Coffee grounds get a second life at Chemeketa’s startup farm

Amanda Roberts, a Dutch Bros. barista and leader of the “Tulip Team,” drops off coffee grounds to compost at Chemeketa Community College’s agriculture complex on Feb. 10, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Amanda Roberts grinned as she dumped a hefty bag of coffee grounds onto a steaming pile of dirt.

“That was a huge bag, no trash!” she said.

It’s cause for celebration for the Salem barista, who’s diverted thousands of pounds of spent grounds from the landfill to local compost heaps over the past three years.

Roberts works at the Dutch Bros. stand on Southeast Commercial Street and coordinates the “Tulip Team,” a volunteer effort by Dutch Bros. workers to deliver compostable coffee grounds to local gardens and small farms.

In January, the group added a new partner to the effort: Chemeketa Community College.

Tim Ray, the college’s dean for agricultural science, learned of the project through a former Future Farmers of America state officer who now works for Dutch Bros.

“All of this would have ended up in the landfill,” he said as he and Roberts added to the pile on a recent Thursday morning.

Ray joined Chemeketa over the summer to lead an expansion of the college’s agricultural programs following the completion of the ag complex, a multimillion dollar building and outdoor area on the east side of the college’s Salem campus.

The 5-acre parcel includes an acre and a half field which Ray plans to use as a practical laboratory for the college’s horticulture students, growing fruits and vegetables starting this summer.

Tim Ray, dean of agricultural sciences at Chemeketa Community College, adds coffee grounds to a compost pile on Feb. 10, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

One challenge to Ray’s growing ambition is the soil on campus, which doesn’t yet have the structure or nutrients for ideal farming. He’s planted a cover crop, but is hopeful the compost heap will soon be ready to provide more nutrients before the growing season begins.

“It’s cooking,” he said, walking toward a large pile where the coffee grounds mix with some food waste and leaves. Ray had earlier measured the internal temperature of the pile at 120 degrees, a sign the organic matter within was breaking down.

Roberts now delivers coffee grounds to Chemeketa weekly. On Feb. 10, her haul was about 500 pounds of grounds in black plastic bags, collected from the nine local Dutch Bros. stands which participate.

When Salemites are particularly caffeinated, the weekly haul is sometimes as much as 900 pounds of coffee grounds, she said.

Roberts studied environmental studies in southern California before road tripping north with her girlfriend, exploring Oregon from their van. They broke down in Salem, and she ended up staying, starting work at the Market Street Dutch Bros. stand three years ago.

She saw a video on social media about a Scottish company recycling coffee grounds by processing them into a palm oil-like substitute. That inspired her to ask whether her coffee stand could do something with their used grounds besides throwing them away.

Dutch Bros. supported the effort, she said, allowing her to use a company truck for deliveries and to store supplies at a warehouse in south Salem.

Each participating stand has a designated Tulip Team member who ensures baristas aren’t throwing non-compostable trash in with the grounds. Roberts picks up the used grounds and makes deliveries twice per week, stopping by the Marion Polk Youth Farm and a local mushroom farm as well.

“It’s actually blossomed into something quite amazing,” she said.

Ray said the first campus compost pile is ready to cook down, and he planned to set up a second one for the latest deliveries.

He acknowledged most college deans don’t spend part of their day on a tractor turning compost, but said it’s true to his roots.

He grew up on a farm and was formerly the career technical education coordinator at Dallas High School, a job he took on after years teaching agriculture classes in local high schools.

“I’d farm today, but I can’t afford to,” he said. He went for the next best option: teaching future farmers.

“Two noblest things you can do on the planet – feed people or teach people to feed people,” he said.

Amanda Roberts, a Dutch Bros. barista and leader of the “Tulip Team,” dumps a bag of used coffee grounds on a compost pile at Chemeketa Community College’s agriculture complex on Feb. 10, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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