Capitoll Hill compost business looks to grow

Shawn Hendrickson hopes increase business to around 1,000 customers

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For the last two years Shawn Hendrickson has been slowly, but deliberately building his compost business. What started as an effort among him and some neighbors to compost their food waste has grown into a 300-person network that helps local farms and businesses. Now, Hendrickson is looking forward to his next steps.

Denver Compost Collective is, at its core, a business where people can send their food waste to be composted. But to Hendrickson, it’s more than that.

He hand picks the farms he works with to ensure they have missions in line with food justice and green business practices. The environmental benefits are a large part of the business as well. By taking 300 people’s food waste, Hendrickson and Denver Compost Collective are diverting a lot of trash away from landfills. But he also keeps economics in mind, making sure his employees make livable wages.

“It becomes a way for us at a community level to subsidize, not only our local food system, but social justice work,” Hendrickson said.

Sven Ceelan, a driver with Denver Compost Collective, added that it’s a cycle. The compost business wants to help support local farms that may not be as well-funded. As land grows more expensive, Ceelan said he’s seen community farms close in favor of development.

“The more that we can support those farms, there’s an economic benefit,” Ceelan said.

Capitol Hill was the logical place to start Denver Compost Collective because many of the apartment buildings aren’t included in the city’s services. Denver services only include single-family households and apartment buildings with seven units or less. Denver Compost Collective helps to fill in some of those gaps. The city charges $29.95 every three months for compost.

The business also is transparent about where the compost goes and letting customers see the impact they make, Ceelan said.

The typical backyard composting set-up can be very difficult for one person to generate enough waste to successfully make compost. There’s just not enough heat to begin converting the waste.

“Some of these composting things are just, take your waste somewhere and someone else deals with it,” Ceelan said. “This is more like we want to build the relationships. We want to actually build the soil, we want to see the produce coming out from the soil.”

Now that the business has been around for two years, Hendrickson is looking to grow the customer base to 1,000-2,000 participants. He also hopes to grow outside of the Capitol Hill area.

“Every time we develop something new we look at the cost to our environmental, our social and our economic system, and then we make a decision accordingly,” Hendrickson said. “It’s all too easy to err on `Let’s just take more material.’ ”

Customers with Denver Compost Collective receive a 1.25 gallon pail. For $5 a week, the company will pick up the food waste and take it to one of their farming partners. The food waste is donated to the farms, which then don’t have to buy compost. This helps their budgets, Hendrickson said, because compost is expensive.

Off to the farm

One of those farms is Front Line Farming, a nonprofit organization that focuses on workers rights and providing quality organic food to people who can’t afford it. Hendrickson brings compost pails to Front Line once per week. The two businesses have a system set up that converts the food waste into compost after four months.

Front Line Farming works specifically with people of color and women to help give them a better voice in the world of agriculture. They also make sure their employees get health insurance and better living wages. Insurance in the farming industry, Wagner said, is rare.

In mid-June, a group of Front Line staff and volunteers gathered at the Majestic View farm location in Arvada to build fencing around one of the two-acre garden plots. Abigail Wagner, who manages the farm for Front Line, hopes about 15,000 pounds of food will be grown there.

Majestic View, 7000 Garrison St., is the location where Denver Compost Collective sends its food waste. Front Line also has two other Denver farms, one at West 52nd Avenue and Federal Boulevard, the other by Interstate 25 and Colorado Boulevard.

Front Line sells some of its produce to local Denver businesses, such as The Corner Beet coffee shop and cafe in Capitol Hill. Veronica Lewis, the company’s volunteer coordinator, said this is how the farm makes revenue. The rest of the produce goes to Front Range residents, through food stamp programs or Front Line’s free grocery program. The free grocery program works with Denver Food Rescue.

Cailin Osborne runs the free grocery program, which takes food from Whole Foods that the grocery store plans on throwing out because of its looks or if it’s passed its expiration date.

“The program is a good opportunity to teach people about knowing their food and knowing what good food looks like,” Osborne said. “It’s being able to judge that for yourself and not just what companies tell you.”

Front Line relies heavily on volunteers as well as connections with other businesses, Lewis said. Each staff member has several responsibilities. Wagner is also the director of farm education and Lewis does some press relations and marketing work. She’s also in charge of chicken care.

Afrah Mohamed, another farm manager with Front Line, said Hendrickson helped connect Front Line to The Corner Beet. People in the farming world tend to be supportive of each other and their businesses, she said.

“Everybody helps each other,” she said. “That’s the only way a community like is sustainable.”

More than compost

Denver Compost Collective offers free composting classes. Often, Hendrickson heads down to Majestic View to teach classes there. He helps people avoid problems with smells from the food waste as well rodents or bugs. He also helps teach people about what items Denver Compost Collective will take, and what they can’t compost such as meat, dairy, or bones.

In addition to the food waste program at Denver Compost Collective, the business works with groups like Congress Park Neighbors for other collection programs. Last year, Hendrickson said the collective collected 1,500 bags of raked leaves from Congress park, which can also be put into the compost program. He added that they also offer tree services to make wood chips.

“That’s all derived from right here,” Hendrickson said. “In the end, it becomes a larger conversation about how we tend to each other, how we support our local economy and how we can share in that win.”

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