Doing the Dirty Work
A first for the region, Schmelly’s Dirt Farm’s compost collection is rapidly expanding to serve local restaurants, hotels, farmers and growers.
Nicola Krebill doesn’t mind getting dirty. After years of boots-on-the-ground nonprofit work in Louisiana, Krebill saw the need to combine efforts with the New Orleans Food & Farm Network—which addresses the issue of food deserts and fresh-food access by establishing free backyard vegetable gardens—with the need for healthy soil for farmers and growers.
The seed of Schmelly’s Dirt Farm was planted. Since its launch in 2014, the company has been picking up commercial food waste and compost, transforming it into rich composted soil, and then selling it to farms, growers and gardeners across the area.
Krebill—who acts as owner, founder and administrator—and operations manager Susan Sakash, now helm a team of five part-time haulers who man the pick-up routes and perform on-site processing at the company’s headquarters in St. Bernard Parish. For the team, the inspiration to create and work at Schmelly’s is more than just a job, it’s about improving the community.
“Growers know the benefits and importance of compost: It enables water and nutrient retention for healthier and more productive plants,” Sakash says. “Compost directly supports bioremediation, and is a way to clean toxic environments. Compost suppresses or stops erosion and land loss, and compost collection and processing could build jobs. Nicola knew that if someone could start a local compost production company, growers could fill their empty garden beds and address crucial environmental issues facing Southern Louisiana.”
As more attention is being paid to “sustainable materials management” over traditional “solid waste management” at both the local and national level, Schmelly’s Dirt Farm is on the forefront of finding new ways to create businesses that are profitable but also create much-needed jobs at a fair wage while providing a valuable service for farmers and growers, and supporting the recycling and reuse of organic materials in a targeted way.
“The cornerstones of our business philosophy are healthy soil and meaningful jobs, both of which support a healthy, vibrant community,” Krebill says. “For the past four years, we have been taking our time to build and offer waste-management services that never existed for businesses in New Orleans. Composting is also called ‘organics recycling,’ which describes exactly what we help our clients do: recycle organic material. Since our start, Schmelly’s has diverted over4 million pounds of organic material from landfills and converted this material into healthy soil amendments for farmers and gardeners.”
Schmelly’s compost pick-up list currently consists of 40 businesses from a range of commercial enterprises throughout Orleans and Jefferson parishes. This fall the company will be expanding its services to St. Bernard Parish.
“Initially, we were mostly serving small businesses like restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores, but in the past year we’ve taken on bigger clients like hotels, offices and event venues,” says Sakash. “There is definitely a trend in the business community around sustainability and waste reduction goals, and we are excited that Schmelly’s can be part of the sustainability solution for area businesses.”
Pick-up fees vary from business to business, depending upon volume and frequency, and determining pricing has been a unique challenge for Krebill and Sakash, with Schmelly’s forging the way into unchartered business territory.
“Our pricing is based on volume and frequency of pickup, while also factoring in transportation miles and other overhead costs,” Krebill says. “Starting a small composting company is literally starting an anomaly of a business: There’s nothing else like it.”
For Schmelly’s, part of the job is to educate businesses and potential clients on several misconceptions about composting.
“The two areas of concern we hear of most are that food scrap compost is extra work and that it’s smelly and attracts pests,” Krebill says. “These are issues that concern garbage in general, so I always try to highlight that the problem is not coming from compost, but rather poor material handling and being thoughtless about our waste. First, food loss and waste should be avoided at all costs. This happens through proper planning and careful management of our food resources.”
Krebill has witnessed some great best practices by local grocery stores and restaurants to reduce their food loss, create efficient work practices around waste management, and improve waste separation and isolation therefore creating cleaner waste management areas.
“Together we can make handling our waste lighter, cleaner, and much more sustainable,” Krebill says.
While Schmelly’s does not currently provide compost pick-up to residential clients—it’s on the “to-do” list for the future—the company partners with the New Orleans Public Library and Compost N.O.W, which together provide a compost drop-off program at nine public library branches.
After composting the materials, Schmelly’s provides enriched soil to community gardens and local farms. A retail product currently in development.
“We’re hoping to begin offering Schmelly’s products in bulk and wholesale under trial contracts in the fall and a complete line of retail products in the spring of 2020,” says Sakash.
This past April, Schmelly’s was awarded $40,000 in cash and over $43,000 of in-kind services by taking home the top prize at StartUp St. Bernard, a program of St Bernard Economic Development Fund (SBEDF) and the Meraux Foundation. The goal is to use the funds to increase the size and reach of the company. An expansion into St. Bernard Parish is expected to be underway later this summer.
With the winnings, Schmelly’s is also hoping to tick off a few items from the company’s “wish list” of ideas.
“The incredible in-kind services package is propelling conversations around developing a new organic waste MRF (materials recovery facility) in St. Bernard Parish,” says Sakash. “We have begun an initial feasibility analysis around a potential site. The cash award is being split between site development and equipment costs, hiring on a new part-time operations manager, and facilitated trainings around job safety and workplace diversity, equity and inclusiveness.”
Did You Know?
Sustainable materials management is defined by the EPA as “a systemic approach to using and reusing materials more productively over their entire life cycles.”
What’s in a Name?
For this company, it’s a family thing.
“Nicola’s great-great aunt, Elloise Schmelly, immigrated to the states with all of her possessions contained in two trunks,” says Susan Sakash, operations manager at Schmelly’s Dirt Farm. “She packed a crock pot full of worms and soil from her garden, rich with compost that had been made on her family’s farm for generations. To this day, billions of microorganisms thrive in our compost piles from the legacy of Aunt Ellie, continuing the decomposition and regeneration of life that has happened since the beginning of time.”