Petaluma facility transforms yard debris into rich compost and mulches
By Tim Tesconi
Soil scientist Will Bakx is like a five star chef as he oversees the massive piles of vegetative stew scientifically turned into black gold at Sonoma Compost where green waste from urban yards is transformed into valuable soil products for farms and gardens.
Bakx is co-owner, resident scientist and chief compost maker at Sonoma Compost where yard clippings, tree branches and vegetative debris from homes and business throughout the county are transformed into the rich soil additives that are feeding the growing number of organic and sustainably farmed vineyards, orchards and vegetable farms that are part of Sonoma County’s annual $3 billion farming industry. It’s a winning combination and, perhaps, the ultimate in recycling and reuse.
Bakx loves creating the rich soil additives and good-naturedly accepts the “God of Compost” title bestowed by admirers who did in the dirt.
“Compost is my life,” said Bakx, 58, who was born and reared in The Netherlands where soil is sacred. He came to the U.S. as a young man and earned a degree in environmental studies at Sonoma State University and then completed a masters’ degree in soil science at U.C. Berkeley.
“For me, it’s a dream come to true to create this valuable compost that is so important in replenishing the soil and producing food,” said Bakx. Over the last 25 years, he has been both advocate and educator for organic farming and building healthy soils.
“In the early days I had to educate people about how compost was made while providing a greater understanding of the beneficial effects that compost has on soil,” said Bakx who lives with his wife Claire Victor in Sebastopol where he uses his own compost creations to grow organic fruits and vegetables for the family table. The Bakxs have a son, Xander Bakx, 18, a student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
Compost, after all, is the lifeblood of organic farming. Sonoma County’s organic farming industry has grown right along with Sonoma Compost, which was established in 1993 on 22 acres at the Sonoma County Landfill off Meacham Road in Petaluma. Over the years, Bakx has created new compost mixtures to meet the differing soil needs, whether it’s Petaluma’s adobe soil or the sandy soil in West Sonoma County. Bakx’s newest creation is Terra Lite, a low-nitrogen compost that improves drainage in heavy clay soils.
Bakx and Alan Siegel are the owners of Sonoma Compost, which has 25 employees and generates more than $700,000 in annual sales. Bakx makes the compost and Siegel handles the financial aspects of the business. Sonoma Compost, a business member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, operates the Organic Recycling Program on behalf of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. The goal of this private-public partnership is to keep yard trimmings and vegetative food discards out of the landfill by carefully making it into premium quality organic compost and mulches to enhance agriculture. It’s a winning combination.
Since 1993, Sonoma County has successfully diverted nearly 1.5 million tons of yard trimmings and wood waste from landfills. This represents 18 percent of the total waste generated in the county during that time period. The diversion has extended the life of the local landfill while reducing the carbon foot print of trucking bulky waste to out-of-county landfills.
Each year, garbage haulers and landscapers deliver more than 100,000 tons of raw materials to the site. That material is turned into 80,000 cubic yards of top quality compost that goes to farmers like brothers Steve and Joe Dutton of Sebastopol who annually purchase 2,000 cubic yards of compost for their organic apple orchards. The compost goes hand-in-hand with the Dutton’s organic apple farming program that has eliminated chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.
“The compost program at Sonoma Compost is the most significant closed-loop recycling program in the county,” said Pam Davis, the company’s general manager. “Materials generated in Sonoma County are processed at our facility and then sold back to farmers, gardeners and landscapers right here in Sonoma County.”
It’s four months from the time that grass cuttings, kitchen scraps and tree branches arrive at Bakx’s outdoor kitchen until they are turned into a marketable compost ready for delivery to vineyards in Geyserville, a truck garden in Santa Rosa or a landscaper in Rohnert Park. During that four months, the organic waste from urban yards is sorted, shredded, moistened, piled, tossed, aerated, test and sniffed. Everything but tasted in the quest to create the richest, blackest humus. The final product is basically free of weed seeds, pathogens and pesticide residutes – all destroyed during the carefully monitored composting process when temperatures reach more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 days and longer.
Each load of material delivered to Sonoma Compost is hand-sorted to remove contaminants, such as plastic garden pots, plastic bags or other non-green debris tossed in with yard and garden waste. Bakx said it’s costly and time consuming for workers to pick out the contaminants but an on-going education campaign called “Keep Your Green Clean” is helping to reduce the non-vegetative junk in the green material.
The growth at Sonoma Compost has been steady and consistent over the last 20 years. Farms and gardens are absorbing all of the materials generated at Sonoma Compost. Even during the Great Recession, sales of compost continued strong despite the severe decline in new landscaping as housing starts hit the lowest levels in years.
Bakx said compost sales continued during the economic downturn because urban residents, concerned about conserving water and interested in producing some of their own food, were ripping out their lawns to plant victory gardens. They needed compost to make their gardens grow.
“The rise of victory gardens really increased our retail sales of compost,” said Bakx.
Bakx said in addition to reducing the waste going into the landfill, Sonoma Compost is doing its part to address one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters: topsoil depletion.
Bakx said the 80,000 cubic yards of compost spread over Sonoma County each year are making a huge difference in replenishing the valuable top soils that feed us.
550 Mechan Road, Petaluma