Adam Hotley pulls up in an old silver pickup truck he calls “The Equalizer.”
“When people get into a discussion about what we do, I think they imagine that we have a big fleet of trucks, you know, nice big white trucks,” he says. “It’s really a pickup truck and two minivans.”
Hotley is the founder of Rogue Produce. It started as a community composting service in 2011 with the goal of helping people dispose of their food scraps in a more environmentally friendly way.
Along with around 300 residential customers, mostly in Ashland, Oregon, Hotley and his team also pick up from some businesses, like Market of Choice.
Hotley opens up the lid on one of the food scrap bins, revealing what looks like mostly edible fruits and vegetables. “Looks pretty good, right?”
What’s in these bins is known as “pre-consumer waste,” Hotley says. That includes produce that didn’t look appealing, or stayed too long on the shelf and started going bad.
Rogue Produce charges customers to pick up their food scraps and donates them to local farms. Unlike larger cities such as Portland or Seattle, there are no residential food waste services offered by local trash companies in the Rogue Valley.
Hotley says his service helps farmers by keeping them from having to go around collecting food scraps themselves.
“I’ve learned a lot about farms and farmers over the last 12 years,” he says. “I tried a little bit of farming myself, and wow, it’s not easy.”
Hotley says some local grocery stores have farmers collect the scraps. Rogue Produce doesn’t pick up from the Ashland Food Co-op because a pig farmer takes the food scraps to feed their pigs.
“Those farmers like to feed their animals the very best,” Hotley says.
He rolls the bins to his pickup truck and slides them in alongside others from Rooted, a vegetarian restaurant in Medford. A large pineapple rind sticks out from the top of one bin.
Hotley says his business has continued to grow because of the work of his partners and the way they’ve expanded collection of food scraps.
“Everyone who hears about it loves the idea and finds some way to contribute or spread the message or help facilitate its growth in some way,” he says.
Alongside direct home pickups, they’ve now started neighborhood drop-off points, and food scraps are collected for free at local farmers markets, including the Tuesday Ashland Grower’s Market.
Turning leftovers into ‘black gold’
Just outside of Medford, Thomas Petersen stands in his barn at Evers Ridge Farm. This 106-acre farm has small fruit trees, sheep and chickens. It started a year and a half ago by Petersen and his wife, Hannah. Petersen says they wanted to connect people to where their food comes from.
“What better way to do that than to build a farm that’s close to town that is accessible for the public,” he says. “And what better way to get involvement than to get hold of people’s food scraps.”
Evers Ridge Farm is just a stone’s throw away from Griffin Creek Elementary School. Petersen says they’ve brought students over to show how the farm works, and teach them hands-on lessons about the food cycle — how food and energy moves through an ecosystem.
Petersen accepts food scraps from Rogue Produce for their organic farming business.
Behind the barn, Petersen steps in front of three long, shallow pits lined with concrete blocks. There are wood and wire mesh frames covering the tops to keep out rodents.
He lifts one of the frames off the pit. Inside is a mixture of leaves, wood chips and all kinds of food scraps.
Living among the debris are hundreds of thousands of worms, slowly eating their way through the piles of compost. Petersen and Hotley carry a bin full of squashed tomatoes, lemon rinds and wilting lettuce and dump it into the compost pile.
“They’re gonna turn these food scraps into what they call black gold.” Petersen grabs a handful of the fine, dark brown compost. “It’s just very nutrient-dense compost is all it is.”
Also called worm castings, this compost helps in many ways. It can be used instead of commercial fertilizer on Petersen’s farm, which saves him money. He can also sell the leftover worm castings for extra profit.
His compost piles break down food scraps, including citrus that some people warn against adding to compost.
As far as Thanksgiving scraps, Hotley says Rogue Produce can’t accept items like meat scraps, bones and fats, which don’t break down in a traditional compost pile like those at Evers Ridge Farm.
Another company called Ashland Community Composting employs the Bokashi composting method. It involves fermenting the food waste with special microorganisms that can break down those hard-to-decompose scraps, which is then mixed in with a traditional compost pile.
Petersen says starting this farm changed his perspective on food waste and the food cycle.
“I thought, it’s just like garbage. It goes in the trash and it just goes away, and it gets used somewhere else,” he says. “The fact is, it doesn’t. It just goes to a landfill and it’s not helpful.”
Petersen says closing the food cycle is important to reducing food waste.
“It blew my mind to think, what if the food scraps were actually the key to our farm,” with the base for his crops being people’s garbage, he says.
Normally, Petersen says, leftover food goes to the landfill, where it’s taken out of the food cycle. Because food breaks down in a different way in that environment, it releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.
An October report from the federal Environmental Protection Agency shows that in 2020, around 55 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents were emitted from food waste in landfills. That’s the equivalent of 50 million gas-powered passenger cars.
Conventional farming also means fertilizers full of nitrogen and phosphorus need to be imported, which can end up damaging waterways. If washed into lakes, rivers or oceans, these nutrients create an overgrowth of algae, known as algae blooms that starve water bodies of oxygen.
Collecting more food scraps
Hotley hopes to expand his composting service further, by setting up partnerships with cities like Ashland. He says he’s not worried about having too many food scraps to collect.
“We often get inquiries from other farms that are looking to start or that want the scraps or, like Thomas was saying, that want to come pick it up,” he says. “So we’re really not too concerned with that at this point.”
Rogue Produce collects food scraps at the Ashland Growers Market on Tuesdays for free. And with the help of a grant from the Ashland Food Co-op, they plan to begin food scrap collection at the Medford Growers Market next year.
He says the farmers market collection points are a way for people to keep their food scraps out of the landfill even if they can’t afford to pay for residential pick-up, which ranges from $15-24 a month.
Hotley says his service helps to change people’s perspective on food waste. He wants them to learn more about where their food goes when they’re done with it, and how food waste can be used to help local farmers and the environment. And if he has to go out and pick up people’s leftovers, he’s happy to help.
“Not everyone has a yard, right?” Petersen says. “So it’s exactly the reason for the need for this system is that you don’t have to want to [compost]. And if you can’t, then there should be ways that you don’t have to just put it in the trash.”