Your organic trash is this business’ treasure at composting facility near Durango

Table to Farm Compost strives to capture food waste across La Plata County
Chris Trullaz, operations manager with Table to Farm Compost, turns over a wind row compost pile at the business’ new Class 3 composting facility northeast of Durango. Monique DiGiorgio, managing partner at Table to Farm, said the end goal is to be the service that collects the entire county’s compostable organic waste. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Table to Farm Compost managing members Monique DiGiorgio and Taylor Hanson want to save the planet. They acknowledge that’s a bold mission statement, but they are equipping themselves with the best facility they can to do what they do best: Composting, in pursuit of a cause.

They envision servicing all of La Plata County, which a waste audit found produced 36,000 tons of municipal waste in 2015, by diverting organic waste from landfills, returning compost to the soil and forming long-lasting business partnerships. And they are building out a Class 3 composting facility to make it happen.

The facility is the latest of 16 like facilities in Colorado. Although it is still under construction, it and the microbes it uses are already in operation. It’s a 4½-acre lot on County Road 236 east of Durango capable of processing 18,000 cubic yards of compost at any given time.

Acquiring the necessary permits from La Plata County and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to establish the facility took DiGiorgio and Hanson the better part of three years, DiGiorgio said. The paperwork was finalized in December.

A Class 3 facility doesn’t need an awful lot of infrastructure, but it does require a lot of work, she said. Planning involved installing groundwater monitoring wells, creating a 130-page engineering design and operations plan as well as a health and safety plan, DiGiorgio said.

Table to Farm Compost worked with Bear Smart to place electric fencing around its in-progress Class 3 facility to keep bears out of the compost piles that ferment for six to seven months before the end product is ready to be redistributed to local farmers and other businesses seeking compost. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The composters also installed a bear-proof fence and wildlife fencing to keep bears from pawing through compost piles, she said. Table to Farm partnered with Bear Smart Durango to install the bear-proof fence and Colorado Parks & Wildlife provided wildlife fencing through its game damage program, a prevention and reimbursement program that compensates landowners for property damage caused by big game.

“Bear Smart Durango was a great partner with us,” she said. “And the state of Colorado provided all their fencing through its game damage program to reduce any issues for us as the composter with the product. But also it has benefits from a wildlife perspective.”

The most notable features on the site are the long wind rows of mulchy brown compost, each 150 to 200 yards long. In total, they equal about 700 yards of compost, Chris Trullaz, Table to Farm operations manager, said.

The main compost input material Table to Farm manages is beer mash, thanks to a partnership with Ska Brewing, he said. Ska drives a 4,000-gallon truck to the site three to four times a week, dumps it in a designated zone and then Trullaz and his team immediately set to work mixing the wet mash with biochar and other organic waste products. A quick pace is needed because the mash will produce an odor if it isn’t mixed right away.

“Just by volume, there’s more of that (beer mash) than our food waste,” he said.

Carbon in the form of wood chips and other wood materials is managed in another nearby zone, he said. It is dropped off by arborists and fire mitigation companies from around the county, with plenty coming from mitigation projects occurring in the Edgemont area northeast of town.

Jon Westrup, who started Fire Smart LLC, a private fire mitigation business, in 2000, is just one partnership Table to Farm has recently formed.

Chris Trullaz, operations manager with Table to Farm Compost, checks the temperature inside of a compost pile northeast of Durango. Table to Farm likes to keep the inside temperature around 140 degrees. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Some of the items in the compost at Table to Farm Compost on June 29 at Table to Farm’s location northeast of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

He said the forests of the five-county region have amassed a daunting amount of biomass, which could serve as fuels for fires, and it is an opportune time for a composting service to come along.

He said Fire Smart is re-treating areas first mitigated half a decade ago. At the time, it was fine to spread wood chips back out among the landscape. But as re-treating efforts unfold, he doesn’t want wood chips and organic materials to get too thick on the forest floors.

“Having a place to bring them, actually converting them into a compost product, is just awesome. I just like how it ticks a bunch of boxes,” he said. “We’re reducing risk for our community. We’re helping our forest become resilient.”

And composting wood chips ultimately helps the community grow more food, he said.

“It’s just an awesome little arrangement. I think it’s really special and unique,” he said.

DiGiorgio said there are six or seven other landscapers, as well as Durango Fire Protection District and La Plata County government, that Table to Farm receives wood chips from.

Once the compost is churned and mixed together, it is placed with farming equipment into the wind rows where it is left to bake in the sun in a process called thermophilic composting, DiGiorgio said.

Table to Farm Compost co-owners from left, Monique DiGiorgio, Taylor Hanson, Fort Lewis College intern Jared Steuber and Operations Manager Chris Trullaz, gather handfuls of compost on June 29 northeast of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Basically, thermophilic composting is the process of allowing compost to heat up to 131 degrees, a temperature hot enough to kill harmful pathogens that’s still a suitable or even favorable environment for beneficial microorganisms, she said.

The heat and oxygen within the compost support the beneficial bacteria and fungi, she said. The process takes about 90 days, but the compost is allowed to cure for twice as long at Table to Farm.

Hanson said the wind rows retain heat for longer because they are so large and start with a high moisture content thanks to the beer mash.

“None of this is going to be ready this year,” he said, gesturing to the rows and rows of compost. “This is all next year’s compost.”

When the compost is finally ready, it is delivered mostly to local farmers and Durango Nursery, he said. But the hope is to tap into larger markets.

Hanson said the 2015 waste audit found the five-county region that includes La Plata, Archuleta, Dolores, Montezuma and San Juan counties created 105,000 tons of organic waste in 2014, about 36,000 tons of which was attributable to La Plata County.

Thirty-six thousand tons is roughly equivalent to 18,000 cubic yards, Table to Farm’s capacity at its Class 3 facility, he said.

Chris Trullaz, operations manager with Table to Farm Compost, turns over a pile of soil that is made up of coco, rice hulls and vermiculite from Durango Organics on June 29 northeast of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Our facility is set up to be able to accommodate our whole region,” he said.

“The point being, we want to take it all. We can,” DiGiorgio said.

Hanson said the environmental benefits of processing so much compost are “tremendous.” Methane is 72 times as potent over a period of two decades as carbon dioxide, and any waste diverted from the landfill reduces the amount of methane being released. But composting also holds a lot of potential for carbon sequestration, a process where microbes isolate carbon in the soil.

“There’s some really neat research being done about long-term application of compost and biochar to really hold carbon in stable form for a long period of time,” he said. “We kind of view it as this neat way to impact climate change locally. The whole system.”

He said the possibilities are huge.

One car produces about 4 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, he said. Table to Farm currently collects about 1,200 tons of organic material annually, which equals about 1,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking 450 cars off the road.

“If there’s 18,000 people in the city of Durango and there’s three people per household, that’s 6,000 households, more or less. If we really get to communitywide diversion, we’re essentially augmenting or taking off the road 6,000 cars, which is like the city of Durango’s cars in a year,” he said.

“And some of that doesn’t include the carbon sequestration potential,” he said.

Hanson said he and DiGiorgio are environmentalists and they run their business with that in mind. They also hope to educate people about the benefits of composting, whether it be in terms of preventing the proliferation of greenhouse gases or promoting soil health.

DiGiorgio said organic wastes should be prohibited from landfills and composting is a solution, but whether people compost at home or rely on an established service such as Table to Farm is up to the individual.

“Rural agricultural folks definitely benefit from compost because they’ll grow more vibrant crops, they’ll buy less (inorganic) fertilizers. We want to work in the economics of that piece because it’s affordable. And it’s better for the planet and it grows better vegetables and better crops,” Hanson said.

He said Table to Farm exists for everyone from backyard gardeners to large agricultural farms owned by multigenerational farmers. It’s not just “a Durango thing.” It’s a “La Plata County thing,” he said.

A previous version of this story misspelled Monique DiGiorgio’s last name.

A device to monitor water well quality at Table to Farm Compost northeast of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Compost piled in wind rows at Table to Farm Compost in June will take six to seven months to bake, with internal temperatures intended to reach and remain at around 131 degrees, to allow beneficial microorganisms like bacteria and fungi to thrive while overheating and killing harmful pathogens. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)