Q&A: Getting into the weeds with Nathan Rutz, Director of Soil, Rust Belt Riders


Nathan Rutz, the director of soil at Rust Belt Riders.


Rust Belt Riders, a local soil and composting company, wants to make use of food waste — to grow more food. That’s why they brought on Nathan Rutz, their director of soil. By using food scraps from residents, restaurants, and now, Heinen’s grocery stores all over Cleveland to create fertile soil to grow more food, Rutz and the rest of the Rust Belt Riders team aims to cultivate a more sustainable, circular economy. 

What you can do: Learn about backyard composting at cuyahogarecycles.org/composting_and_yard_waste

The Land’s editor Lee Chilcote got into the weeds with Rutz about how Rust Belt Riders’ soil-making component, called Tilth Soil, came to be. 

Lee Chilcote: How did you first get involved in composting and making soil? 

Rust Belt Riders cofounder Daniel Brown at the company’s composting yard. Photo by Grant Segall.

Nathan Rutz: I got involved because I own a house on East 43rd Street, between Payne and Superior, and I have high lead in the soil. So, I decided to buy some topsoil from a landscape company, and I was super excited until it was delivered. And then it seemed, instead of the mixture that it claimed to be online of sand and clay and compost, it seemed to be clay and garbage. 

So, I essentially was like, “All right. I’ll make my own.” 

Making compost is easy. It’s one part food scraps, two parts woody material, and “woody” means shredded paper, shredded cardboard, wood chips, or leaves. And keep it relatively moist. You want to have some bulky material like wood chips to keep passive aeration, and that’s it. Turning is only necessary if you’re trying to make it faster or if you’re trying to sell it commercially. 

Lee Chilcote: How did you get hooked up with Rust Belt Riders? 

Nathan Rutz: I was making so much compost and loving doing it. Then when Rust Belt was basically looking for another laborer, one of the ideas was, “Well, maybe we can turn around the compost that we’re making faster, increase the capacity we have to take stuff, reduce the amount we’re paying in tipping fees, and also have a product to sell.” And so that was kind of the thing.

Tilth soil signage.

Lee Chilcote: So, you were brought on before Tilth Soil, and part of what you did was help to develop that?

Nathan Rutz: Yeah. We started with such little dough! (laughs) I was turning compost piles three to six hours a day by hand. I developed a really good shovel and fork technique out of necessity – you need a nice broad, flat shovel and a nice forged tine fork. You can’t get those welded, tine forks. Those things will just break. 

Lee Chilcote: So, going back to the beginning of your story, you were talking about how you wanted to create a garden at your property on East 43rd, and you got the soil from Home Depot and it was not great soil. What’s great about this soil?

Nathan Rutz: Our mix is high in organic matter. It’s nutrient rich and it’s full of microorganisms. And it has these physical properties that are really conducive to growing plants vigorously and quickly and healthily because a plant needs air and water at the roots and it needs accessible nutrients, but you want them to be available, but not leachable. A huge problem with conventional fertilizer is that most of it is water soluble. And so if it’s a water soluble nutrient, guess what happens when it rains? It ends up with the sewer district. It ends up in Lake Erie. Our mixes only contain organic fertilizers. We use essentially recycled, up-cycled waste products. We use bone meal and blood meal, which is a little bit witchy, and everything has a story and complicatedness, but I kind of see our use of these parts of animals as a calling of them back into the land of the living from the slaughterhouses. 

A huge problem with conventional fertilizer is that most of it is water soluble. And so if it’s a water soluble nutrient, guess what happens when it rains? It ends up with the sewer district. It ends up in Lake Erie. Our mixes only contain organic fertilizers. We use essentially recycled, up-cycled waste products.
— Nathan Rutz, director of soil at Rust Belt Riders

Lee Chilcote: So in terms of the market here in Northeast Ohio, people can purchase this soil that’s locally made, healthy and good for plants as opposed to coming off a truck. 

Nathan Rutz: Yeah. We work with all the Heinen’s locations now. And we take all the fruit and vegetable trimmings. And they buy a lot from Northeast Ohio, Amish. And so we could have this actual circular economy thing happening here, where we haul scraps from Heinen’s, we make compost with that stuff, then we make potting soil out of that compost that starts the vegetables that then end up back at Heinen’s, for example. That loop hasn’t quite been closed yet. I’m really hoping we can get some Amish adoption of our potting mixes soon. We definitely have some small farmers in town like Eric and Annabel at Bay Branch Farm over on the west side of Cleveland. They grow a whole lot of really amazing tomatoes on two acres of land in Cleveland. 

Lee Chilcote: You have a unique title. You are the “Director of Soil.” Tell us what that means.

Nathan Rutz: It means I humbly attempt to conduct the symphony of microbes and participate in the mystery of decomposition and growth of death and resurrection. And it means that I stick my hands in piles of stuff a lot and I sniff things. And it means that I plant a lot of plants because you can get soil tests all day but the person whose opinion you really care about is a plant’s. You have to ask a plant, because they’re the real customers. I stick probes in things to test moisture and pH and electrical conductivity. I take samples, put them in bags. I formulate recipes.

Lee Chilcote: Okay. You’re in charge of making sure that the soil turns out great?

Nathan Rutz: Yep.

Lee Chilcote: Do you think there’s a lot of growth potential? 

Nathan Rutz: Absolutely. We are just getting started honestly. In 2019, which is the most recent year for which there are numbers, about 1.2 million tons of food in Ohio got landfilled and only 33,000 tons got composted. Our current hauling is chump change in the giant bucket of food that shouldn’t be landfilled. There’s tons of room for growth here.

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This story was produced as part of an environmental justice reporting initiative involving partners Ideastream Public Media, The Land, The NewsLab at Kent State University, La Mega Media, and the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative (NEOSOJO).

Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.

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