Kate Tomkins, the owner of Chickadee Compost in Surry, gives a fresh batch of compost a smell. Tomkins launched the composting company last year as a way to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions in local landfills. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

SURRY, Maine – On a recent sunny day, Kate Tomkins bent over and scooped up a handful of old mouse bedding that she had gotten from the nearby Jackson Laboratory.

The Brooksville resident put her nose to the mixture of wood shavings, tiny wood chips and mouse scat, and exclaimed that its scent was almost sweet.

“If you give it a smell right now, it doesn’t smell bad,” she said. “If you get a fresh batch, it’s got a bit of an ammonia-like, urine smell to it.”

Such is life at Chickadee Compost, a Surry-based composting startup that Tomkins launched last year to divert food waste from local landfills in an effort to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s a far cry from her past job at the International Rescue Committee, where she led humanitarian aid and post-conflict development programs in Africa and Asia. But when Tomkins moved back home to Maine in 2018 to be closer to family, she began to look for ways she could fight climate change.

She found her calling in composting.

Kate Tomkins stands next to her trusty skid-steer loader that she uses to churn her compost piles at her new business Chickadee Compost. Credit: Ethan Genter | BDN

In its first 17 months, the Chickadee Compost has gained a cadre of businesses, schools and residents from around the Blue Hill Peninsula that give Tomkins their food scraps so she can turn it into soil-enriching compost for local farmers and gardeners.

The company is filling a niche that has been left untapped in the region, and farmers are already lining up to get ahold of Chickadee’s first batch of compost expected later this year.

“No one is doing community composting like this,” Tomkins said Wednesday while walking among her piles of compost off Route 172. “If any rural community can get behind community composting, it’s the Blue Hill Peninsula.”

The business model is simple. Tomkins has sheds set up at high-traffic locations around the peninsula, such as the Blue Hill Co-Op and Eggemoggin Country Store in Sargentville. For $15 a month, people can take a five gallon bucket from the sheds and fill it with food waste. Once it’s full, customers bring the buckets back to a shed and pick up a fresh receptacle to repeat the process.

Tomkins brings the full buckets to her compost site, where the food is mixed with old mouse bedding to make compost that she can then sell.

Though it would be better to avoid food waste in the first place, a good composting outfit can cut down on the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is emitted by food at landfills.

It’s a nationwide problem. As much as 40 percent of the country’s food goes uneaten and food is the single largest category of material put into municipal landfills — one of the largest sources of human-related methane emissions in the country.

Tomkins’ compost operation is on a former gravel pit next to the 2,300-acre Meadowbrook Forest. Both parcels are owned by the Blue Hill Heritage Trust, one of the biggest conservation organizations in the area. Hans Carlson, the nonprofit’s executive director, was immediately onboard when Tomkins approached him about the idea.

Kate Tomkins displays old mouse bedding from the Jackson Laboratory that she uses to make her compost. When the bedding, a mixture of wood shavings, tiny wood chips, and mouse scat, is aired out for a couple weeks, it starts to gain a slightly sweet smell. Credit: Ethan Genter | BDN

Carlson saw the potential benefit as two-fold. Aside from reducing emissions, Chickadee could save local towns money by cutting down the amount of waste they need to pay to be processed.

“People have been waiting for something like this,” he said.

Tomkins first dipped her toes in the food waste world while working for SeaShare, a Washington state-based nonprofit that connects the seafood industry with food banks. She had that job after her decade in humanitarian relief, but quit it to start Chickadee.

The idea of seriously composting started to take hold when she moved back to Brooksville in 2018 to be closer to family. She reached out to other composters in Maine and ended up going to the cutting-edge Maine Composting School. After the weeklong intensive program, she was hooked.

With no one else commercially composting in the area, Chickadee has caught on with some restaurants and businesses that want to do something better with their food scraps. For those higher volume accounts, Tomkins goes and picks up the waste herself.

The Brooklin Inn was one of Chickadee’s first customers, and inn owner Jenny Lewandowski said it’s been great to have someone reliably come week after week to take care of the scraps.

She figured a lot of people on the peninsula would be into composting, but it can be messy, time consuming and intimidating to do on your own.

“It’s a nice service to not have to deal with it yourself if you’re not an extreme gardener who needs (compost) in their garden,” Lewandowski said. “It’s a good solution for people like me.”