Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.
The ads are all over the Denver and Boulder Craigslists. They sport different titles -- "New Composter," "Patio Garden Composter," "Garden Composter Rotating Type" -- but it's clear after a quick perusal that all the many composters for sale in the ads come from the same person in Louisville. "No odor, space saver, really does the job fast," read the posts, which include photos of myriad homemade rotating composters made from upright plastic drums attached to wooden legs. There are several sizes and prices: Fifteen gallon-models go for $115 before tax, fifty-gallon jumbos sell for $145 and a nifty duel-barrel model -- so you can have two batches of compost "cooking" at once -- logs in a $198. All of them bear an uncanny resemblance to R2D2.
And they're guaranteed to take your trash and turn it into grade-A plant cuisine, says Mike Haynes, the man behind this quirky little home business. "Stick your arms in and it's nice," says Haynes, fondling the mulchy contents of one his contraptions, which has been cooking away in the backyard of his Louisville house and base of operations. "It's fluffy and hot"
While they're all made by hand in Haynes' garage, these rotating beauties sport top-of-the-line features. Interior aerator posts. Screened air holes. Moisture-locking lids. And as Haynes knows from experience, they can make compost in no time. "I had one steaming hot. It took eight days!" he exclaims of a batch he made featuring tree trimmings, kitchen scraps and shredded paper. Of course, his next try took much longer -- because he added too many pine needles. That, as noted in the ridiculously detailed "Guide to Small Batch Composting" booklet he gives out with each purchase, is a definite no-no, since it skews the balance of nitrogen-rich materials, like grass clippings and kitchen scraps, and carbon-rich materials, like paper and dry leaves, needed for a successful recipe.
Haynes' endeavor started last fall, when he began collecting leaves to compost. But when he went shopping for a composter, the options available were either stationary pile-type models, which had to be laboriously mixed by hand and took a long time to cook, or fancy rotating models that cost hundreds of dollars. So he decided to build his own, a variation on a model he found online that utilized old pickle barrels. "It just seemed simpler and did the job," he says of his prototype, which worked so well that he told his wife, Jean, "I think I can sell these things."
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Building the contraptions was right up Haynes' alley. "He's a tinkerer," says Jean of her husband, a commercial construction worker who's recently been dabbling in fixing and flipping real estate -- and that's putting it mildly. In the garage, next to many composters in various stages of construction, is a ceramics kiln he built by hand. The couple's cars feature hydrogen fuel enhancement systems he installed that give them 20 percent better mileage. And there's a wine press in the basement the two use to make 400 bottles a year of their "Louisville Cellars" wine, which they give away to their friends.
When Haynes starting advertising his creations on Craigslist in May, the response was immediate from folks who'd been bitten by the urban homesteading bug and were looking to create their own plant food. He now estimates he sells three or four a week from people contacting him via his e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and has started promoting them at the Louisville Street Fair every Friday night ("As soon as you spin it around, people come on over," he says of his models, each of which take about two hours to build). He's now taken a part-time second employee, a college student named Andrew Johnsen, and he has a tax license for his business. Thanks to a guy in Arvada who sells chemically sterilized food drums that are perfect for his design, Haynes shouldn't run out of construction materials -- just as long as the Arvada merchant, who's a tad preoccupied with disaster preparedness, doesn't make good on his promise to head for the hills when swine flu takes over.
It's all delightfully quirky and fascinating -- but I have one last question for the compost king. I'd heard that some people swear by a particular compost ingredient that supposedly works wonders for the finished product: human urine. How does Haynes come down on the particulars of pee-pee?
To that, Haynes just smiles knowingly. "It's high in nitrogen," he says with a wink. "That's all I'll say."