Food Scarcity. Erosion and desertification. Waste and greenhouse gases. Economic Downturn. Four major issues with one ingenious solution—VermiSoks. Miguel Jardine took his background in technology and finance, and coupled it with a keen interest in sustainable systems to create a closed-loop agricultural process that relies on natural cycles of breakdown and growth to provide local food , heal land that has been damaged, reduce waste and greenhouse gases, and positively contribute to the global economy. Read on to learn more about the innovative VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle and how it might soon change the landscape of a concrete jungle near you.
GoGreen Conference: You’re taking on an issue of massive global scale. Food scarcity is something that civilizations have been forged by and wars have been fought over. We’re curious—most people say to start small on sustainability and not to take off more than you can chew. You went to the absolute opposite end of the spectrum and took on one of the biggest issues challenging humanity since people began forming communities. What inspired you to do that?
Miguel Jardine: I actually look at what I’m addressing as four big issues. And the inspiration behind that was that I pulled the string, so-to-speak. Remember how your mom told you, “Don’t pull the thread, just try to cut it”? Well I went ahead and pulled the thing.
The four big things we go after are hunger, health, economic development and the environment. And we’re able to tie all of those together through the VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle. The reason being that we simplified the challenge down to a more approachable scale. Unfortunately, up until now, big problems have stayed big problems because we have people saying, “Hey! This is a big problem!” That attitude makes everything seem very complex and sometimes overwhelming. It affects the way that you think about solutions.
I spent several years researching the subject. By recognizing the root issues, we have developed a clear system to solve all of them. When you’re looking at a business that involves food, you have raw materials coming in. Those materials get made into something and then get disposed of—party’s over. When you work with that type of linear model it causes a lot of the problems we are experiencing today. However, if you look at nature, it’s cyclical. You start at one point in the circle and you end at another point in the circle. That is how the VermiSoks virtuous cycle came about—by looking at an input and seeing the cycle of how that waste can turn around and act as an input again.
GG: Give us a brief rundown of what the VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle is, and how it works.
MJ: First let me say, I am something of an environmentalist. When I was looking at the environmental challenges we face, to me, all things kept leading back to human activity—and one of the biggest human activities is the generation of waste. Generally, what we’re doing to dispose of it is digging a big hole called a landfill and then throwing everything into it. There are two major problems with that: The generation of methane (which is 23 times worse at trapping the sun’s energy than CO2) and leeching (the seepage of nasty liquid made from the accumulation of oils and rotting vegetation) that seeps down into the landfill, which causes problems with the water table.
When looking at the methane issue, I saw that the gas was being created from the way that organic matter rots in a landfill. If we’re able to divert that organic material from our landfills that’s a big step towards reducing the amount of methane generated by this process. Again, through continued research that looked to nature as a guide, we discovered we can deal with this issue through composting. Composting is not something people tend to do frequently. In most parts of the country, we have one trash can and everything goes in it. It is difficult to separate organic material from inorganic material.
We’re looking to locate the food waste and divert it away from the landfill. Then we take that food waste and liquefy it. That substance acts as the foundation for VermiSoks worm wine, which is the liquefied waste with additional nutrients. Our worm wine is useful in several ways. First, it’s useful to the earthworms. It also builds up the soil with nutrients and this is beneficial to the crops which grow in the soil. This worm wine is drip irrigated into the actual “VermiSoks,” which are mesh tubes filled with ground coconut husks and earthworms. The earthworms eat the coconuts husks and worm wine and convert that into soil.
It’s a very fast process—the earthworms will plow through worm wine in approximately three days to a week, and will convert it into nutrient rich compost in the process. All of this is going on inside the sock. When this part of the process is complete, we then have an ecosystem inside the sock that is essentially arable land. All we have to do is lay the VermiSoks tube down on the ground, or even a parking lot, cut a hole in it, plant a seed, feed it worm wine and—viola!—we get a crop growing out of it.
Continuing around the circle: As the crop grows, we harvest it, turn it into an amazing dish—salad, lasagna, etc.—and collect the scraps and leftovers to start the cycle all over again.VermiSoks is all about is showing that we can use nature’s cycle in business as a competitive advantage with this particular model.
GG: It sounds like a very integrated system involving the coordination of multiple stakeholders. Does there have to be some behavior change? Some policy change? What are the accompanying issues you are working to solve beyond the physical process of closed-loop food production?
MJ: Yes. A massive amount of education is needed, mainly with our audience and customers. We have three main products: A food waste disposal service, the VermiSoks themselves and a monthly subscription to the worm wine. The VermiSoks and the worm wine constitute what we call our “growing platform.” They are products for customers who are actually growing and harvesting crops. The other side of it is our food waste disposal offering. For that group, it’s a matter of showing them how their food waste, something that traditionally has absolutely no benefit to them, can be turned into something extremely useful to their communities and themselves.
One of the more obvious beneficiaries of this whole cycle is your average restaurant. So a restaurant has two main cost centers—the amount of produce they need to make the dishes they sell and the amount of waste generated through the food making process. So it’s very effective to be able to go into a restaurant and say, “If you use our waste disposal service, you’ll both reduce the cost of your inputs and increase the availability of those inputs. We can convert your waste into a solution for growing fresh fruits and vegetables that can be used in the restaurant again.” It’s an opportunity to create a great CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) story and it bolsters their bottom line.
Because education is one of our bigger challenges, we are really excited about working with Whole Foods. They have taken a real leadership position in working with us in utilizing our waste service, but also supporting our growing platform and educating their community.
GG: Let’s talk about scale. Does the VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle only work on a small scale or can you plant acres and acres of land this way? Can it support millions of Arizonans?
MJ: Yes it can. VermiSoks is a very local solution that’s applicable on a global scale. That aspect of the system was completely by design. One of the first pieces of education we work on when we collaborate with community organizations is letting people know that having acres and acres of farmland far away from where the food is actually being consumed is not the best model. When something comes from a great distance away and is perishable, like produce is, it has to be picked early in order to be transported without rotting. That means it doesn’t have the ability to develop on the vine with all of the nutrients and flavors it’s supposed to have. Unfortunately, we then use a lot of chemicals to do a ripening process on the way to the consumer.
So, on average in the United States, food is traveling between 1,200-1,500 miles before it is consumed. The VermiSoks Virtuous Cycle addresses that issue. We bring the growing space—the arable farmland—right into the city where people are. This essentially allows you to convert an abandoned parking lot or blighted land into arable space that can be used to grow the food that will support a community. Our vision is one where urban Phoenix will be filled with these small urban farms growing food for the local population. VermiSoks satisfies these sweet spots—anywhere from 48 VermiSoks (about a 20×20 space) all the way up to an acre of space.
That’s more than enough in the city setting, because a complete acre that isn’t spoken for is hard to come by. That speaks for one level of our scalability. The other is being able to replicate this model all over the world. That introduces a different perspective on scale, because now we don’t need hundreds of acres of farmland to grow enough food for everybody. Each neighborhood will be able to grow its own food.
This model also lends itself to a creating a lot of jobs. The VermiSoks cycle needs individuals to manage the garden/farm, to run distribution, and work in the industries we service. Then there are additional value-added products and businesses that become available as a result: a salsa line or beauty and spa products for example. You can have a grower who is specifically growing lavenders and mints and thyme for their particular formula or recipes for soap for lotion or essential oils. You also have the development of a naturopathy industry around medicinal herbs that again can all be grown close to where they are utilized.
This localized model is what we see going forward. We believe you’re going to get lots of farms and gardens all over the place that are able to feed millions of people by bringing the solutions in closer. What we do here in the Valley is replicable all over the world. You just need a “wine cellar,” which is what we call our facility where we bring all of the food waste to undergo liquefaction, create the worm wine and manufacture the VermiSoks. Wine cellars are the hub for processing that food waste, for creating this growing platform and then servicing a set of local installations of VermiSoks gardens.
GG: You mentioned getting in cahoots with Whole Foods. What’s next? What is your vision for 2012 to take VermiSoks to the next level?
MJ: The big thing our investors have been looking for is to see the whole cycle proven out—for us to have a facility working through the whole process. We now have our first wine cellar up and running. We are collecting food waste from Whole Foods and we will be installing gardens come the first of November. All of this will show the big picture. At that point communities around the world can replicate our model and develop their own wine cellars and waste source and then grow food.
The cool part is that in doing so, they will be actively addressing those four big things I mentioned before. We address the hunger issue by having the capacity to grow more food. We address the health issues, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, by providing healthier food to our communities. We’ll spur economic growth by providing a foundation for jobs in all the industries I mentioned earlier. And we will regenerate the environment by adding back nourishing soil to the land.
That is actually one of my favorite impacts and I tend to not name it sometimes because people say “Miguel you’re harping on that one too much.” In all of this process many people would think the primary goal is food. But there’s more to it then that. At the end of season you have a sock full of 1.25 cubic ft of nutrient rich, composted soil. We know that a big part of environmental issues, especially around food security, are happening because of de-climitization or the erosion of farmland because the soil doesn’t have the root infrastructure to keep it in one place. VermiSoks begins to regenerate the environment because the soil we create is latent with all of the nutrients necessary for healthy soil. So at the end of life for the VermiSoks, we not only got a naturally grown crop, but if you cut open the sock and then till the material inside into the ground, that begins to heal the soil.
GG: What people, books or ideas have influenced your outlook and helped you open up your mind to new ways of thinking?
MJ: Wow, that list is long! One of the big ones for me was “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore. That one really got me to start asking the question “What can I do?” The other book was written by William McDonough called “Cradle to Cradle.” I also love Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class,” “The Flight of the Creative Class,” and his latest book is “Who’s Your City?” The third one is really cool, it’s very much in line with Malcom Gladwell’s “Tipping Point.” The final book, and it’s something of a Bible for me, is Frans Johanssons book, “The Medici Effect.” That book is what got me to think about putting together an entire system of solutions as opposed to just solving one problem.
GG: Final question: Are there any topics we didn’t address that you would like to speak to.
MJ: The one thing that I’d like to touch on, before we finish, is collaboration. Now, more than ever, we need people to start talking together. Not just people with the same backgrounds, but people with very different life and professional perspectives. In my average day, I am working with a multi-national corporation like Whole Foods, local non-profits and regional businesses. It’s through something transferable like VermiSoks that we’re all able to see how this is not a situation that will be solved by a big powerful company donating either money or a non-profit working in the field. Each sector has a role to play in the solution. For us, the business model is also a model for collaboration between disparate groups who might not always think about talking to each other. We want to get them thinking about how this cycle can bring them together to not only talk to each other, but also be very successful at their respective missions, models, and objectives.
Miguel Jardine is the CEO of Vermisoks and will speak on the Collaborative Approaches to Achieving Zero Waste at Your Business panel session at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix, November 15. To learn more about businesses wanting to go green, come see Miguel live at GoGreen ’11 Phoenix! Event details and registration can be found here. For the latest event announcements and sustainability news, follow us on Twitter (@GoGreenConf) and be a fan on Facebook (facebook.com/gogreenconference). Join the GoGreen Phoenix email list here.