DELAWARE, Ohio (AP) — Tom Price sinks his bare hands into the dark pile as though it were a pool of spring water, drawing it upward to breathe its fragrance.
Two years earlier, this sought-after mountain of compost would have been the stuff parents warned their kids not to step in.
Today, it’s Zoo Brew. And, Price pointed out, as with fine wine and prized cured meats, the aging process is critical.
“It takes about two years for it to look as black and as odor-free as this product is,” he said.
His hands hold a decomposed, carbon-rich mix of food scraps, yard trimmings, horse manure and other organics. But what makes it special, and popular, is the contribution from animals at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Twice a day, the zoo’s miniature version of a garbage truck drives 13 miles north to Price Farms Organics, part of a larger 280-acre farm west of Delaware. Small for a farm, the operation is large for a compost facility.
The process begins at the zoo, where Chris Kotheimer rounds up barrels of zoo waste from a menagerie of animals.
“This morning, we have elephant poo,” he said. “Otters, bison, some good pronghorns. In the afternoon, it will be more toward the gorillas, the bonobos, the apes, pretty much everything around the zoo. Tigers, puma.”
The most unpleasant droppings to work with?
That’s easy, Kotheimer said: Polar bears.
“It’s a sweet and sour, that hits you really like a ton of bricks. It lets you know it’s coming.”
At the farm, his truck is weighed before backing up to an intake area. And, with a slow hydraulic push, a 4-ton collective dump is emptied, including bowling ball-sized mounds from the elephants.
If Kotheimer is the grocer and delivery man, Price is the chef. And his recipe is proprietary, he said with a smile.
The load bakes briefly in the sun, before being blended into a mountain of other organics, including table scraps from the Ohio Reformatory for Women and coffee grounds from a large food processing operation, both in Marysville.
Though the decomposition occurs without much intervention, time and patience are required.
“It’s just like a cheese commercial,” said Price. “It’s not done ’til it’s matured.”
Even in winter, interior temperatures in the mixture might exceed 120 degrees. A pile ignited last Mother’s Day, forcing workers to battle the heat, flames and fumes with shovels.
The “invisible hand” of decomposition, microbes and soil chemistry captivates Price, who shares his knowledge with school groups.
A positive vocabulary, along with attractive labeling, make the final product palatable.
Price, an Ohio State University agriculture graduate, is quick to correct visitors: “It’s soil, not dirt.”
“Yard trimmings, not waste. Nothing is waste.”
Mara Nebraska, Price’s 20-year-old granddaughter, works in the office and helps promote the product line, which also includes Barnyard Cafe and Stadium Scarlet, a mix of food and paper collected after football games at Ohio Stadium.
“I think that it tells a story,” she said of the trademarked names. “It shows the steps.”
The zoo makes no profit. Instead it pays “tipping” fees to dump its load at the Class II composting facility, which is regulated by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
The cycle is complete when customers such Paula Willis spread it around flowers and vegetable plants in gardens within the county’s increasingly urbanized southern areas.
A native of Long Island, New York, Willis is an organic gardener and she needed a second trip to haul enough bags of mulch and compost.
“This stuff has made my garden go crazy,” she said.
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com