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Monday, December 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 19.0° F  Overcast
The Paper
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Earth Stew is hooked on compost
Business will pick up your kitchen scraps -- and return rich goodness for your garden
Shredded cardboard reduces odors.

Joanne Tooley got into composting like a lot of people do -- through gardening. "Healthy soil produces healthy plants," she observes.

Tooley is the proprietor of a new Madison business, Earth Stew, that will help area households with composting -- an element of responsible contemporary living that increasingly is seen as a necessity.

Tooley, with a degree in landscape architecture from UW-Madison, has been working in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), but it was reading Michael Pollan's books The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food that really got her thinking about industrial food and the way she was eating. This led to a community garden plot and an interest in permaculture (sustainable agriculture systems). From that came a new passion for soil-building.

"I really got hooked on compost, especially vermiculture [worm] compost," says Tooley.

She established a three-bin composting system at her condominium complex. But then she began thinking of more ways to divert matter from landfills. Thus Earth Stew was born last March. "Compost is one of the simplest ways to care for the Earth," Tooley notes.

Earth Stew comes to you. Tooley leaves a four- or five-gallon bin with customers, who can opt for weekly or bimonthly pickups ($34/$21 month). She also provides shredded cardboard to absorb odors. The household saves fruit and veggie leavings, grains, eggshells, coffee grounds/filters and tea/tea bags (minus the staple). Where to place the bin -- a porch, the side of the house, the driveway -- is up to the customer. Earth Stew picks up the bin (and leaves a clean one), eventually turning scraps to quality compost.

"It's easy, clean, efficient and affordable," says Tooley, who accomplishes the first stage of composting on a donated site in Madison, then finishes the work at a worm farm she maintains in Lodi.

The vermicompost comes back to the customer (five pounds of finished compost for every 55 pounds of food waste) for use in yard or garden. It can also be donated to school gardens or Troy Community Farm, says Tooley.

While backyard composters may or may not be producing high-grade compost, Tooley doesn't see them as Earth Stew's primary customer base. "There are people who are environmentally conscious but have no time or space" for DIY compost, she says.

Earth Stew also helps people with limited mobility to compost. And Tooley offers the service to caterers who "want to move toward zero waste." Another benefit: Earth Stew can compost through winter (versus DIY'ers who face a growing pile of frozen scraps).

The city of Madison's curbside composting program is slowly growing, but covers only a small segment of households. Plus, it's a step down in terms of type of compost produced. While it accepts more items than Earth Stew, its purpose is not to create high-quality compost for vegetable gardens.

Tooley says city recycling coordinator George Dreckmann was so supportive of the goals of Earth Stew that he offered to donate up to 200 two-gallon counter compost holders to subscribers.

Earth Stew will currently pick up from addresses in Madison, Fitchburg and Middleton. Gift subscriptions are available (see or call 608-213-6990) for three, six, nine or 12 months. And for the person who has everything -- now he or she can have less.

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