Let’s talk dirty, as in soil. Last month I came across a Facebook page, named “Dirt y Girls Compost” my first thoughts were, what a clever, witty, bilingual and environmentally conscious name, I was intrigued and so I clicked on the page.
Immediately I noticed the cover image, it showed two stacks of spinach leaves side by side, one stack grown in non-compost soil and one with compost.
The difference in the size – and shade of green – of the leaves, was quite impressive. I was completely fascinated by the photos of worms, the piles of dirt, the entire process.
In case you aren’t familiar, composting is like Earth’s natural recycling program and is actually really important to the environment and climate change. In simple terms, composting is the breakdown of food waste (non-animal) and organic matter,egg shells, leaves, etc., which eventually breaks down to become soil.
If you’re wondering what the difference is between composting and fertilizer, one website explained it perfectly: “compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants.”
Aside from better quality vegetables and fruits, one of the biggest rewards of composting is the impact it has on climate change. The short version: the greenhouse effect is when gases are emitted then trapped in the atmosphere, this makes the Earth a warm place to live.
However, due to industry and excess human waste, the Earth is now getting too hot, and when that happens it makes a radical shift in our climate and increases natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. (which explains a lot of the increase of “crazy weather” we have in Texas.)
When our food and trash goes off to the landfills, gases are released into the atmosphere but composting reduces those methane gases and according to the EPA, compost can help in eliminating 99.6 percent of volatile organic compounds from the air, which can have a harmful impact on your health.
Austin and San Antonio have been the longtime leaders in helping the planet with city funded composting programs, both cities now have curbside pickup programs available, just like recycling. Houston and Dallas have programs run by local citizens that charge between $30-$35/month to take care of your composting needs.
This year, El Paso natives, Patricia Garcia Montoya and Veronica Vasquez Perez – founders of “Dirt y Girls Compost” – have taken on the challenge of being the pioneers of starting the composting movement for residents in Lower Valley, El Paso…and they are doing free of charge.
For both Patricia and Veronica, compositing goes deeper than soil. It is about connecting to the past, to culture and to community.
Pat and her husband were already part of the green movement in Austin, but when they made the move back to El Paso, she noticed the stark contrast between her beloved childhood memories and the neighborhood today: seldom neighborly interaction, the large acres of land are almost all gone, and roosters crowing…are heard no more.
I can hear both the pride and frustration in her voice over the phone, “growing up here I knew all my neighbors, we were all so protective of our neighborhood…this whole area was agricultural, Shawver Park was originally a cotton park; how did this happen, that in one generation we moved away from all of it?”
It was this love of community that was part of the inspiration to jump on board with Veronica, to revitalize their area.
Veronica attended the Texas Culinary Academy in Austin, where her eyes were opened to the extensive range of colorful veggies, she laughs as she tells me how she can still remember being mind blown when she started at the academy, “I had never heard of artichokes! I loved the beauty of all the vegetables…my dad and I had gardens when I was a kid so I was excited to learn…” she recalls. For Veronica, returning to that place of gardening and community was a natural fit.
When she and her husband returned to El Paso, she began to research on why it is that certain vegetables taste so much better. The initial photo that caught my attention was a result of Veronica’s own experiment, growing spinach in regular soil compared to compost soil, to see if there was a difference…and there was. It turns out, it’s all about the soil, and the best way to create good, healthy soil is…through composting.
Realizing there wasn’t any type of community composting program in their area, the two women decided to create one.
Veronica began with just herself and close family and friends, she had to first learn how to safely compost on a large scale, before opening it up to the community. It has been three years and she has never had a problem with vermin, rodents, etc., so she enlisted help from her good friend Pat and the two designed a community composting program.
HOW IT WORKS
For the resident it is simple, the “Dirt y Girls” bring you the special bins for your scraps in your kitchen, those bins are placed in custom compost bins and at the end of the week they pick them up, simple as that.
The magic comes afterwards, total time to see that dark, rich, healthy soil is about two months. The scraps are taken to the private area where they will be integrated into the larger ongoing pile. The pile needs plenty of air, moisture and must be turned over two times a week.
Veronica explains that if worms don’t appear then your pile might be mending, once the worms appear you are on your way to healthy soil. A large scale pile like the one for the community can’t be done in a home (please don’t try it at home) it is real work, there is a process: there needs to be lots of open air and later you bring in breathable mesh, turn over the soil, let the worms do what they do, let the pile cool down and cure, and finally, in the end you have healthy soil.
Veronica says you can actually smell the difference, healthy soil smells very good.
Both women tell me this has brought back that sense of community they remembered from their childhood, reaching back to their roots, gardening, decolonizing diets, bringing back the ways of their parents and grandparents.
They now are getting to meet and involve their neighbors, talking to them about composting and when they have fruits, vegetables or even spinach produced from that soil, they wrap it up and deliver it to those that have participated, a gesture to show what they all came together to create.
I asked them what the ultimate goal is, they were both very clear that they would like to see ongoing help in the community, to be able to pay it forward and see the city of El Paso install a city wide program for residential composting, based on their pilot program for the Lower Valley.
Talking with the “Dirt y Girls” was inspiring; a reminder of the ancestral knowledge that exist here in El Paso, showing us that each one of us really can make a difference and together we can heal our health, our communities, even the world…starting with the soil.
For more information on the Lower Vallery program, reach them at “Dirt y Girls Compost“