Operation Onion

We’re going to do what? Onions? 25 tons??

Bet.

We’re about that life. Not just as it pertains to composting and worms. But when it comes time to make things happen that go against the grain. Shaking shit up, as the boss always says.

Nevertheless, the task was arduous and required several entities to come together to make it happen. But let’s start from the beginning.

Fertile Earth Worm Farm is the premier large-scale local composting service in South Florida. While we have “worm farm” in our title, food diversion is our bread and butter. Since 2011, when we began servicing our first client, the Miami Marlins, we have kept somewhere in the realm of 12 million pounds of food from being trashed. For years, food we collected was sent to zoos, farms, etc. and used to feed animals instead of being sent to landfills to cause issues for future generations. It’s hard to estimate the impact of our efforts over the years, but after deciding to start creating compost from our food scraps, it became clear that we were now taking another big step for food waste reduction and one giant leap for promoting regenerative agriculture.

Two years later we use the food we divert to produce a nutritious compost that can be used as a soil for various crops and a food source for composting worms which in turn produce one of the most prolific organic fertilizers known to humankind. There’s a lot of avenues that we can take with our business model, but everything revolves around food scraps. We redefine the food’s destiny as would-be waste to being a vital resource with which we can render Florida’s soils far more fertile.

But back to the story at hand. While we currently collect an average of up to 15-20 tons of food weekly, we were not taking much more than half of that last summer, especially in a single given day. This was largely due to space and time constraints. So, while we know our rational limits, we have always had a hard time saying no, even if it means stepping on some toes. Not because we want problems, but just as a means of remaining committed to our mission. So, when we were asked by a local food importer and distributor if we could receive a shipment of 25 tons of “spoiled” onions, and process them in two days, naturally we said yes.

The task seemed simple enough. Have a 40ft container containing the onions delivered onto the property where we were leasing space, allocate a couple days to unloading each 50lb bag of onions and throwing them into the compost heap, disposing of the bags, composting the onions with mulch, and then having the container get picked up promptly several days later. By scheduling this over the weekend, it also did not interrupt the timing of our regular driver’s pickup routes. Everything looked to be copasetic. But challenges arose.

To enter the property, one needs to turn off a small two-way road onto a bridge without clipping the homeowner across the street’s fence. This was impossible with a semi pulling a 40-foot container. So, the first attempted delivery was not only aborted but deemed impossible. This disrupted the entire plan. We had to think quickly as if we did not find a solution, these onions would have been trashed for sure. We started reaching out to anybody who had space. An old landlord said no unless he received exorbitant pay, some could not afford to have a large container blocking an access road for days, others had no mulch with which to process the onions. We even briefly considered having it delivered to the side of a nearby strip mall and using our organics recycling truck to take truckloads of onions to the farm on a day when we would not be doing our usual pick up. This idea was not given as much thought as a private space was preferable.

We were stumped but we remained resourceful. We reached out to some highly appreciated contacts and were ultimately pointed to Empower Farms in Florida City. Empower is a farm geared at employing individuals with disabilities and helping give them the tools and knowledge to grow organic produce. They are led by Nick who was not only supportive of our cause but also a composter himself.

So, just like that, we were back in the game, and the stage was set. But we could not undertake this task on our own, we needed help. After a volunteer recruiting call on Instagram, two strapping young folks, Katerina and Andy, signed up for our mission. Why? Not just for a check. But because they believe. And best believe there’s people out there who believe. Andy as a matter of fact drove over 150 miles from Venus to Florida City for this. If there’s any lesson that I have learned from this experience it’s that there are a number of people who do care, that do understand both what’s going on and what needs to be fixed. Definitely not everybody. As a matter of fact, these individuals are a heavy minority. But, they are out there, and in our line of work, we happen to meet a lot of them. That is why I object to the notion that “people suck”. I think people are highly capable of helping to reverse the environmental degradation that our species has caused this planet. You know what, this will be a great topic for one of our next posts…so I digress.

On the day the delivery went down, we had to make the hike down to Florida City and meet the fellow who was delivering the shipment. He arrived and backed up the container to the location where we would empty out the onions. After some effort to stabilize the container, we were good to go. Now, I don’t know if any of you have seen what 25 tons of onions looks like. But it’s immense especially when you know you’ll be unloading them by hand. Quick math…50lbs of onions in each bag…25 tons on the container…we had 1000 bags to unload. Even between four of us, that’s 250 each, and we had probably eight hours to get it done. Instead of thinking too hard about it, we just got straight to work. 

Our system was to throw the onions out of the container, and ensure we had the container empty by the end of the day. The following day we would commence cutting the onions out of the bag. At first I was launching them off the back, maybe ten per minute. Whole time, I was killing it. But I overlooked one thing. As we took more and more bags off the container, we had to travel further into the container to remove the rest. Thus, adding precious time to the removal operation. After hours of unloading onions, it became clear…they were never ending. Yet again, we persevered. Thanks to Nick supplying some wheelbarrows we developed an assembly line system on the container that enabled us to accelerate the removal of the onions. After a day full of intriguing conversation and morale boosting, we successfully unloaded the onions in the appropriate span of time.

 

Day two saw us undertaking what we felt would be the easier day ourselves given our two volunteers had other commitments. But I’ll be honest. Cutting 1000 bags and dumping 50lbs of onions out is not the easiest task. Especially with two people. As a matter of fact, on this allegedly easier day we ran out of time. Fortunately, Nick reached out to some local help in order to get the task done. And upon finishing the debagging, he mixed the onions with mulch, and so began the composting process.                                                                                                                                                                                                          So, when it was all said and done, we received our payment and we abided by our mission of keeping food out of the landfill. But what did we take away from this?

Number one. While considered “spoiled”, these onions had merely sprouted. They could have readily been eaten or planted in the ground. It makes you wonder how many “spoiled” shipments of potentially usable food are out there being disposed of while you’re reading this. Well, we don’t have those estimates on hand. But here is a stat: Miami-Dade County (MDC) generated around 4.3 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2020. 68.75% was landfilled, 11.93% was incinerated, and 19.32% was recycled. Nationally, food is the most common component of landfilled and incinerated MSW at 24% and 22%, respectively. If we applied this rate to MDC, we could estimate that in 2020 alone, 709,599 tons of the county’s food was landfilled, and 650,375 tons were incinerated. The breakdown of this food in landfills contributes to the emission of methane, a much more harmful greenhouse gas than even the notorious carbon dioxide. Other stats show that in the U.S., 40% of food never even makes it from the farm to the table. Issues during distribution ranging from surplus food production and improper storage to poor route optimization. A true waste of time, water, energy, and prolific amounts of money. While composting is higher on the food recovery pyramid than landfilling, the economic savings are miniscule compared to if producers implemented better practices such as proper assessments of fresh food, appropriate temperature storage, optimizing shipment routes, and proper handling during the food distribution process.

Number two. Even without the utmost financial gain, people out there care. But at the end of the day, we all must make a living. The way things are set up, we often must go out of our way to make regenerative efforts feasible. Until our culture accepts these things as vital or better yet cool, we will continue to need to make them worth one’s while. Implementing practical and educational systems that allow people to contribute to making these changes will be a vital step moving forward. Or we just start convincing people that this stuff is as epic as we think it is.

 Number three. Anything is possible but having a community and reliable team behind you makes things much more attainable.

Thankfully, we have moved to a 6.5 acre property so we should be a little more prepared for the next shipment that comes our way. But we’ll always be grateful for the community, lessons and experiences gained from Operation Onion.