At a Patagonia industry event in Santa Cruz, I was drinking a beer and talking pleasantly about surfing earlier that day when a man shoved a Styrofoam cup full of worms in my face. “Yes!” I replied, not normally the thing you say when worms are thrust in your general facial direction. But these were no ordinary worms. They were breaking down foam, turning it into useful soil.
The man holding the cup was Eddy Garcia. Through his organization Living Earth Systems, he designs sustainable farms and spreads the word about the healing aspects of regenerative agriculture. He’s on mission to grow food in a way that revitalizes soil, strengthens a connection with the land, and provides clean, healthy food in an equally clean ecosystem. He’s also figured out a way to connect old surfboards with that mission.
Plenty of outdoor brands are weaving recyclability into their manufacturing process, or going carbon neutral (like us here at AJ) to lessen their ecological footprint, but it’s this kind of wild, outside the box thinking that grabs attention and can make a difference. I talked to Garcia about the worms and how some kinds of outdoor gear can have new life as healthy soil.
Tell me about those worms.
I was trying to find new ways to make fertilizers with worms by feeding them my food scraps and wood chips. One day I found a bunch of larvae in some oatmeal, hatched them, fed them wood chips, then put them in a styrofoam container. I noticed they started eating their way out. A few years before I’d taken Yvon Chouinard out on a tour of Molokai. He brought some early EPS [styrofoam] boards and broke them in 10-foot shorebreak. The busted boards just sat around in Molokai until I realized they were the same material as the styrofoam container I’d kept those worms in. I threw the worms in with the surfboards and within a week they completely ate the surfboards, which can make a few coffee cans of soil.
They just eat surfboards and poop out soil?
Doesn’t work quite that easy. I’ve created a process. After the worms eat the foam, what they leave behind gets fed to them a few more times in different forms. I inoculate what they leave behind with a mycelium fungus, let that grow, then throw the worms back in with the mycelium. I add other animals, too, like wood lice and anthropoids. After three months it goes from 100 percent styrofoam to rich, black humus. It’s not just worms, takes several creatures to do it. It’s a scalable process, too. I’ve filed for a patent for the process, and will probably give it to my non-profit to let the tech out into the world.
How did you get into agriculture?
I grew up in Hawaii. I put surfing above most other things. I had to be creative as far as eating went so that I wouldn’t have to make lots of money and instead could just surf. When I was a teenager I wound up going to Molokai and was adopted into a Hawaiian family by the hanai system. My job was to hunt and fish and grow food for the family. I pretty much surfed all day, every day, and the rest was fishing and hunting. I wanted to grow food and I wanted to learn to do it the right way by regenerating the soil.
What made you decide regenerative agriculture was the right way?
I grew up around the sugarcane and pineapple industries dumping chemicals everywhere. One of the first jobs I had was in regenerative agriculture—helping to repair damage done to fields and soil by conventional growing methods. We’re down to about two percent of the topsoil left on the planet. It was obvious to me there was no reason to fight nature to grow food with chemicals when nature is perfect and balanced already. I want to push strategies that are clean and help regenerate the soil. We have a non-profit called Regenerative Education Centers that highlights all sorts of really cool tech, from worms that eat styrofoam to machines that can recycle plastic taken from the ocean and turn them into pellets that can be made into stuff like building blocks for disaster shelters.
What other issues besides organic farming are you working on?
If you’re a surfer, travel and see what the ocean looks like in different places around the world. Pristine in some spots, still perfect and beautiful, while other spots are as bad a nightmare as you’ve ever seen, just congested with plastics. On Molokai, our shoreline can be three feet deep with plastics. We want to raise money through our non-profit for plastic collection machines to do more cleanups. When you want to make something into a surfboard fin, or a brick for a homeless shelter, they go into a mold, and voila, trash can become useful again. Like a busted surfboard, actually. Did you know that two-thirds of the waste in your local dump is kitchen scraps and cardboard? If you just took a tiny bit of that, fed it to some earthworms in a bin, you could grow flowers in front of your house. Or vegetables.
Or teach worms how to eat old surfboards to make soil.
Yeah, or that. There are tons of little steps people can make to build a relationship with nature.
This interview first appeared at Surfer Magazine.