An interview with Gretchen Boyer, Executive Director of FarmHands Nourish and member of the Whitefish Farmers Market Organizing Committee
AERO: What was the rationale behind creating a zero waste Market?
Boyer: Our Farmers Market generates a lot of waste, principally from all the food truck vendor sales. It just never made sense to us to put all that effort into building community and then, at the end of the day, collect the trash and throw it into a container that you know is going to the landfill.
AERO: What made you start this year?
Boyer: I think one concern the organizing committee worked with was whether vendors could get the compostable products they needed. Last fall Climate Smart Glacier Country hosted an event called The State of Flathead’s Plastic. We (Farm Hands Nourish) and Rhonda Fitzgerald, a Whitefish Farmers Market co-founder and organizer, and a member of the Heart of Whitefish, which sponsors the Market, all attended the event. It was clear from the resources there that the vendors could get access to whatever products they needed, so that wouldn’t be a concern. Also, folks from the Bozeman Farmers Market were there and they shared how they do a zero waste market, so we gained confidence that it was doable.
AERO: What are the key ingredients to a successful zero-waste event?
Boyer: First, you have to have a commercial composting facility in the area. We’re very fortunate to have Dirt Rich Compost here. It’s not cost-effective if you have to ship the waste out the area to compost and it makes little sense to require compostable products if you’re just going to throw them into the landfill. Plus, Dirt Rich gave us a lot of support and guidance when we were researching acceptable materials so we were confident that the products our vendors used would be 100% compostable.
Second, we couldn’t have done this without the support of the Heart of Whitefish. The City of Whitefish picks up the trash from the market, so we’ve never had to pay for waste removal. The Heart of Whitefish paid the cost to have Dirt Rich pick up our waste. Farm Hands Nourish did a lot of the leg work in terms of product research, vendor communications, and implementing the zero waste market, and the Heart of Whitefish was essential for support.
AERO: Was it difficult to get vendors on board with the idea?
Boyer: Really, no. Once they saw they could get products easily, for the most part they jumped right in. Some of them had to do some product testing to find compostable alternatives that worked best for their particular food. But they were champions of the effort; they didn’t even charge more, which they could have, and I don’t think there would have been pushback if they had. A lot of them are using compostable products in the other markets they sell at, too.
AERO: Learnings for next year?
Boyer: Better signage. The consumer is a key variable. We had to be diligent that folks coming to the market didn’t use the market bins to dispose of waste they brought with them, and that they disposed of market waste correctly. I think it will get easier as people come to expect that the market is zero waste.
It’s a learning for all of us. We were glorified garbage collectors, really. We lived in gloves – changing out the bags, using a potato masher to mash down the trash, making sure there wasn’t anything in there that didn’t belong. Yeah, not very sexy! But it will get easier as folks get educated.
I have to say though, sticky and frustrating as some of that work was, it felt SO good to divert all that waste! We calculated we diverted two dump trucks worth of waste from the landfill! And all that material is a resource for Dirt Rich so they can make quality compost that then becomes a resource for the community. It’s such a win-win!
AERO: What’s your vision for the future?
Boyer: Our goal over the next two years is to convert all the disposable containers market vendors use to compostables. The bakers, craft vendors, etc. People carry those containers out of the market with them so they’re technically not impacting our waste at the market. Still, we want our event to be plastic-free, as much as possible. Our farmers are working on this themselves.That’s an on-going effort because apparently the plastic bag alternative technology is not quite there yet, but the farmers are testing everything they can get their hands on. It’s very exciting to see and be a part of.
Also, we feel like we’ve figured out the tricks of the trade for making any local event zero waste. We want to work with the City of Whitefish to support offering incentives and a tool kit for events that want to be zero waste. I think that for events that do have to pay for trash removal, it’s quite possible that going the compostable route would be less expensive. Another win-win-win!
Farm Hands Nourish: is an AERO Business Partner and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to reconnect people to the sources of their food and to those who produce it through education, outreach, and market support.
Heart of Whitefish – is a nonprofit, volunteer organization dedicated to advocating for the economic health and vitality of downtown Whitefish. They sponsor the Whitefish Downtown Farmers Market.
Dirt Rich Compost, LLC – is an AERO Business Partner and a woman-owned business based in Columbia Falls, dedicated to converting food scraps into biologically live compost to rebuild our soils, our food sources, our landscapes and our health.
Climate Smart Glacier Country – is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to address the challenges that a changing climate creates for water and food security, public health, and recreation in the Glacier National Park region. They engage the public to develop local solutions that will conserve resources, promote clean energy, and foster a thriving community today and for future generations