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A Microcosm of Support

By Sarah Merfeld, Phase II Fellow

I am finally beginning to understand the web of resources the Urban Farm draws upon to function efficiently and with as little waste as possible. As a joint project of the Allegheny Mountain Institute and the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, we use both of these organizations as resources. Our physical location, a stone’s throw away from downtown Staunton, offers potential advantages as does the larger Augusta Country community of like-minded, passionate individuals. Much of what we gain from these local offerings is not material but comes in the form of advice, inspiration, and solidarity. Yet here I am going to take this opportunity to paint a picture of how we benefit from the material resources surrounding the farm by looking at the recent implementation of a vermicompost system.

The Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind is a boarding school that provides three meals a day for their students. This means lots of compost! The kitchen staff has kindly made a point to collect their food scrapes which we bring down to farm. We have a traditional compost pile and we wanted to experiment with other composting methods. We decided to start a vermicompost system to see if we could let the worms expedite the process of decay and save our backs from turning too many large piles. The process that unfolded highlights the bounty of resources at hand.

The container for the worms is an old chest freezer, provided by one the CROPS teachers at the school whom we work with on a weekly basis.

Two of our buddies on the maintenance crew helped me drill holes in the sides and bottom of the freezer to provide aeration.

I then repurposed the shelving in the freezer to construct a divider down the center. This design self-sorts the worms from the compost. You begin by feeding one side of the bin. Once the compost has reached the desired state of decay you stop feeding this side side and begin feeding the other side of the bin. The worms will migrate through the divide and start breaking down the new food. Now the first pile of compost is relatively worm-free and ready for harvest.

For drainage, I filled the bottom of the freezer with gravel, courtesy of the maintenance crew once again.

The bedding is primarily shredded paper from the teacher’s lounge. Additionally, we can use cardboard that we get from a dumpster on campus or from downtown Staunton on trash pick-up days. Wood-chips can also be used as bedding. We receive free deliveries of wood-chips from local tree workers in the area.

The actual food for comes from the cafeteria. In the summertime when school is not in session, we have gotten coffee grounds and compost from local restaurants.

I added soil from the farm to inoculate the system with bacteria, fungus, and other members present in our soil’s community to assist the worms in decomposition.

The worms themselves, alas, were ordered online. Though in time, we hope the population will multiply and we can provide others in our community with some of these hardy red wigglers!

This vermicompost system is just one example of how local resources flow through the farm. We are embedded in our community. From the microbes flourishing in the soil, to faculty of VSDB and all those who share our mission, we feel their support. In an era where watching the news makes us uneasy about the direction the world is moving, I am inspired by all of the potential and creative ways in in which we can support one-another.

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