Ground to Ground

How I became The Coffee Grounds Lady


Rebekah Smith

I was excited to discover Ground to Ground and look forward to contributing to it, although I do have a confession to make. I am not a gardener. While I did serve on a task force that established one of the largest community gardens in St. Paul and I do maintain a small plot there, it was the organizational challenge that enticed me to get involved. I am an organizer.

I’m also an avid composter and here’s why. During my years staffing the Minnesota House Energy Finance and Policy Committee, I got a dose of peak oil, climate change and the paradox of an economy that depends on finite resources while demanding exponential growth in order to keep going. Thanks to the chair at the time, Rep. Bill Hilty, the committee heard from the late Matt Simmons, Chris Martenson, Will Steger, the Union of Concerned Scientists and even General Wesley Clark. Their case for an urgent and dramatic course correction was countered with equal doses of partisan politics. In defense of “business as usual” and to the exclusion of other reports of the time, a 1975 Newsweek article that predicted another ice age was supposed to give us a laugh and assure us that we need not worry about global warming either. During these meetings, some committee members would doze in between flipping through Field & Stream, only looking up to grunt in opposition to stuff like solar incentives or California appliance standards. With unbelievable indignation, one member argued that cap-and-trade was an insult to the intelligence of his yet-to-be conceived grandchildren, who would certainly be well-equipped to handle the cost of our excesses, even if we weren’t. By this logic, Fukushima wasn’t a disaster but a testament of our faith in his progeny.

The maneuverings of politics gave me a craving to do something intrinsically useful. I found solace in composting my kitchen waste, a habit we developed when we moved into a neighborhood that was fighting a new garbage burner. The protest highlighted a question: If my garbage isn’t feeding the incinerator in my backyard, where is it going? Whose backyard? Is that fair? So I discovered the pleasure of making dirt, growing food with it and taking a bite out of a tomato that tasted like a tomato. No spin necessary, thank you.

When the climate change naysayers cleaned up in the 2010 elections, I lost my job at the House. When I considered what to do next, I doubted that I could get paid to preach the gospel of composting. And yet that’s what happened.

Time on the Energy Committee ignited aspirations to reinforce community resiliency, a word I’ve grown to prefer over “sustainability”, thanks to Rep. Hilty who used to say, “There is no ‘alternative’ energy that will sustain what we are currently doing.” So I volunteered to serve on a task force that was charged with establishing a community garden. Inexperienced, I walked into a meeting, doubting whether I could be useful. I went home with a list of people to call and have been keeping a to-do list ever since. This led me to managing a small residential composting program. Once again I plunged in blind and worked harder on the project than a small stipend would merit. I loved my job when I wasn’t obsessing about the possibility of total failure where I would have to surrender my garage to 125 compost bins that nobody wanted. That didn’t happen.

In the meantime, my work on the garden task force continued. Once Merriam Station Community Garden was established in 2012, I became its compost coordinator. It was the beginning of another adventure into the unknown for me. By the end of our first growing season, we would be recycling over 400 pounds of coffee grounds a week and I would become known as “the coffee grounds lady”, something I overheard a barista say and that I have worn like a badge of honor ever since.

In the coming posts, I’ll tell you about how our experiments recycling coffee grounds at our garden have gone over the past two years and what we’ll be trying next. In the meantime, I’m still working on my gardener status. Someday I’d like to say “I’m a gardener.” Actually, I’d like to say, “I’m a farmer.” I just like the sound of it.

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