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Unique Trash Process 
Gives Dirt New Life
 by Fred Delkin

 She’s the definition of “sweet young thing,” but Melissa Finn, a winsome 27-year-old blond, declares “I’m not afraid to get dirty!”  And proves it daily while managing a unique recycling facility, “Nature’s Needs,” in North Plains.  Here, food waste (primarily vegetables and fruits discarded by grocers prior to sale), yard debris and wood fiber are processed to give birth to what is proclaimed as “living soil”…an organic soil amendment classified as humus, with the ability to both restore and enhance the fertility of agricultural sites.

Melissa and crew hand sort some 600 tons per week of waste dumped by haulers , eliminating non-organic materials, including paper and metal scraps.  The sorted material is then piled into 300-foot-long, tarp-covered windrows to join a process we dub the “Cadillac of composting.”  Melissa explains that each windrow is monitored daily for heat and moisture.  Tarps are lifted regularly for tractor-pulled compost turners to remix the windrow contents, stirring up clouds of steam that show nature’s fermentation is hard at work.  “We monitor and work the windrows for 14 to 16 weeks to get our final humus product,” Melissa recounts.  A rotary grading cylinder provides a final touch, sifting out solid chunks of waste from windrow contents.  This is not your regular compost, Melissa avers.  “We manage our humus so that beneficial microbes get the proper amounts of oxygen and water to prosper.”

Odorless results

Your nose tells you that Nature’s Needs site is a garbage dump, but, surprisingly, the product of the processing is odorless…a rich-looking, almost black dirt ready to enhance growth for those pursuing agriculture, horticulture, landscaping, nursery output and home gardening.  Don’t look for this super dirt in packages at your nearby garden store, however.  Nature’s Needs is scrambling to keep up with bulk sales demands by the full gamut of Oregon’s agricultural industry.  “We’ve done very little marketing,” Melissa explains, “but the word is out with growers across the state.”  She says home gardeners are welcome to purchase a pickup load by coming to the production site, just off Highway 26 on the eastern border of North Plains.

The latter community has officially endorsed this dirt factory in its midst, despite objections to its operation from that regional oligarchy known as Metro…whose critical eye, we are sure, is opened by the fact that Nature’s Needs may resemble the landfill functions of Metro, but demonstrates that private enterprise can make a profit and enhance the environment without taxpayer subsidies, eroding some of Metro’s purpose.

Sustainability fans cheer

“Sustainability” has grown in volume as a battle cry of Oregon agricultural reformers, with even prominent restaurateurs lending their voice.  Natural soil amendments both enrich and sustain quality output from Oregon farmlands, orchards and vineyards.  Speaking of the latter, a Nature’s Needs subsidiary product, “Compost Tea,” is proving particularly pertinent to winegrowers’ needs.  This is a liquid fertilizer produced by steeping compost in water in a brew kettle, which produces, Melissa proclaims “a million beneficial living microbes per teaspoon.” This liquid may be sprayed as a mist on foliage, providing both nutrition and pest control.  This “Tea” is also used as a moistener for the compost windrows , adding to their production of meaningful microbes.

That other foodie cry, “organic,” is very well served by Nature’s Needs.  Chemicals and other toxic substances have long been at the core of fertilizers and pesticides used in farm and orchard production.  Thus prompting the organic assault proclaimed on the labels lining our supermarket shelves.  The all-natural ingredients approach taken by the North Plains facility answers environmental demands, and this effort has been endorsed by a pair of organic certification entities with national recognition, “Organic Materials Review Institute and Oregon Tilth.

Oregon’s environmental conscience was a magnet for Melissa, a New England girl who studied microbiology at Connecticut’s Fairfield University.  She pursued altruism upon graduation, joining Americorps, where “I learned how to work outside”…a good thing, since being outdoors is a major share of the time she spends as General Manager of Nature’s Needs  and its two dozen employees and year-round operation.  This petite supervisor is quick to tell you she frequently joins her produce-sorting crew amid the dumped loads of overage fruits and veggies.  She began her professional career as an inspector for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Recycling epiphany

In the course of her DEQ rounds, Melissa met the Gilberts, a family operating ECR (Environmentalists, Conservationists, Recyclers) a leading Oregon recycler of just about anything anyone determines as refuse.  Vince Gilbert realized Melissa had the education to execute his family’s vision of turning organic garbage into a profitable asset.   That was some two years ago, and Melissa was given charge of the experiment on North Plains’ outskirts.  Today, the 40 acre site includes test tree and garden plots that prove the effectiveness of Nature’s Needs’ reborn soil.  Melissa declares that her fiefdom is the first of its kind on the Pacific coast “and maybe the whole country!”

So, Fairfield, let’s hear it for your study courses in microbes, bacteria, fungi and nematodes…they’ve brought Oregon a dedicated young lady who’s making a difference in how things are grown.

© 2002 Oregon Magazine

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