Photography by Justin Fox Burks
“The gate is just west of the zombie graffiti,” reads the text from Mike Larrivee, executive director of Compost Fairy.
Directions to an interview have never been so alluring.
Even so, I cruise the block twice before calling to clarify the location. Without additional directions and a sense of adventure, I would have missed it entirely.
What appears to be an abandoned lot—complete with a busted-up truck, broken glass and spray-painted cement walls—is actually an incubator for millions of hungry microbes creating some of the richest soil in Memphis.
The folks behind Compost Fairy have set up shop amid this urban jungle of kudzu and privet, a stone’s throw from a railroad track. Slowly and surely, they aim to transform the landscape by cultivating lush, organic dirt that is ready to support new growth.
The main operation of Compost Fairy occurs in two rows of organic matter about three feet wide and two feet high. About 10 and 20 feet in length (the shorter one is newer), the rows sport dead leaves and grass clippings and a couple of cantaloupes growing out of the rich dirt. When he arrives, Mike snags the melons and sets them inside his vehicle, Truck Norris.
“Side benefit of the job,” he says with a nod toward the melons.
Inside the rows is a process even hotter than the 98-in-the-shade Memphis afternoon in which I am standing. Active compost has an internal temperature of 140 to 150 degrees. Hence, the pitchforks and tall work boots sported by team members who come with Mike to tell the stories of Compost Fairy and a vision for a more sustainable Memphis.
Compost Fairy is a subscription-based service that turns unwanted vegetative materials—fruit and vegetable scraps, leaves, sticks and lawn clippings mostly—into rich earth.
The green materials provide the nitrogen, while dry brown elements provide carbon. An imbalance of one or the other leads to poor results, like bad odors and unwanted critters.
In balance, however, compost is a kind of magic, brought to you by tiny, hungry microbes.
“The good microbes that break down [the raw materials in the pile] need the same things we do: water, oxygen and something to eat. Fortunately, they like to eat the things that we don’t,” explains Mike.
Perhaps the zombie reference is more fitting than I first thought.
While many folks tend personal compost piles, Compost Fairy is the only Memphis organization that does this work on a large scale. For a small monthly fee ($20 for residential and $50 for commercial clients), they pick up materials once per week and deliver finished soil twice per year. They provide custom logo buckets which are cleaned and replaced with each weekly pick-up. Additionally, Compost Fairy provides a free drop-off location at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Those who drop off at the market can purchase finished compost if they choose.
Mike and his colleagues also handle “zero waste events,” such as last year’s MEMPHO Music Festival at Shelby Farms. Zero waste events create no garbage that will not break down into healthy soil. Organic products can go into local piles, while the Compost Fairy team ships post-consumer waste to an affiliate in middle Tennessee for processing.
Like many Memphis origin stories, Compost Fairy began with a connection among neighbors.
When he moved to the Cooper-Young area in 2013, Mike put a request on NextDoor for compostable materials for a new garden. Within days, he had more material than he could use. “I ran out of places to put it,” he says.
Mike and his friend Chris Peterson (current president of Compost Fairy) then hatched the idea for an organization with an even wider reach and larger capacity.
As geologists, farmers, and school garden managers by day, Compost Fairy team members are extremely aware of the need for good topsoil to grow crops. Industrial agriculture has stripped up to 80 percent of the topsoil from some areas, and soil erosion rates continue to climb. Materials that make good compost (and soil) are thrown into landfills, where they decompose without oxygen (“anaerobically,” for the scientifically inclined), mix with other contaminants and leach into groundwater. Anaerobic decomposition also creates methane gas, which contributes to climate change.
“Landfills are housecat-level technology.”
“Humans shouldn’t dig a hole and bury our problems in the ground. We’re stewards of the planet,” says Mike.
While the case for composting is strong, the actuality may be cumbersome or uninteresting to some. Compost Fairy provides the link between aspirational values and practical action.
“I think people sign up for our service because they like doing something good not only for our city but also for the Earth,” says operations manager Theo Davies.
Treasurer Caroline Smart adds, “If you direct 40 percent of your cooking waste into a different bucket, you have the instant gratification of taking out one less trash bag per week. If you already recycle because it makes you feel good, [composting] makes you feel even better. It’s a quick win.”
Composting is a low-tech, high-impact activity that protects clean air and groundwater while creating healthy topsoil. By directing food scraps and lawn clippings to the rows at Compost Fairy’s urban lot, customers are reducing landfill waste. They are also ensuring healthy foodways for future generations.
“Just throw your compostables into a bucket. And you don’t even have to find a bucket—we bring you a bucket,” says Mike.
Sounds like a no-brainer to me.
Heidi Rupke spends her days tending chickens and children, and defending her garden against squirrels. Her current food obsession is making the perfect pavlova.
Justin Fox Burks has been a professional photographer for 20 years, but that’s not all. He photographed and co-authored four vegetarian cookbooks with his wife, Amy Lawrence: Vegetarian Cooking for Two, Low-Carb Vegetarian Cookbook, The Southern Vegetarian, and The Chubby Vegetarian. He feels fortunate to be able to make interesting images for a living. @justinfoxburks