RISING VOICES: LA Compost on healthy soil for healthy waters and community

Each month, the Water Hub is checking in with advocates and organizers in California to talk about water and other environmental justice issues impacting local communities. December 5 is #WorldSoilDay, so we spoke with LA Compost Founder and Executive Director, Michael Martinez, and Soil & Compost Specialist, Lynn Fang, about the benefits of composting, community connection and the relationship between healthy soils and waters in California.

Water Hub: Tell us about yourselves and your role at LA Compost?

Michael Martinez: I’m the Executive Director at LA Compost where I engage with community partners, city, county, and state entities and support our overall organizational development… I grew up in San Gabriel Valley and have the privilege of being a former 5th grade reading and writing teacher. I’m a father of two and I had the honor of starting LA Compost in and around my hometown with friends and family supporting the early years. I grew up in close proximity to the largest landfill in the country and it’s great to reflect on the privilege that we get to work alongside communities to reinvest resources back into neighborhoods and to not see things as waste but as life and life transfers.

Lynn Fang: I’m the Soil and Compost Specialist at LA Compost. I support the team with education, technical support and help to develop best management practices for… the composting process. [That includes] answering questions from the community… [like what] we can and can’t compost, and contaminants. Recently I started hosting community microscopy sessions with the community to look at their soil samples under the microscope and talk about what that means in terms of soil health and compost quality. I also help support soil testing and compost testing projects that allow us to see how compost is benefiting soil health and helps us maintain our compost quality within the different sites we manage.

WH: The 5th of December is  World Soil Day. What does soil mean to you and why does it matter?

MM: My definition and appreciation for soil has evolved and developed over the years. To put it simply, I like to say soil is essentially us and we are soil. Soil is diverse. Soil is unique. Soil requires different stewardship but, at the end of the day, it must be treated with a level of love and reverence and, essentially, be viewed as sacred. 

Soils across our city and across the world are either full of life or support life around it. In my opinion, it’s these transfers of life that are vital to creating a healthy planet and society. I often see humans as soil and soil as the network that is humans, a city, a society.

LF: One of my favorite compost people from Vermont, named Karl Hammer, says, “We are all walking phases of the soil.” I like to think about and share with people that the way we treat our soils is a direct reflection of how we treat ourselves. So the health of our soils is a direct reflection of the health of our bodies and communities. Soil provides so many resources that we need like food, fiber, fuel. There are also many ecosystem services that soil provides and ultimately it’s about the health of our communities.

WH: Let’s talk about the connection between healthy soils and healthy waters. How does your work connect to the water issues facing California? 

MM: Soil is the ultimate rainwater capturing system. There’s a lot of talk about rain barrels and cisterns — which are incredible and if you have one you know they fill up quickly in a short rain… Whereas soil contributes to the three S’s: it can help slow water down, it can spread out across a large footprint and help saturate, and essentially turns into a sponge that can help store so much water. Specifically soil with compost and organic matter but all soils that have life and cover crops are essential to protecting watersheds. They not only saturate but act as a filter and can filter out pollutants during rains. Soil can also prevent erosion by absorbing water — making that resource and life readily available for non-rainy days.

LF: A lot of what we do with compost is building up organic matter in the soils and that really helps to support water infiltration and water holding capacity in the soil, which reduces irrigation demands and runoff. [Compost] allows the soil to be more efficient in its water use so it supports water conservation efforts in that way. When we have poor quality soils, they don’t infiltrate well, water runs off really easily and is not as good in terms of water conservation . 

WH: What do you wish decision makers and reporters understood better about these issues and the impacted communities you partner with?

MM: It’s important to recognize that not all communities are impacted the same. Certain communities, oftentimes low-income and POC communities, are impacted first, the longest and the most harsh when it comes to heat, water access, resources and earth or planet access when you look at green spaces, tree canopy and good food. It’s important to ensure that we recognize there’s a social equity problem when it comes to the climate disaster and calling it what it is… it’s recognizing there’s an equity issue, impact issue and resource redistribution issue.

LF: When [most people] think about soil, they might think about nature or rural areas and rural farms, but all land on the planet is soil that humans live on. Even though cities are highly developed…. soil health is also critical in urban areas. I don’t see why access to healthy soils, composts, healthy food and regenerative farming has to be only in rural areas or something we see in nature outside of urban areas. I want people to see and value the importance of soil health in urban areas.

WH: What solutions are you seeing in the communities that you partner with? 

LF: Our community partnerships are the big advocates for community composting. That’s a critical piece. Community gardening and local food movements are on the rise in Los Angeles and beyond and having compost is critical to that movement. The expansion of composting and community-based composting allows resources to stay in the community and cuts out the transportation emissions as opposed to taking the resource out to an industrial facility where the connection might be lost.

MM: I like to refer to our tagline of soil and people. Soil and food webs and networks make me think of sharing resources, that there’s strength in numbers, and the beautiful life transfers within a soil system. As beautiful as that is below our feet and in the ground, how can we recreate that above ground? Not just community gardens but everywhere where life takes place: schools, churches, and side yards — everywhere we can create transfers of life. There’s no one size fits all model, no throwing money at a single solution… and if we have the resources to create life and health in our neighborhoods it would be a powerful network for any city, state to model.

WH: What changes or resources are most needed to solve these problems?

MM: We invest in things we value and care about. Soil support and water conservation is viewed as a hobby, but it needs to be viewed as one of the most important things we can do right now. Soil stewards, water stewards, there needs to be value and resources and space to put these things into practice everywhere.

LF: More resources and more value for this kind of work. Habitat restoration, ecological design and investing in it so people can have good livelihoods doing this work. [It’s important] ] to see urban farming and community composting as real, necessary and effective work to bring people together to grow food and provide resources. A lot of that might take more education but… the more people that understand and want to be committed to this work, and the more that we can get done, then the more decentralized systems we can build.

WH: What’s your happy place? 

MM: My happy place is spending time with my wife and two sons. I receive joy from them and I value the beautiful life transfers that are taking place between us. This can be at home, a park, on a bike ride or in a local garden. They bring me life. 

LF: My happy place is in the garden, sinking my fingers into compost-rich soil, and seeing all of life and love and possibility that springs forth from healthy soil.

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