Dirt is the Salt of the Earth

By Marykate Smith Despres | Photos by Nikki Gardner

Adam is a dirt farmer.

Photo by Nikki Gardner

Photo by Nikki Gardner

He speaks earnestly, and excitedly, and in threes. “Cardboard, food waste, and paper,” and “temperature, oxygen, and moisture,” and, of course, “blood, sweat, and tears.” These are the trinities that make Martin’s Farm compost, the ingredients that turn our cast-offs into fodder for flowers and food.

“It’s a wonderful morning!” Adam says as he greets me in the front lot of the farm. There is a baby on his right hip and two men standing on his left, eager to fill their truck with his loam compost mix. It is actually quite cold, even for March, but Adam is clearly and genuinely pleased with the day. He tells me he’ll just be a minute as he climbs up into the cab of a tall digger, one hand on the metal ladder rungs, the other under the baby’s bottom.

Photo by Nikki Gardner

Photo by Nikki Gardner

The men leave with dirt and handshakes and I join Adam and the baby in the digger. We drive out back, past small mountains of multicolored mulch, all naturally dyed, to the windrows of compost in the making, each one 500 feet long: 500 cubic yards of ground-up cardboard, paper, leaves, manure, and food waste. The baby sucks on her pacifier and plays with the gears and the steering wheel as we idle in front of the rows.

The giant rows look as if they are about to sprout sapling-sized seedlings, but the work happening in each is done on a level even smaller than a seed. Each row rests for five weeks and is turned every two weeks thereafter to mix and aerate the materials and feed the microorganisms inside that need oxygen to “survive, and thrive, and do their thing,” says Adam. He and the crew monitor temperature and moisture, covering the rows with enormous tarps when it’s too wet (just two tarps cover a row, “It’s a job for a gorilla,” Adam tells me), watering them when it’s too hot and dry, and checking temps with what looks like a meat thermometer for a roasted elephant. In order to be certified organic, Adam’s compost needs to reach at least 131°––hot enough to kill the bad organisms while keeping the good ones kicking––but he cooks it to 133° “to be safe.”

Adam often refers to the operation as “full circle.” After resting and turning, the windrows are screened for rocks and plastic, as well as wood chips that get put back into new rows “as a biofilter and another carbon source to be able to be recycled again. In the 13 weeks between grinding and screening, a 500-yard row condenses to 300 yards of “black gold” compost.

When Bob Martin, Adam’s father, bought the 90-acre Greenfield farm in 1981, he was growing produce, hay, and raising livestock. But, Adam says, it was hard. “Grain prices started to go up, and so he started to do a food collections program,” to cut costs. He fed the scraps to the pigs and built a grinder to turn cardboard and paper into bedding for the cows. Soon, Bob had a new idea.

“Through having the animals and having the manure, my dad approached the state, and in 1987, we were one of the first farms in Massachusetts permitted to do on-farm composting.” Bob wanted to sell farm in 2010, but Adam begged for a chance to try managing it. Bob agreed, and in 2014, Adam got a loan and bought the farm.

Bob made compost to keep the farm going. The business of dirt is home to Adam, but also more. I hustle to keep up with him as we climb out of the tractor and Adam bounces back and forth across the large bay of the garage, zooming the lens of our conversation in and out to talk all at once about the farm, and the work of it, as it relates to the town, the small family of employees, the state, the environment, the microscopic organisms that make his dirt a home.

Photo collages from mission trips to India and South Africa hang above the desk in his small, dusty office. In the pictures, Adam is smiling, arm in arm with the kids he taught to make raised beds.  “It opened my eyes and broadened my heart,” Adam says. “I wanna make an impact on this world. It doesn’t mean you gotta do amazing things, it just means you gotta have the right heart and care about people, and have that passion, and that’s what I had.”

That passion is clear when Adam talks about waste and plastic. “It’s the thorn in my side,” he tells me. Plunging his hand into a mountain of compost, he pulls out a fistful, inhales happily (he doesn’t sell “hot” compost and uses an organic odor eliminator in his rows, so the stuff smells simply and sweetly like dirt), and sifts out tiny pieces of plastic with the sharp eye and precision of a nitpicker. His raw materials come from local businesses, restaurants, and schools. As a father and a farmer, he gets especially excited when talking about school composting and gardening programs, and giving students tours of the farm to teach about environmental stewardship. “I wanna be a blessing. I wanna be an asset. I wanna be a help.”

Martin’s Farm has been ahead of the composting curve for almost 30 years, but the importance of putting our organic waste back into the food cycle has finally caught on at the state level.

“Last year, Massachusetts passed a law that any business, entity, school that generates more than a ton of green waste a week, has to outsource it. Cannot go into a landfill, can’t go into the dumpsters.” Adam is hopeful. “We have less than nine years in this state until all of our landfills are at capacity. So that’s a reality. So what we’re doing is a great thing, it’s a service, and it’s helping slow the feed of the landfills. But again, we’re full circle.” The waste that Martin’s Farm turns into compost and mulch goes back into production, helping families and farmers, like Dan Pratt of Astarte Farm in Hadley, grow new food organically.

Dan began been working with Martin’s over 10 years ago. “We had tried compost from at least three or four different places, but there was a lot of variance in the quality of the materials.”  Once he found Martin’s, he never looked back. Dan sold the farm in 2014 to Jim Mead and Jim’s daughter Amelia, but continues to work with the Meads and production manager, Annalise Clausen. In their transition to a no-till operation, Astarte began supplementing their Martin’s Farm compost and compo-mulch applications with a thin layer of biochar, sustainably produced charcoal made from biomass waste.

Photo by Nikki Gardner

Photo by Nikki Gardner

“It’s like little tiny sponges,” Dan says. “It holds a lot of water and it also holds nutrients.” It worked so well that they asked Adam to help develop a new product for them, an 80:20 compost-to-biochar blend. Yield and soil health were so improved that Astarte has been pursuing grants to research the effects of Adam’s organic compost and biochar blend on more of their crops.

“Really, I wanna talk about how great Adam is,”  Dan tells me. “He is so meticulous about the process he uses to produce this and he is trying so hard to continually improve his operation, that we are really, really happy to be working with him.”

Home gardeners and farmers alike can buy Martin’s Farm compost directly from the farm in Greenfield. Those without a green thumb can reap the benefits later in the food cycle via Astarte Farm produce, sold at River Valley Co-op or Green Fields Market, whose cardboard and waste goes right back to Martin’s Farm.