Covering plenty of ground: Coffee composting the secret to Miami's sustainable, educational farm

400 pounds of used java, filters collected weekly

OXFORD, Ohio -- Cincinnatians love their daily dose of java.

Science is even on our side with this addiction, showing potential health benefits for those who regularly drink coffee, such as a lowered risk for developing heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and Parkinson's disease. But coffee grounds and filters left over from our daily indulgence can provide some major benefits, as well.

It turns out, composters welcome those remnants as heartily as avid coffee drinkers welcome their first steaming cup of Joe each morning.

Just ask Lauren Wulker. She’s the farm manager at Miami University’s new Institute for Food farm – and unofficial keeper of its thriving compost pile.

“It’s a bit like making lasagna,” she said of composting. “There are layers you have to create to make it work. … The coffee grounds are an important ingredient for us.”

That not-so-secret ingredient most of us toss in the trash each day is rich in nitrogen, which makes it great for composting, Wulker said. And unlike other organic material, like food scraps, coffee grounds are fairly easy (and less smelly) to collect and store.

An additional benefit for the farm: There is no shortage of them in Oxford, thanks to Miami’s coffee consumption.

Miami University students harvest produce last summer at its Institute for Food farm, an interdisciplinary education project that aims to engage the Miami University community around issues of food, health and sustainable agriculture. (Photo provided)

The university collected more than 2,000 pounds of used coffee grounds and filters last semester from select sites on its Oxford campus and sent them to the farm to be composted. This semester, it is collecting a lot more.

Organizers have stepped up their efforts and increased the number of collection sites, said Shawnee Waters, Miami’s sustainability coordinator.

“It’s a way for us to further reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills, while also helping support the farm,” said Waters, who spearheaded the coffee composting project.

With the added sites, including a Starbucks on campus, they are collecting as much as 400 pounds each week.

Waters, a graduate student in environmental science, collects the used coffee grounds and filters (stored in 5-gallon buckets at each site) with the help of another Miami student, Hanna Gonce.

They deliver the material to the Institute for Food farm, located in Butler County on the Austin-Magie Farm and Mill District. The 35-acre property is owned by Miami University and listed on the National Register for Historic Places.

About eight acres of the historic property is designated for the Institute for Food farm project, an interdisciplinary education project that aims to engage the Miami community around issues of food, health and sustainable agriculture.

The university broke ground on the sustainable farm last January and started with about an acre of crops. The original plan was to grow 10 types of produce, including tomatoes, carrots, lettuce and beets.

They ended up with a lot more varieties.

“By the end of the season, lab students counted 28 different crops,” Wulker said. The farm celebrated an abundant harvest, she said, thanks in part to the support and enthusiasm of students and the Miami community (and the farm's healthy, compost-treated soil).

In fact, it was a little more abundant than anticipated.

Those involved in the early planning stages of the project anticipated selling the majority of the produce to Miami’s dining services, she said. It turned out, the farm yielded much more food than that department could handle. The farm ended up selling vegetables and herbs to a variety of local food suppliers, including Moon Co-op, in Oxford, and Urban Greens, a Cincinnati-based Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm.

Some of the produce was donated to food pantries Oxford Community Choice Pantry and the Open Hands Food Pantry in Hamilton, as well as La Soupe, a restaurant turned nonprofit in Anderson Township that uses donated “ugly produce” to help feed the hungry.

Providing food for both the local co-ops and food pantries supports the farm’s mission, said history professor Peggy Shaffer, the Institute for Food’s co-director.

The farm serves as a lab where students in a variety of disciplines engage in real-world experimental learning, she said. But the project is also intended to promote a greater awareness of food, health and sustainability – and help address local food insecurity and healthy food access issues.

University and community partnerships and joint projects, like the coffee composting project, help advance that mission as well, she said.

“It creates conversation. It's been a really great way to make the farm more visible and help give people a sense of our mission,” Shaffer said of the composting project. “This is really the first visible project that communicates what we want this institute to do not just at the university, but also out in the community.”

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