain itself economically, a prototype others could emulate,” Phillips said.

Making sure that landfills don’t become landfulls is part of LaSala’s job.

“Recycling and household waste options have limitations,” he said. “The real tonnage comes from organics, and when the zoo said they wanted to compost large volumes of animal byproduct, we put together an agreement where we took over food waste pickups and let students focus on actually composting. Sometimes you get a chance to do the right thing—and this is one government-involved program that has only an upside.”

While many city zoos recycle, Tucson’s doesn’t have space or staff to turn raw offal into compost.

“We wanted green clippings and herbivore waste to do more than take up landfill space, so we added our six elephants and two rhinos in July 2014,” Zoo Education Curator Vivian VanPeenen said. “Now, instead of throwing away a resource, we’re putting it to good use.”

The Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and Borderlands Food Bank benefit by receiving 10 percent of production output for use at Food Bank gardens, or give to low-income backyard farmers who want to grow their own food. And as more schools begin to add a gardening experience to their curriculum, donated compost is also available for those projects.

“The program has doubled in its first year, so we’re already looking at areas for expansion,” said Schlaefli, noting that the project is currently using just three of the site’s 10 acres. Also indicative of initial success and a promising future: The university, the City of Tucson and the Tohono O’odham Nation are updating their pilot one-year intergovernmental agreement and will extend it for another three years.