Earth Care Farm Scales Back Composting Operation

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Despite rumors circulating in the state's composting circles, Earth Care Farm, Rhode Island's only large-scale composting operation, isn't closing. But the decades-old operation is undergoing some changes.

Mike Merner, the longtime owner of Earth Care Farm, recently told ecoRI News he will retire. “Old age sneaks up on you,” he said. “Physically, I just don’t have it any more to do the real work, so we’re going to cut back on the quantity of material that is coming here.”

Earth Care Farm already has discontinued its accounts with the towns of Westerly and South Kingstown, which supplied wood chips and leaves, its shellfish supplier, and Roger Williams Park Zoo, which supplied manure from elephants, zebras and other animals, wood shavings from animal holding facilities, and, in the fall, thousands of pumpkins from its Jack-O-Lantern Spectacular.

While these accounts were high-volume suppliers, they represent only four out of the “dozens and dozens” of accounts Earth Care Farm has, according to Merner.

The yard waste and wood chips Westerly was sending to the farm will now be delivered to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation’s compost facility in Johnston, according to Mike Castagna, Westerly’s assistant superintendent of public works. Last year, Westerly sent 654 tons of yard waste and wood chips to Earth Care Farm, he said.

South Kingstown only sent wood chips from damaged trees and downed limbs to Earth Care Farm, according to John Schock, the town’s director of public services; he's now searching for another licensed composting facility to deliver the material. The town’s yard waste goes to the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation.

The zoo will now send its manure to Nutrient Networks, a company based in Mattapoisett, Mass., and licensed to accept animal waste, according to Ron Patalano, deputy director of operations at the zoo. Each week, the zoo generates two 30-yard Dumpsters of manure and shavings, he said.

“We don’t want to clog up the landfill with a product that can be used for good elsewhere,” Patalano said.

He also noted that the former agreement with Earth Care Farm saved the zoo money, compared to the cost of disposal at the landfill. The zoo paid to have the material hauled to Earth Care Farm, but didn't pay a tipping fee once at the facility. Patalano said he is hoping for similar terms with Nutrient Network.

Merner said he has received calls from Massachusetts farmers inquiring about the logistics of managing the shellfish he was formerly accepting, which could amount to up to 32 tons a week of challenging material.

Though Earth Care Farm will not produce as much compost going forward, it will continue to sell compost. Much of the compost the facility produced in the past was used to improve the soil on the farm itself, according to Merner.

“We don’t need as much anymore,” he said. “Our soil is up to snuff.”

In addition to its composting operation, Earth Care Farm offers a range of pick-your-own crops such as strawberries, peas, carrots, garlic and rhubarb. “We grow enough rhubarb to feed the state,” Merner said.

The farm also raises and sells beef and pork. Merner said all of the farm activities will remain the same and that the compost operation is the only area being scaled back.

“We are just going to cut back for a while until we get some breathing room and new energy,” he said.

Merner said the farm will remain in the family thanks to his son, son-in-law and daughter. He said he would consider selling the compost side of the operation to a family member or to someone else he trusts.

“I am leery of selling the compost facility because it has to be done properly,” he said.