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New venture aims to turn food scraps into black gold

New venture aims to turn food scraps into black gold

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Davey Stewards, founder of the Harvest Collective, talks about the regenerative agriculture business cooperative he has started.

Davey Stewards hauls boxes of food waste from the Roanoke Co-op — produce that didn’t sell, or scraps from the kitchen — from the bed of his pickup truck, heaving them onto a mound of dirt.

Some might see it simply as garbage, but not Stewards. He’s composting, turning the waste into living soil. And he wants to help others do it, too.

Stewards, 35, is the founder of the Harvest Collective, a regenerative agriculture business collective. He has launched a variety of projects — a permaculture-based farm known as Outback Orchards worked by volunteers in exchange for produce, custom-built chicken coops — but the one that could have the broadest reach is an effort to launch a compost facility and collection service.

When he started composting at Heritage Point Farm — owned by the Roanoke Co-op and leased by LEAP, or the Local Environmental Agriculture Project — in 2018, using the grocery store’s food scraps and wood chips from a local tree service, Stewards didn’t have plans to launch a business.

But contacts at the Clean Valley Council and LEAP, where Stewards previously worked, urged him to pursue it. Stewards entered into The Gauntlet business competition in 2019 and won a few thousand dollars to help support the venture.

Stewards is slowly moving through the process, raising money for the project and working toward obtaining the necessary approvals from the city and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. He also has partnered with a consultant with more than 40 years of experience in the compost business.

While some localities mandate composting and incorporate it into their waste removal programs, what Stewards is offering would be purely voluntary.

“This is simply if a homeowner really wants to do the right thing with their food scraps and make sure it gets composted in a good fashion, that’s what this is about,” he said.

Stewards said he’d love to see everyone in Roanoke composting eventually, but he thinks it makes sense to first show that there’s demand for this service. He plans to start with a footprint of less than an acre and expects to be able to serve about 800 customers.

Here’s how Stewards envisions the business working: Customers will get a 5-gallon bucket that they can keep in their home, filling it with food scraps — everything from produce to meat, as the pile will be large and hot enough to break down all of it. Once a week, the business will come to empty the buckets and bring the scraps to Heritage Point Farm.

Stewards said he hopes to service the city, along with Vinton, Cave Spring and Salem.

Customers could simply pay for the compost service, which Stewards said would probably run about $20 a month, or they could opt for a package in which they also receive some of the soil for their own gardens.

He also wants to take on commercial customers and said he’d like to land Roanoke City Public Schools as a customer, given his passion for environmental education.

Preparing for launchCraig Coker has been working in the compost industry since the 1970s. He moved to the Roanoke area to design and build a private composting facility at Royal Oak Farm in Bedford County. He has built and operated a number of facilities and is now a self-employed environmental consultant helping others work through the process.

Stewards said officials at DEQ suggested he get in touch with Coker to get his project off the ground. Coker said they plan to start small, processing about 1,800 tons of organic waste a year. By comparison, he said Royal Oak does 60,000 tons a year.

Since composting is not required locally, Coker said people must be convinced to recycle their food waste through a service like this one, and at their own expense. He said their target audience is people and businesses who are environmentally conscious.

Coker said he hopes this facility can collect food scraps from larger generators like Carilion Clinic, Earth Fare, Fresh Market, the public schools or restaurants — the “kinds of places that want to do the right thing environmentally and recycle food waste.”

“It’s really rather amazing how much food we throw away,” he said.

Stewards and Coker are working with the city to obtain the necessary approvals for a composting facility.

Jillian Moore, planning manager with the city, said that Roanoke adopted an amendment to the zoning ordinance last year which allows for consideration of a composting facility at the site.

Stewards said a stormwater management plan for the property had recently been completed and Coker was working on the site map, which they hope to submit to the city soon.

DEQ regulates solid waste programs, including compost facilities. A spokeswoman said there are only 15 permitted compost facilities in the state, two of which are in the Blue Ridge region. One is the Royal Oak facility Coker worked on and the other is in Danville but works only with vegetative waste. The Harvest Collective’s compost facility would be Roanoke’s first.

An easy allianceBruce Phlegar, general manager of the Roanoke Co-op, said the cooperatively owned natural foods grocery store bought the 17.5-acre property where Stewards is composting with the intention of farming it but, after a few seasons, determined the earth there wasn’t suited to the production required to make the effort a success. Now it leases the land to LEAP and the two have welcomed the Harvest Collective onto Heritage Point Farm.

The alliance among the three groups is an easy one given their shared values. Phlegar said while they might operate in different spheres, “everybody’s pushing in the same direction” with the ultimate goal of making the place they live a little better.

Phlegar thinks the timing is right for a composting project.

“There’s more awareness around how we have created the world in which we live; the environmental impact of humans on the planet is on full display,” he said.

Shoppers at the co-op, who Phlegar acknowledged are probably more concerned about such issues than the average consumer, would likely be some of the target customers for a composting service. Phlegar said he expected it would be well-received by the co-op’s clientele.

Stewards’ pilot program has alleviated some challenges for the co-op. Phlegar said it previously gave away its kitchen scraps and passed-over produce — sometimes fruits and veggies would be salvageable, but he expects most people took it home for personal, backyard compost. But there wasn’t a formal system in place and making sure it was all picked up before turning into a rotten, stinky mess was difficult at times.

Maureen McNamara Best, executive director of LEAP, said more honest conversations are needed around food systems, which are often invisible to consumers. They need to understand what goes into growing, packaging, transporting and distributing food. Waste, which Stewards is working to address, is also a part of that cycle.

While Best said she believes many people who garden already compost at home, plenty of people live in apartments and lack the space to compost, or have the space but not the know-how or confidence to do it.

Best said a certain amount of knowledge and management is required to prevent compost from simply becoming a trash bin.

Stewards’ service could eliminate barriers to composting for those people.

“It can feel kind of overwhelming as an individual,” Best said. “To me what I really appreciate about Davey and the Harvest Collective, even though they’re thinking about it on a larger scale, it still comes back to individuals.”

Best said partnership among the different organizations supporting urban agriculture in the city, which she said is important from both an education and food access perspective, is essential. Bringing the Harvest Collective onto the farm where LEAP aggregates and packs food for its farm share and mobile market programs was natural.

Composting at the site of LEAP’s food hub feels full circle to Stewards. He hopes shoppers who purchase food from LEAP will provide their food scraps to his compost business, which can in turn provide soil to farmers.

Making it easy to do the sustainable thing is a key part of Stewards’ mission. He recognizes that many people feel overwhelmed by the idea of composting, and he believes that participating in his service would be manageable for people juggling careers and families.

“How do we create those sustainable businesses here in the city and have easy inroads for people who live in the city and have real jobs to be able to participate in restoring our ecology?” Stewards said. “I’m just very passionate about seeing this regenerative agriculture movement come to life here in Roanoke.”

While it would be great if his business is successful, Stewards said, his ultimate goal is to encourage people to live more sustainably and take an interest in their local ecosystems.

“I believe that one of the most integral components to the future of sustainability and creating a post-carbon economy is really people opening their eyes to ecosystems around them and the ecosystem services that can be provided if we join our businesses with the land and really unite economy with our ecology,” he said.

Stewards feels his composting business would do just that. It would turn customers’ waste into soil they and others could then use “to grow their own gardens or plant their own fruit trees or build up native habitat for the birds and the bees and the bugs to really thrive alongside our human populations in the city.”

"This is simply if a homeowner really wants to do the right thing with their food scraps and make sure it gets composted in a good fashion, that’s what this is about."

Davey Stewards, founder

Harvest Collective

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or casey.fabris@roanoke.com.

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