UIX: Adam Brent and Cocoa tackle hunger, redefine waste by strengthening local roots

Adam Brent has a rich history. Rich in experience, and rich in nutrients. His work with Cocoa has been strengthening local root systems through an innovative and ancient approach: make the best compost you can.
Adam Brent has a rich history, rich in experience and rich in nutrients.
His work with Cocoa has been strengthening local root systems through an innovative and ancient approach: "make awesome compost."
From the Chef Container facility in Holland, Brent's compost is produced at the intersection of technology and nature. He's borrowing from a Mennonite technique that's older than anyone alive today, and using science to grow incredibly healthy plants that will improve the environment many times over. He's revolutionizing the way we define waste. He's tackling world hunger. And he's just getting started.
The Cocoa Corp facility got off the ground in December 2015, and it's been pumping out tons of compost from organic food waste and meticulous planning ever since. Brent's methods rely on a specific blend of microbes that digest and convert the waste into readily available nutrients for plants under carefully controlled time and temperature specifications. While this might not excite many in the hipster-heavy population of Grand Rapids, it's raising farmers' eyebrows, and contributing to a healthy environment. 
The chapters of Brent's life before Cocoa are filled with quite a few stories of their own. With a degree in chemistry from Grinell College, Brent spent much of his early career traveling the Midwest as a grain merchant before returning to his roots in Chicago and working with his father in the literature business. 
Brent worked at Stewart Brent Books by day and at night worked on his MBA at Loyola University. Meanwhile, his dad was preparing to retire, and Barnes and Noble and Borders megastores were closing in on family-owned shop territory. Kroch's and Brentano's, once Chicago's largest bookseller, was forced to liquidate amid the competition, and Brent decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I was offered a job at Andersen Consulting and instead bought one of Kroch's and Brentano's bookstores," he says. "I figured I could always go into business for myself. It's better than working for someone else."
Brent's first bookstore was just two blocks from City Hall. He opened two others and hosted several notable book signings. Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, Richard Avedon, and Erik Larson all spent time in Brent's stores, but prestige and liner notes weren't enough to fend off digital giants like Amazon. Brent spent a few more years in the book business but eventually sold off those interests in 2009.
Getting Dirty
When Brent returned to agriculture, his brother suggested he get into composting. He hasn't changed his mind since.
Working with Mennonite farmers, Brent learned how to cultivate compost instead of just burying waste. He learned of the potential organic waste has for promoting further growth, and how to maintain that growth with successive harvests.
"Turn organic waste material into compost and you've got something that's good for the soil, good for crops but it's generally inconsistent from batch to batch and operation to operation," he says. "Instead of thinking about what to do with waste, think about how to make an awesome compost. The value of the compost is not in the compost itself, the value of the compost is in how you make crops grow better. 
Brent says the challenge to disrupting something as large as a $25 billion fertilizer market is in formulating a process that creates quality compost at every turn. Cocoa takes in organic food waste from all over West Michigan, but its the microbes in Cocoa compost that deserve the real credit. They lock up the available nitrogen in the soil until they die and are consumed by the plant.
Done the right way, this method of organic composting is relatively odorless. Done one of many wrong ways, it's more than just a headache, it's a liability.
"One of the things about composting is that if you don't do it right, it can smell really bad. That basically means you're not giving the compost the right mix of oxygen, water, or temperature, or the ingredients are blended wrong," Brent says. "If you don't blend it correctly, you basically get a nightmare on your hands and that smell becomes your neighbor's big problem."
That problem kept Brent's operation from taking root until he partnered up with Chef Container, which had a robust recycling program but needed help with the organic end of things. 
"I said I would manage the compost facility if they brought me waste," he says. "They were committed to recycling, and are one of the few single-stream recycling facilities in the state, perhaps even the region, that recycles all the plastic and paper, cardboard, wood, metal, and glass but the organic material was a little more challenging."
Brent attracted venture capitalists to help him fund the project, and now that its up and running he's starting to hear about the literal fruits of his labor.
"Right now we're taking in food waste from Haworth Furniture. The compost I made with it, one of the gentlemen that helped make that introduction is growing tomato plants that are 8-feet tall," Brent says. "It's amazing compost."

Brown to Green
Even above its agricultural benefits, compost's usefulness extends into future generations.
"If you added this small amount of compost to the soil and increased your plant size by 50 percent, that's 50 percent more carbon dioxide that's being sequestered out of the atmosphere by the plant and the root," Brent says. "Ultimately that's turning to soil. When you increase soil and organic matter, basically you're sequestering carbon for about 300 years. As a long-term carbon solution, this is ideal on every level."
Nitrogen and phosphorus are scarce in nature but commercial fertilizers can deliver a seemingly endless supply to plants in water soluble form. Traditionally, over half the phosphorus and nitrogen applied to crops is never used by the plant, Brent says, and that can translate to harmful runoff or gasification. 
"The nitrogen turns to nitrous oxide gas, which has like 300 times the global warming rating of carbon dioxide. That's a really bad result," he says. "When it turns to nitrates and goes into the water system, then you get this explosive amount of nitrogen available to plants and bacteria. Then you get toxic algae blooms."
Organic waste sent to a composting facility avoids a trip to the landfill where it would contribute to methane gas production. And farmers that use compost ultimately rely on less chemical fertilizer, Brent says, helping their soil become that much richer, and their waterways to clear of sedimentation. By using compost as a compliment to the chemical fertilizers, the plant root systems become two to three times larger than if without. There's a higher nutrient-use efficiency and a higher water-use efficiency, and that translates to an increased crop yield and reduced runoff. 

The EPA reports that Americans produced over 254 millions tons of waste in 2013, but only reclaimed a little over 22 million tons of that for composting. More than 134 million tons of waste were sent to landfills.

"When you look at the carbon sequestration potential, and you're talking about covering thousands of acres, you're talking about a lot of carbon that can be pulled out of the atmosphere and put away," Brent says. "That plant is going to produce more grain than growing in pig manure, and feed more people. I don't think I missed a single environmental button."
As a steward of the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program and the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Brent is doing his part in spreading the word, and the compost. And with programs that pay those looking to incorporate compost fertilizers into their crop systems up to $300,000 over a three-year period, Brent's story will no doubt grow just as strong as the plants he is helping nourish.
For more dirt on Adam Brent and Cocoa, visit http://www.cocoa-corp.com/
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].
Photography by Steph Harding
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