From Combat to Compost, Veteran's New Gig Is Green and Rewarding

After working the land mine clearance detail in Iraq, this Army vet is giving back to the land in the U.S.

Justen Garrity.

Jun 18, 2014· 3 MIN READ

Andrea Stone has covered national news, politics, the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and foreign affairs for USA Today, The Huffington Post and AOL News, reporting from 47 states and 26 countries. She helped launch Al Jazeera America's website and now writes for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other outlets.

Justen Garrity plunges his hand into a wooden bin of decomposed food scraps, wood chips, and worm feces still crawling with the thousands of red wigglers that made them.

“We sell the heck out of the worm poop,” says the Army veteran as he cradles a dark, wriggling mound of vermicompost, a nutrient-rich organic fertilizer and soil rejuvenator highly prized by gardeners.

The worm barn is a long way from Iraq, where the former Army captain led a unit that cleared roadside bombs and repaired bomb craters. Yet his journey “from combat to compost” came of necessity, when no one would hire him after he left active duty in 2009.

During the height of the Great Recession, just over one in 10 post-9/11 veterans was unemployed. The economy has since improved but veterans still have a higher unemployment rate than those who never served.

Garrity, who has a bachelor’s degree in information systems management from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, was rejected for dozens of positions. His only job offer was to work as a contractor in Afghanistan—a nonstarter for a soldier who had seen enough of war zones.

“The Army gave me millions of dollars and hundreds of soldiers to manage, so I must have been competent,” Garrity said. So, instead of being “angry or frustrated or sad,” he started Veteran Compost and made it a priority to hire fellow veterans or their family members.

“Veterans, like food scraps, were underemployed and undervalued,” says Jeffrey Madison, 51, an Air Force veteran who had lost his job as a pilot for an air taxi service before Garrity hired him in late 2012 to sell compost in the Washington, D.C., area.

Garrity is a member of the Farmer Veteran Coalition, which encourages veterans to farm. He currently has 10 full- or part-time employees, including a former Army Black Hawk pilot, a Marine veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, and a retired Army master sergeant with 22 years of service. He hopes to hire several more by 2015.

At 31, with close-cropped, prematurely salt-and-pepper hair, Garrity says he’s “not some super hippy-dippy type”—he mentions several times that he drives an SUV and loves steak. But he also believes in doing “purposeful work,” even if it’s dirty and hard.

“You don’t have to eat granola to be more conscientious, to feel a sense of stewardship and responsibility” for the environment, he said.

Always interested in sustainability, Garrity researched green businesses. He learned that there wasn’t a lot of competition in composting, even as cities such as New York and San Francisco were starting their own small efforts.

Two-thirds of everything sent to landfills can be recycled. The Environmental Protection Agency says that of the 36 million tons of food scraps generated in 2012 alone, a mere five percent was diverted for composting. The rest is left to decompose in landfills and give off methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Convinced he had his mission, Garrity spent months reading and visiting compost operations to learn the science of turning food scraps into soil conditioners. After searching on Craigslist, he leased an 80-acre former horse farm just down the road from several shopping centers. And then, with just “me and my shovel,” he opened Veteran Compost in July 2010.

In the first six months, Garrity made $350 as business developed at the speed it takes to make compost. Which is to say, no speed at all.

“I could have played lottery tickets and lost less money,” he said.

It took two years to turn a profit but eventually local businesses started hearing about the veteran building seven-foot-high compost piles out on Bush Chapel Road. Soon, restaurants, supermarkets, hospitals, schools, and nursing homes from Baltimore to Annapolis, Md., started paying him to take away their food scraps.

Veteran Compost now operates from suburban Philadelphia to northern Virginia. In September, the company started residential collection in the Washington D.C., area, picking up seven-gallon bins of food waste and leaving clean bins to be filled for the next week. Many city-dwelling customers donate their compost allotment to local community gardens.

Garrity has opened a second compost farm near Frederick, Md., and plans a third one near Annapolis. The additional sites cut down on transportation costs and his operation’s carbon footprint.

Each day, four to five tons of crab shells, spaghetti sauce, orange peels, flower stems, and other food scraps and biodegradable paper products arrive in trucks here. Despite the putrid cargo, only a slight whiff of decaying garbage is discernable—and then only when standing next to the piles.

Besides a bad smell, also missing are leaves, grass clippings, and other yard waste. They often contain pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals that would make the resulting compost unmarketable to organic farmers, so Garrity doesn’t accept them.

The scraps are mixed with wood chips and laid out in piles that are pumped with oxygen from small blowers at their base. Each pile is kept above 145 degrees F to allow aerobic microorganisms to do their decomposing work, which usually takes about four weeks until it is ready to be put through a rotary screener to sift out large fragments and nonorganic debris such as forks, tin cans, and wooden mallets from the region’s ubiquitous crab shacks. After another four to eight weeks, the compost is ready to be sold.

While more local governments, including nearby Howard County, have begun free pickup of food scraps, Garrity says he isn’t worried about the competition because their compost often includes yard waste, plastic bags, and other nonorganic ingredients.

Adriel Harris, 36, a federal worker and mother of two who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, says a new pilot program there won’t entice her to quit using Veteran Compost, which she found online and “pleaded,” in an email, to start pickups in her area.

“I think it’s really important to compost food scraps if possible,” said Harris, who pays $25 each month to have old corn cobs, banana peels, leftover pasta, chicken bones, and other scraps turned into compost that she will later get back. “It’s the right thing to do.”

So is helping veterans.

“They’re doing good things for the environment and creating a few jobs for veterans,” she said. “I’m always glad to support this kind of organization.”