Waste Farmers farm waste for a more sustainable future

The annals of American entrepreneurship are filled with up-from-nothing yarns: Some of the first Nike soles were made on a waffle iron; Apple started with computers built in a garage; the founders of Whole Foods showered with a hose at their first store, where they also lived. And so it goes with John-Paul Maxfield's Waste Farmers. His bootstrap story — repeated everywhere from local cocktail parties to the Denver Chamber of Commerce's 2010 Green Business of the Year's website — goes like this: "The company was founded with $9,000, a pickup truck and a belief that idealism and capitalism can coexist."

In May, Waste Farmers moved from a small storage area in northeast Denver that it shared with snowplows, dogs and metal scrappers to a lot on 56th Street in Commerce City, where two sheds flank the center of operations: a house that, inside, is straight out of All in the Family, from the brown shag carpeting to the eye-burning blue paint. Maxfield, with a full beard and dirty jeans, occupies the corner office, close to his ubiquitous acoustic guitar. "John-Paul is a visionary," says Chad Spurway, one of his employees. "He talks about things I don't understand on the regular. He loves big words; we are a big-word company."

And what does this big-word company do? Without being too, ahem, verbose, Waste Farmers farms waste. Spurway or Matthew Celesta, the other full-time employee, drives the company's 2004 Isuzu box truck along a prescribed route to pick up food scraps stashed by Denver restaurants, hotels, schools and various businesses in large green containers, or "toters" (they look like the City of Denver recycling rollers, except they're not purple). The "organic waste stream," as Maxfield terms it, is then transported to A1 Organics in Platteville, where it is converted to fertilizer.

"That's a temporary solution," Maxfield says. "Every time we do that, we lose money. Because of the way permitting is, it's a drain to do composting on a large scale."

The businesses that contract with Waste Farmers — paying enough to cover transport, labor and the A1 fees — balance ecology against economics. "In New York City, you're saving money by composting; it's so expensive to throw things away," Maxfield says. "Here, where it's cost-neutral, there has to be some other integral value. We have really low, cheap landfill rates in Colorado." Cake Crumbs was the first company to sign up, in March 2009; from there, Waste Farmers' roster has grown to include the City of Glendale, Snooze, the Fort, Regis University and Chipotle outlets.

The nitty-gritty of the operation is extremely gritty, especially come summer. Still, some companies shine. Chipotle's scraps, for instance, are almost as tidy as a big burrito bowl, full of freshly torn lettuce, avocado rinds and lime wedges. "I eat at Chipotle every fucking week, at least," Celesta says. "It's one of the cheapest meals I eat in a week, but it's one of the freshest."

I went to Regis Jesuit High School with Spurway and Celesta, following in the footsteps of Maxfield. He graduated from the University of Colorado in 2003, and then, after a short-lived career in private equity, established Waste Farmers with the help of Erik Porter, whom he calls a "serial entrepreneur." When he needed help, he reached out to Spurway (who's been on board full-time since November 2009) and then Celesta; I've helped out here and there for a month. "A snapshot of what we are doing today is four guys who are more or less out of work, busting their ass, neck deep in scrap metal, diapers, whatever, trying to eke out a living," Spurway relates. "The greater picture is getting an education in business."

A host of building projects are under way on the lot, everything from a loading dock to a water-filtration system (which mimics the natural order of things, Maxfield points out, cattails and all, ) to a shed for some goats. "They talk about it in Leviticus; you are only supposed to be eating cud animals," Celesta preaches. "And the concept is, it's cleaner. The goat is a trash eater." More than muscle is required for some of these; Maxfield hopes to create everything from biofuel to a tilapia aquaponics system.

Recycling (of the bottle-and-can variety) is done on Mondays, with trips to Alpine's MRF (materials recovery facility), off of I-70 at Pecos Street. The place is a veritable shit show — something of a cross between a Rio favela and a monster truck rally, with piles of everything from empty milk cartons to copies of this newspaper smashed and raked by 'dozers. "There are a hundred ways to die in here," Celesta quips.

Waste Farmers also dabbles in recycling electronics and scrap metal, where "there are a lot of crackheads trying to get their fix," says Spurway. But the action on the lot is the primary focus of Waste Farmers, where Maxfield wants to create what he calls "Next Door Farms." The first is already in the works there — and where better to give the finger to the industrial revolution than the center of Commerce City? "Our goal is to build a network of regionally scaled Next Door Farms to process urban organic waste into value-added products," Maxfield explains. That means fertilizer and even things like oyster mushrooms grown in spent coffee grounds (which Waste Farmers may have in abundance if a deal with a large java chain goes through).

Ideally, the circle would be self-sufficient, capturing methane from the organic waste and converting it to power. "If you look at nature and the model that nature presents, there is no waste," Maxfield says. "The output for one becomes the input for another."

But, as Spurway notes, "we divert things from the landfill. We aren't socialistic wackos turned off from the rest of the world... You can't buy an iPod made of corn."

Maxfield knows that very well, and has found himself at the forefront of some good, old-fashioned American capitalistic competition. "Right now the garbage industry is getting into composting, which is a scary thought," he says. "The garbage industry has no business in the organics recycling business. You want to keep an industry with horrible environmental stewardship far, far away.

"We are actively collecting because we don't want them to do it," he continues. "They make their money throwing stuff away. We wouldn't collect it if we could trust there was a clean stream of things. In short, what's good for the garbage industry is bad for society, and I think the inverse is true: What's good for society is bad for their industry."

The statistics back him up: Americans waste from 26 (on the consumer level) to 38 percent (from the supply chain) of their food, sending enough garbage to landfills to create methane emissions on par with 7.8 million automobiles. And while this waste of waste is certainly bad for the environment, it's also starting to make less sense business-wise — something Maxfield hopes to capitalize on. "We exist in a system where we are losing soil, and we've got a growing population," he notes. "We haven't realized that we are running at a deficit."

But, of course, it all comes down to the individual. "It's been designed so that we don't see where things come from and we don't see where they go. Where they go is the landfill; we don't see that," Maxfield says. "Littering doesn't bother me that much, because if people saw litter, maybe they'd stop buying some of the things they consume. Why is it being made if it's not going to go back into the system?"

Sitting in his company headquarters, in the shadows of factories pumping pollution into Colorado's air, Maxfield leans back and fully inhabits his lofty position. "What we are saying is that there is another industrial revolution coming about that syncs up with the model that nature has presented," he says, and smiles. "Chemistry won post-World War II. It's biology's time."

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Colin St. John
Contact: Colin St. John