The Compost Underdog at the Denver County Fair

I've been composting for nearly a decade, and I put my labors to the test by entering the Denver County Fair's compost competition Aug. 1-3. It was a contest of epic proportions.
The compost heap in my backyard is kind of like my kid. I feed it coffee grounds, leaves and egg shells, and now it's rotund, shambling, and messy, measuring about seven feet by four feet by three feet. It's an eight-year-old, oh-so-fertile beast.

Composting is truly one of the most carbon-negative hobbies you can have. I started my heap in 2006 to cut down on my contributions to local landfills, but later learned of its environmental benefits. Organic waste in the landfill decomposes anaerobically and releases methane, whereas aerobic composting prevents most methane emissions. When used in place of traditional fertilizers, compost can reduce overall carbon emissions by about 4,000 pounds per acre of farmland.

Essentially, if everybody in the country composted, the environmental impact would be the equivalent of shutting down more than one out of every five coal-fired power plants.

So when I was browsing the website for the Denver County Fair a week before the fourth annual event -- Denver is both a city and a county, but didn't have a fair until 2011 -- I nearly jumped off my balance ball when I saw that there was a compost competition.My compost turns dead spots on the lawn into lush patches.

I entered and fashioned a science-fair-like exhibit from a tri-fold from Walgreens and pictures of the compost pile, our Great Dane, Mini, and her pee spots on my lawn -- and finally the amazing regrowth of the spots I re-seeded with compost.

"I'm going to win this thing," I told my wife. She smiled and told me I make great "stinky dirt."

On the drop-off day, I showed up at the National Western Complex on the north side of town and it just so happened I was checking in at the exact same moment as one of my compost opponents: a couple representing West Washington Park Community Garden.

One look and I knew I was in trouble. Their display was an artful piece of exhibitry, detailing the annual process of turning two tons of garden scraps into compost. I spoke with Keith Bruce as they painstakingly set up their entry -- he was a master composter and had written a 27-page treatise on their composting process for a national competition.

"I'm on the edge of being a serial killer for never winning the science fair," he said. "This is my retribution."

My hopes for victory were all but dashed. My display looked thoroughly amateur in comparison. This was going to be a blowout.

But David did beat Goliath, and my spirits rose a bit when Bruce smelled my compost and gave its earthy aroma high marks.

And I took second place at the Colorado Springs city science fair in seventh grade and beat out a competitor with a similar psychology project on birth order and personality who had a much more professional setup. (I suspect his parents helped.)

The competition's coordinator told there were only two entries and the judging would happen that evening. I left with my ticket in hand -- my $5 entry fee granted me access to all three days of the fair, a $10 value, so I was $5 ahead at the very least.

A unique urban fairThe goats appear to really enjoy the action at the Denver County Fair.

On Friday, I went to the fair with my wife, Jamie, after lunch and made a beeline past the pie-eating and air hockey to the Farm & Garden Pavilion.

Sure enough, the West Washington Park entry was sporting a blue ribbon, and I took second. No surprise there.

We wandered the fair for a few hours and had some fun checking out the Freak Show and the Art Pavilion, before heading down to the Animal Pavilion -- where we visited the rabbits and the goats and the pugs, saw a turkey vulture and an owl, and watched border collies compete in agility trials.

Jamie bought a few cool patches from Lindsey Kuhn of Swamp Co. so we could differentiate our messenger bags, and we also picked up three cool prints from the one and only Kenny Be, whose Denver Neighborhood Seed Co. includes a cartoon of a seed packet (sans seeds) for every 'hood in the city. Ours, Overland, featured a potato.

Upstairs, the 21-and-over Pot Pavilion attracted a ton of media attention, even though there was no actual marijuana -- edibles and plants were judged at a different location. Exhibitors hocked T-shirts, Cheech & Chong ballcaps, and a whole assortment of edibles -- without pot. For the real deal, you'd have to hit a dispensary offsite.

I went back on Sunday with my nephews, Mitch and Sam, on Sunday with the plan of hanging around for a while before grabbing my compost entry and heading home.

We got there at 11 a.m. and made a marshmallow catapult for a marshmallow war before watching more dogs running the agility course -- including an inspiring French bulldog -- and checking out the standing-room-only pug-chihuahua races. The chihuahuas were a no-show , but a tortoise indeed beat a hare and the one-eyed pug named Pirate Jack proved a worthy competitor.

I asked when I could take my compost exhibit around 3 p.m. and was told that I'd forfeit my ribbon if I didn't wait until 6, so I took the boys to Lakeside Amusement Park for a spin on the Cyclone before returning to the National Western Complex to retrieve it.

The winner -- by a grass clipping.The big finish

There was an envelope with the judging form along with my display and compost container.

At home, I opened it with a little bit of trepidation. Was it truly a blowout?

Uh-oh. At first glance, it didn't look good -- on scales of 1 to 5, I got a pair of 3s and a pair of 1s. Pretty bad -- a 1 (needs improvement) for both quality and condition. But a solid 3 (good) for color and true to species.

True to species? Huh? Wait, this was a judging form for a radish, and a sickly one at that.

There was a second piece of paper in the envelope that was actually for my compost. My grades: two 5s (excellent) and a 4 (very good).

The 5s were for general appearance and odor (with "perfect” scribbled next to the latter) and judging notes that read: "Smells great. Nice story. Makes me want to make compost. Can we have some? BEAUTIFUL COMPOST!"

The only thing to improve on for next year was "more explanation of process."

This was no blowout. It was a nail-biter, a one-point game. My backyard David nearly took down the two-ton-a-year Goliath. So close. A better display might have made for a tie.

My spirits skyrocketed, my eight years of composting efforts affirmed and rewarded.

And I've got a whole year to improve on that display. I'm thinking an animatronic extravaganza with robotic replicas of Mini and I. That should give me the edge I need to win that blue ribbon in 2015.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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