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Beetham Village & their compost

Snooker, Mah-jong, Scrabble, Bowls. All common activities in a retirement villages right?

Composting? Now that is different.

At Beetham Village every Monday and Wednesday morning you will find a unique group of active relaxers. Ernie, Graeme, Grant, Stu, Basil, Peter and Tony, all over 75 years, are volunteering their combined energy and banter to make and donate high-quality compost back to the Beetham community.

Ernie is the mastermind of the scheme, impressive in energy and agility at 87 years old. Besides a lifetime of practical skills and green fingers, seven years back he attended a short course in Commercial Composting run by EIT. Two years ago, that knowledge was put into action after a resident’s discussion about kitchen scraps going to waste.

You see Beetham, like many others in Gisborne, was paying to dump all their food and green waste. Seven trailer loads per week to the tune of $2000+ per month. And then, like many others, they were paying again to buy compost for use in the residents’ and communal gardens.

All the ingredients were there, Ernie’s firecracker attitude and training, space just next to the Village workshop, the obvious financial benefits to the organisation and a willing group of regular volunteers.

Local businesses contributed with key materials such as bins, buckets, wood chip and liners. They bought a chipper, paper shredder, a hammermill or grinder to offer a fine compost option to residents, and get occasional help from a mechanical ‘mulcher’.

The rest is easily accessible and simple technology, supported by just two hours of group energy each week before leaving nature to do the rest. The system and the group are well-oiled after two years of trial and problem solving and it’s a slick operation to witness…a masterclass in coordination!

The ‘compost lasagne’ includes lawn clippings, wood chip, coffee grinds, lime, shredded paper, food scraps and moisture, which after one year at optimal temperatures produces rich, fluffy and nutritious soil. I’m pretty sure the brassicas winked at me.

Beetham Village gardening team rave about the quality of the compost and the high number of worms. They use most of it in the village flower and raised-vegetable gardens. Residents can order buckets for a small donation (or a packet of biscuits for the long and joyful smoko sessions of the composting team).

These recent hints of spring weather and the upcoming Spud in a Bucket campaign for Alzheimer’s have seen an increase in orders. Everything is intentionally designed to be easy on aged bodies and minds, so the worm and seaweed tea are distributed to residents in 2 litre milk bottles with handles that residents have saved and passed on to the team. The light and fluffy compost is divided into 20L buckets with handles and holes in the bottom to allow for draining. Sacks are used instead of fadges. The trailers are low and the compost is made in pallet frames without bottoms. Quite simply, this system is easily replicable for young and old.

Ernie and his team (special mention to Sue and Helen who collect the full buckets each week) have pretty much closed the loop for the Village organic waste, 95% of which is now managed onsite through the composting and worm farms. He calculated 1700 kgs of food waste through their system last year and they have plans to grow.

Did you see the recent waste figures released by Gisborne District Council? In town, we send an estimated 37 tonnes of food waste (all the way to Tirohia in the Waikato) to landfill each week. An average of 50% of what we dispose of in household black bags is organic.

There are plans for a wheelie bin collection system that will include food waste. Councils across the country are mandated to divert food waste in order to reduce methane emissions from landfills. Auckland’s food waste now travels 260kms to Ego-Gas in Reporoa. Tauranga City send theirs to commercial composting in Hampton Downs . The trend is large volumes travelling to large and costly infrastructure.

Here's where Ernie and his team have a lot to teach us. Food waste is a valuable resource, a treasure that with a little investment, motivated caretakers, and the right ingredients, is a key component in growing soil, healthy food and, equally important, creating connection within communities.

Imagine if every city neighbourhood and rural area had a community compost? Check out the Aotearoa Composters Network for examples of diverse projects already happening in other regions. Some even have e-bike with trailer collections.

The benefits of the Beetham model are so clear that it feels positively infectious, like I drank the compost tea myself. The whole group are active and upbeat. The organisation has not only reduced costs but has a fabulous on-site resource. The residents’ produce and gardens are healthy and life-giving. It is win-win and can easily be replicated.

Imagine a variety of organic waste, organic resource, solutions in our region, supporting home, community and commercial options. Let’s keep that resource as local as possible, so that the community receives maximum benefits.

The day after the Cyclone Gabrielle, Ernie and his team were out building composts again. Now that is resilience.

Story by Jo McKay Photographs by Tom Teutenberg


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