A razor-sharp breeze punched the air with the aroma of manure and rotting fruit as Dave Anderson alighted from his tractor and strode to a 5-foot compost pile on his Darlington farm in Beaver County. It steamed like a volcano. He stuck a long thermometer into the stack and watched the needle cruise around the dial. When it stopped, he announced the temperature: "150."
On a morning that numbed fingers in moments, 150 degrees of anything was appealing. But the nutrient intensity of hot compost is a year-round godsend to a farmer trying to improve his soil.
The heat emanated from the oldest of five piles. It took three months for it to become soil. It started as 15 tons of produce, including lettuce, cabbage, onion, carrot and pineapple. Deemed too far gone to donate as food, it became a compost starter kit of nitrogen for microorganisms, worms, snails, insects and fungi to feast on. Mr. Anderson added delectable sources of carbon -- leaves and tree bark -- and manure.
Mr. Anderson is one of six farmers who formed the Neshannock Soil Builders Cooperative two years ago. In a legal agreement brokered by the Pennsylvania Resources Council with an $85,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, the farmers -- in Beaver, Lawrence and Mercer counties -- have received more than 1,800 tons of food waste since May. Most has come from four Walmart stores in the Pittsburgh area, said Bill Wertz, Wal-Mart's regional spokesman.
Compost programs are the deliveries of last resort in the company's zero-waste initiative, he said. The priority is to get edible food to food banks and animal rescue centers and zoos.
"I think we will" continue to contribute food waste to farmers "as long as we have the availability. We are always looking for avenues for our organic waste and appreciate having this outlet."
The federal grant helped allay the farmers' costs in getting permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection. As a legal entity, the co-op assures Wal-Mart's hauler the security of a contract.
Nick Shorr coordinates the program for the Pennsylvania Resources Council. He said he hopes to sign on more farmers and more waste sources and to procure funding to continue the program. The federal grant ran out in December.
Almost 1 million tons of compostable waste goes to landfills every year in southwestern Pennsylvania, he said. The diversion of food waste to improve soil is a bonus to small farmers, who are paid based on the tonnage they accept. By building the nutrient health of their soil, they ensure their crops are less susceptible to disease and pests.
It doesn't take long for a compost pile to break down. Mr. Anderson hastens the process by turning it with his tractor. His newest pile will be ready to spread this spring on land that had been strip-mined years ago.
Most land has become depleted of nutrients, even traditional farmlands -- especially those that have endured generations of synthetic fertilizers and chemical treatments, Mr. Shorr said. "We had bad 20th century practices, but in the last 20 years, more conventional farmers have reformed by planting cover crops and reducing herbicides.
"The co-op farmers didn't need to be convinced to improve their soil," he said. "The challenge is to convince the conventional farmer" to wean himself off synthetic fertilizers.
The co-op members are all family farmers. Some make their living outside the farm. Mr. Anderson is a full-time air traffic controller who raises grass-fed beef cattle on 120 acres. He sells meat directly to 40 families.
"When I was a kid, I saw a neighbor farming and asked him for a job," he said. "An affection for farming grew in me. When I had my own family, I was concerned about the food my kids ate, and farming pulled me back. We saved and found this land in 2005.
"I didn't know about the ramifications of strip mining on soil then. Now I do, and I decided to make the best of it. It's a marathon, not a sprint. I am restorative by nature. I like to preserve things. And I like the way it makes me feel."
Among the cooperative's farmers, Ron and Rosemary Stidmon may have the widest visibility. On their 90-acre farm in Enon Valley, Beaver County, they grow vegetables, herbs, fruit and nuts but specialize in garlic.
They sell 50 percent of 46 varieties of garlic on the Internet, the rest to upscale markets, farmers' markets and at garlic festivals.
"It's important for us to be involved in the disposal system," Mr. Stidmon said. "We'd like to talk to kids in schools about the value of what's wasted."
The Stidmons went to college in Pittsburgh, and she has family ties to the Sharon area. After Sept. 11, 2001, they left their home in New York City to look for a farm. They bought their land in 2003 and expanded their garlic varieties onto a portion that had not been farmed.
The Enon Valley Garlic Farm gets 50 truckloads of municipal leaf and yard waste from East Palestine, Ohio, every year. The Stidmons pay a private company to deliver wood chips. Last year, as part of the cooperative, they received 400 tons of food waste compost.
"It takes $30,000 to $35,000 to run this farm," Mr. Stidmon said. "Just enough to break even. Most farmers are going broke. The purpose of doing this wasn't necessarily to run a business, but I am a businessman so figured I'd better learn to do this. When you get to a certain point, it's kind of fun."
The cooperative farmers share the cost and use of specialized equipment, apply as one for grants and loans and share information about possible sources of compost. Besides East Palestine, the municipalities of Darlington, Koppell, Sharon, Farrell, Wheatland, New Castle and New Wilmington provide leaf and yard waste to the co-op.
Chuck Moose has been amending his soil with compost from Wal-Mart since last year. He raises grass-fed beef cattle on the 450-acre farm in New Wilmington, Mercer County, where he grew up the son of a dairy farmer. He began raising beef cattle seven years ago.
He sells to a restaurant purveyor in Boston and New York City. To boost his income, he works a nearby farmer's 1,000 acres.
"I like the natural way of doing things," he said. "This was a way to get some help. Wal-Mart pays us to take this stuff."
One reason most farmers feed beef cattle corn and soy beans is the speed to market, 16 to 18 months compared to three years for grass-fed beef.
"But raising them on grass is less expensive," Mr. Moose said. "When we get this soil up where it should be, the grass will sustain itself. It takes several years, but will this compost make the soil better? Yes. My soil is already testing better. I don't have to buy commercial fertilizer and I don't have to buy lime. If I break even on that part of it, putting it in the field is my bonus. That's why we'll continue to do it."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.