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    By Charles Wolford

    Inside a concrete stall near U of L’s main campus this spring, Brian Barnes plunges his hands into a blue barrel containing damp, spongy vermicompost, which is the end result of red wiggler worms eating through compost, processing it in their gizzards and turning it into what Barnes describes as scentless “super soil.” When he pulls his hands back out, countless tiny black specks fleck his palms. “Their turds,” he says. “If you have a couple hundred worms, they’ll eat all your kitchen scraps in a couple of days.”

    About 15 years ago, Barnes became disenchanted with his job as an Arabic cryptologic linguist for the National Security Agency — “computers and money and big budgets,” he says — and returned to his native Louisville to attend law school. He needed a job and discovered composting after getting hired at since-closed Wild Oats Market in St. Matthews. “I was captivated by the idea that we could take our trash and turn it into food for people,” he says. By 2010 he had started U of L’s composting project, which trains more than 300 people a year and now picks up more than 5,500 pounds of coffee grounds each week from Heine Bros.’ Coffee alone, plus compostables from Brown-Forman, the Butchertown restaurant Naïve, Blackacre State Nature Preserve and more. Barnes and his team collect compostable material throughout the week and give it away after two to three months of turning it with pitchforks, shovels and post-hole diggers. Last year, Barnes and his team began picking up compostables from residents, about 40 so far who pay $20 a month to fill up a five-gallon bucket each week.

    Beans, tomatoes, eggplants, strawberries, melons and squash grow at the site’s roughly 100-square-foot garden. Garden Commons on campus contains an herb spiral, 10 raised beds, an asparagus patch and five or six fruit trees. “We want to feed people with the garden to the extent we can,” Barnes says. “We want to show people that you can grow things in the stuff that we’re making.”

    This originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Dirt Rich." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters,

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