To keep up with the world's exploding population, farmers will have to produce more food over the next fifty years than during the past 10,000 years combined. Given environmental issues and a scarcity of fossil resources, this daunting task seems almost impossible. But it's a problem 31-year-old John-Paul Maxfield is determined to solve with his startup company, Waste Farmers. All he needs now is a little financial help. Maxfield has entered his company in the [i4c] (pronounced "I foresee") contest, which will reward three local, start-up ventures intent on making positive social or environmental changes with prize packages of up to $50,000 in investments, office space, marketing exposure and strategic mentorship. What began as a partner of Sarah McLachlan's 2010 Lilith Tour has been given new energy by Galvanize, a local "small business incubator." [i4c] Denver is Galvanize's pilot project, but the organizers hope to spread the campaign to other cities starting next year.
Roughly forty companies have entered the contest so far; the deadline is June 25. The $50,000 prize is an equity investment, so [i4c] is not a charity, but at the heart of [i4c] is an altruistic aim. "We have a chance here to make Denver an entrepreneurial hub," says founder Jim Deters, "bringing together our city's innovators and creators, with the goal of growing together."
Growing is something Maxfield knows a lot about, and grow is exactly what Waste Farmers has done. What began in 2008 as a dream financed by $9,000 in liquidated retirement funds, a truck and a strong cowboy ethic -- "honesty, integrity and hard work" -- that Maxfield gets from his grandfather, a University of Wyoming American Heritage Center Agricultural Citizen of the Century nominee, is now a blossoming company with a specific mission: "to build a vertically integrated, sustainable agricultural company focused on helping humanity meet current and future food demands while decreasing agriculture's environmental footprint." To fulfill that mission, Waste Farmers produces and sells organic soil amendments, fertilizers and soil inoculants, including potting soil, worm castings, biochar and compost tea -- that's tea for plants.
Last year, Alpine Waste & Recycling, the largest independent waste and recycling company in Colorado, agreed to cover the Waste Farmer's compost collection routes. And in Arvada, a third-grade class implemented Waste Farmer's composting program.
One of the students "was in a Costco with her mom," Maxfield says, "and she got a [food] sample...and she didn't like it, and so she went to go throw it out and she's like, 'Mommy, there's no composting bin here." And [the mom says], 'I know. I'm not sure if they compost, but let's go talk to the manager.' So the little third-grader went to talk to the manager at that Costco." And that's how an eight-year-old changed the waste management program of an outlet of a major corporation.
"This is not just a company," says Maxfield, "It is part of a broader (positive) revolution."
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A necessary revolution, he believes: "Modern food production relies on the assumption that the fossil chemicals that we've depended on since the 1960s are either indefinitely available, which is not true, and then, number two, if they are available, that they'll always be cheap to take out the ground, which is also not true.... At the current rates of consumption, world resources of certain fossil resources critical to agricultural production will last about forty more years."
Page down to read more about Waste Farmers. Maxfield's philosophical belief is that if humans are to reap the nutrients of the earth, they must also be willing to sow: "We've gone from existing within a natural environment and being producers to basically just consuming and wasting and, if you look at the natural world, waste doesn't exist.... You can tell a natural ecosystem is in balance when inputs equal outputs and, you know, there is no waste."
Like it or not, we are part of the ecosystems that surround us -- a fact we seem to have forgotten, he says. "Let's develop a way for us to capture the organic material that was destined for landfills," urges an impassioned Maxfield. "That's important physically because we're returning organic matter that should go back, and would have gone back, in the natural system, back to the agricultural process through putting it back through our Microbe Brewery and creating those products that go back to the farmers."
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The Microbe Brewery is the hallmark of Waste Farmers. "We call it the Microbe Brewery because of soil biology and we're brewing up soil microbes, which are the key to healthy soil -- but also as a nod to the micro-brewing industry here in Colorado," Maxfield explains. "So we're like that craft manufacturer of quality organic fertilizers and soil products."
Maxfield's goal is to "create a company that brings in some of the talent that's been lost to financial services...where they can focus on this lingering issue," he says. "Denver and Boulder are kind of like the Silicon Valley of agriculture 2.0, and we want to grow to be its Apple in a way.... I want to build an enterprise that my kids can run, that is highly profitable, does right by the world and can create a legacy for future generations."
More from our Environment archive: "Groupon project enlists hikers to hunt for elusive pika."