Dean Lavallee is on board with “farm-to-table,” and he’s using vermiculture to help the movement. In fact, the founder of the Park Avenue BBQ Grill chain says he’s working to make the loop a full circle – by taking scraps from the table and using them to enhance farms with the help of an army of worms.
In so doing, he is feeding a lifelong dream of transforming the restaurant industry and, eventually perhaps, also changing the unsustainable farming practices that are harming America’s farmland.
“Everybody’s grandparents ate ‘farm-to-table,’ and modern agriculture took that from us. So while I think it’s laudable that some very expensive restaurants have the margin to charge a lot of money and call it that, I’d like it to be real farm-to-table … and do it inside of a $20 check, not a $70 check.”
Around eight years ago, in a quest to cut costs, he started examining his waste stream: “boatloads of cardboard and food waste, mixed in with paper and plastic; lots of big 5-gallon plastic buckets; and, like everybody else, mountains of glass,” Lavallee recalls.
Wasting resources costs money
He came to realize, “This actually has value, and we’re losing the value by throwing it away.” He was spending thousands on disposal costs for his eight restaurants in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties.
Lavallee easily found ways to reuse the glass and plastic, but the food waste posed problems. He looked into using worms, which meat producers had started harnessing in order to mitigate their animal waste. “At the time, the theories on food management, especially with vermiculture, (were mostly that) it couldn’t be done,” he says. “Now, I’m the kind of person who always responds to ‘nos’ with ‘Let’s see.’
“I bought some worms from a supplier in Tampa; then I started playing. Could I get them to eat dairy, grease, proteins? The answer is overwhelmingly ‘yes,’” he says.
No high-tech necessary for vermiculture
Few scientific studies have been done on food waste -based vermiculture, but, Lavallee said, “I think low-tech works. The worms do not have teeth, and their mouth is 70 microns, less than a millimeter.”
Something else has to break down that food for the worm – bacteria or microbes, he said.
“So, I thought, ‘What if we liquefy that product?’ In addition, the worm would love whatever it’s eating to be about half-carbon and half-nitrogen. My very rich food is almost all nitrogen; my very poor-quality paper is all carbon.”
He started mixing macerated food waste, along with shredded paper and cardboard, with liquid, on the theory that a mix of the nutrients the worms like would increase their reproductive rate. It worked.
“The entire theory started with a 5-gallon bucket and 10 pounds of worms. And as soon as those populations were healthy, one became two, two became four, four became eight,” Lavallee explains.
With his success, he formed a nonprofit company, Sublime Soil. After a stint growing worms in his garage (not popular with his wife), and then in warehouses (not popular with city code-enforcement boards), he bought a former flower nursery in Palm City. His worms had a home.
In researching and making connections, Lavallee brought others on board, including Muki Aledori, who became Sublime Soil’s operations manager.
Meanwhile, the farm’s worm population was doubling around every 90 days.
“It was just a hobby,” Lavallee says. But now, “We are right at the tipping point. It took five years to get there, and a lot of mistakes and learning what you should do.”
It helps, he notes, to have his restaurants as a testing facility. “We know that we’ve been dumping a sizable amount of trash in the landfill for 26 years, and when we take that to zero, we’re going to change this dynamic. We’ll also be able to say, in addition, ‘We’ve got this out of our trash heap.’”
“This” would be fresh organic produce for his restaurants. He’s attempting to create a vermiculture process to generate enriched soil from food waste. “We are working with Jay Matteson (dean of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Sustainability) from Palm Beach State College, who has written a research grant to study Park Avenue’s impact on the landfills,” Lavallee says.
Farm grows crops, too
According to Aledori, Sublime Soil is already growing produce – “the majority, pineapple.”
Adds Lavallee: “What we have in the ground now are mangoes, coconuts, bananas; we’re going to put mint in the ground because it goes very well with iced tea. What else will we grow? Anything that Park Avenue will use.”
He wants to reduce the $100,000 a year he spends on lemons, for example, and to expand. “We have eight lemon trees on the grounds. We want to put exotic varieties of citrus in.”
Lavallee aims to keep ramping up the worm operation: “The more we get into the meat of how you handle a million pounds of waste, or 2 million, it’s going to change everything. We want to find ways to take that vermiculture product (worm castings) and then have a use for it. We actually want to go into aquaponics.”
Those initial 10 pounds of worms have reproduced exponentially. They’re grown in “towers” – huge bins used to plant seedlings that were left on the nursery. “We’ve never bought another worm, but we now have a number in the millions.”
What is his goal? “Ultimately, as we breed up our worm population, we hope to find hundreds of sites where we can interlace with other people who want to have worm farms – by giving them the worms. And then, to go further: to trade that vermiculture product with farmers who will grow specific varieties (of produce) for us, in a barter system.”
For more information on Sublime Soil Inc., visit Facebook.com/sublimesoil.
(This article originally ran in the Spring 2015 edition of Florida Food & Farm magazine.)