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April 21, 2020

Britt Browne, founder of Finca Tierra Negra, with her dog, Samson, on a walk in the mountains near Los Angeles

Ultimately, it all goes back to soil.

Whether we're talking about food, coffee, or life itself, the life-giving nature of soil—and all it contains—is what makes life on Earth possible as we know it. 
We first met Britt Browne through the local food scene in East LA. She was already collecting food scraps from several restaurants and markets to compost and create soil on her farm, Finca Tierra Negra. Before long, we'd plugged in our coffee to the supply chain through contributing spent coffee grounds after they'd been extracted for cold brew. 
Just as her compost yields life-giving soil, it seems that every encounter with Britt yields mind-opening conversations to the possibilities of regenerative permaculture. 
Black and white photograph of an art installation featuring humus made at Finca Tierra Negra, and a photo of Britt Browne, owner of Finca Tierra Negra 

How do you like to start your day? Do you have a morning ritual?

Yes! I like to ease into my day. Recently my ritual has been waking early. I make coffee and enjoy it while reading in bed or practicing my guitar. It’s like free time, an escape into another mental realm. Then I take Samson for a good walk, I get to breathe deep, my mind can wander and that usually allows me to come back centered and able to focus on projects for the next few hours.
Plants growing on Finca Tierra Negra in Pasadena, CA

Finca Tierra Negra seems part soil creation, part garden, part artistic expression, 100% paradigm shifting. Could you tell us about it in your words?

I appreciate you seeing it this way! Well, I started Finca Tierra Negra in 2017 wanting to build a brighter future. My mission has been to restore real food nutrition to our soils and vitality to the planet by making small batch compost. FTN represents a regenerative future in solidarity with soil, a grassroots effort to build a new earth.
I make a carbon rich compost that brings a healthy biology back to soils and in turn creates strong, resilient biomes. With FTN, I want to share everything I know! From what you need to compost at home to how you can build your own soil to ordering a fresh batch of soil that I’ve baked for you.
I like reimagining a world where everyone gets a fair slice, including the environment. What inspired me at its inception still inspires me now. FTN is about building a quality of relationships and these collective efforts flow downstream, feel restorative, allow us access to natural resources that can generate new life in our homes and communities.
Orange tree next to a row of compost pots at Finca Tierra Negra in Pasadena, CA

What was the lead-up to the creation of FTN? Had you always been into composting? Did you study soil or agronomy?

I grew up in the foothills of LA and have always been into growing vegetables, fruits and herbs. I even lived and worked on a dairy farm in Holland during high school because I was so fascinated by agriculture and life in the country. I went on to study art and agriculture in Vermont at UVM. I learned an even greater reverence for the earth from the people I met in Vermont. They moved me to keep going, fall deeply in love with soil and encouraged me to believe that change is possible. Friends of mine have said they always remember me composting, but it wasn’t until I started Growing Indigo in Vermont, that I remember my flame was really stoked. I saw the ways in which indigo had been grown, composted and the dye extracted from different cultures all over the world. Talk about rituals!
When I moved back to LA, our climate was in flux and agriculture was taking a major hit. I wanted to grow food and restore land. I managed the start-up of a farm named LALA Farm in Lincoln Heights. I took the space from a blank, dry compacted hillside to a thriving green space where I was selling the fresh produce to local chefs. To make this impact happen, I began with a compost program to build soil. I was eager to push the conversation forward, I wanted to come full circle—farm to table and back to farm.
In 2017 I started Finca Tierra Negra. With fires and storms, climate change was affecting the world and I felt a sense of urgency. Burning inside, I knew that homemade compost was the best medicine for the earth, and we needed it now! Finca Tierra Negra means Black Earth Farm, and I'm living for La Tierra over here! TIERRA is the soil, roots, sun, water and air. It means more than simply "land" or the idea of just what's beneath our feet. It is the system from which all things are a part of...
Growing up in Los Angeles, I've had Spanish to inspire me beyond the surface and I'm grateful to know language can take us deeper. Soil building will also take us deeper and speaks a universal language!
Humus created through composting at Finca Tierra Negra in Pasadena, CA

It often seems that, culturally, we equate compost with “waste.” As with recycling and trash, our food and yard scraps are things that often get removed from our homes and sent away, out of sight. So when we think about solutions—at least in urban environment—we often only think as far as “Who can take my waste?” and then, maybe, “Can they do something good with it?” What struck us about your approach is that you’re not positioning yourself as a “waste” disposal service so much as a soil creator. That feels way more powerful! Do you feel like this paradigm shift is an important part of your work?

Soil building is definitely a source of inspiration for me! I’ve always felt so good about composting in my kitchen. And I know anyone who composts feels this same peace. With FTN, I want to tell a new story. I want to make composting accessible to a wider audience, perhaps inspire someone in a new way.
It’s all very fun and regenerative for me to express myself this way. Baking and fermenting earth by way of Lasagna Composting is a kind of soil building fantasy. And it’s truly been so restorative and healing for me in that I’ve been able to find a greater sense of peace against the backdrop of the melting world we all share.
Process has been everything - from sourcing the best quality ingredients to building the lasagna compost, baking it, generating heat, all the way through to sharing my goods. I’ve found so much healing engaging in my process!
And yes, the paradigm is shifting and people are finding me! I’m grateful compost is bringing so many people together. There’s a heightened sense of gratitude in that this is so much bigger than us and I have such huge appreciation for everybody out there taking compost on.
Compost pots next to a lasagna compost structure at Finca Tierra Negra in Pasadena, CA

You practice “lasagna composting.” Why do you consider this approach the best?

After learning a bunch of different compost methods, Lasagna Composting is what spoke to me most sincerely. I wanted to be a steward of the land and let Nature run her course with the least amount of intervention. I wanted to witness the magic.
Lasagna Composting is a passive method of building earth by layering greens and browns like you would in making a lasagna. It’s also the most forgiving and generous of all composts. She burns up pathogens and seed while keeping the biology alive and thriving.
It's kind of like I'm baking cookies in the oven; what I'm really doing is not far off. You will see steam off the top when approaching the Lasagna Compost and smell a delicious aroma of deep earth akin to the Forest Floor.
Lasagna Compost is Living Soil; you will find billions of Indigenous Microorganisms (IMO) in every handful of Lasagna Compost because it's alive! IMO are the bioremediation we need to save our plants and animals from both polluted land and potential disease. IMO do not just contain a single culture of beneficial microorganisms but a mixture of different beneficial microorganisms; it is a village of good bacteria that are living together in harmony with the rest of nature.
The term “Indigenous Microorganisms” refers to a group of beneficial microbes that are native to the area, thus the name Indigenous. IMO have survived centuries and are considered the most primitive form of life here on earth. IMO are the basis of making fertile soil.
Compost pot with extracted coffee grounds on top at Finca Tierra Negra in Pasadena, CA

What are the must-haves for someone to begin composting at home? Do you need a yard? Do you need special equipment? Should everyone be making their own compost?

I definitely recommend composting at home because it feels so good to come full circle in your kitchen!
For the single urban dweller to small family, there are some great options!
Things you will need:  “browns” (mulch) to layer in with your “greens” (food scraps), a pot to keep it in and a place to put it afterwards.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Find a pot, bowl, urn or another object in your kitchen that’s been sitting. You’re attached to it but you don’t use it often. Repurpose it into your new compost collector. Place it by your sink or on the counter and feed it your food scraps.
2. Worms are a great idea for anyone with space constraints or little time. Vermiculture is also a passive method of composting. Find “Red Wigglers” for your compost, not Earthworms which are for your garden. You can have worms in a variety of different containers. I like to stack clay pots on top of one another like a totem and keep them eating in there. Find shade and make sure their environment stays moisturized.
3. Collect your scraps in a large freezer bag and donate them to an urban compost program or bring them to your farmers market. You don’t have to compost at home, you can be a part of a bigger picture compost project in your community!
Britt Browne, founder of Finca Tierra Negra, holding humus

Could you give a typical play-by-play of the composting cycle, starting with collecting scraps and ending with spreading soil?

Sure! The great thing about collecting food scraps is that they are already in small pieces. If you have food waste, you’re going to want to cut them down to 3-6 in.
I layer my food scraps and then my mulch and coffee grounds. I always layer at least 2x the amount of browns to greens.
If you have the volume to turn up the heat and get baking, your compost could be ready in 30 days. I have the heat but I like to let mine sit for about 3 months or cure for even longer.
Once it’s ready, you want to take handfuls and add on top of your garden beds like you would layer a lasagna.
And remember a little goes a long way when you make compost tea!
Program from an art installation feature Finca Tierra Negra of Pasadena, CA

You just moved onto a new property in Pasadena! Can you tell us about it and your vision for it? What does it hold for the future of Finca Tierra Negra?

I’m so excited to share this next chapter with you! I’ve been dreaming about creating this space for a few years and these visions have ripened into truths. I’m over here [in Pasadena] holding many promises of a brighter future for all.
First I want to establish a safe space where we can come together and care deeply and passionately about the planet’s health and well being. I want a space where we can all get real, support one another during the now and through the darkness that is unknown. I want to give people an experience of coming full circle, a chance to compost, enjoy a coffee or tea and see where the grounds go! I want to share what low impact living can feel like, what it’s like to consume with zero waste. I want to create a place where we can heal just by being present. It’s my vision that together we can rebuild an economy in solidarity with soil!


It seems like what you are doing is such a critical part of the work of rehabilitating our planet! How does composting and soil creation fit into your vision for a better, brighter future for our little, wet blue planet?

There are so many rewards to composting and building carbon rich soils naturally for our planet. I think when I began I kept seeing big ecological shifts as the goal. It was all "Save our Environment" and "Save our Seas," which are absorbing the excess carbon in our atmosphere and, in turn, acidifying our oceans!
Soil is a precious resource, and I was building soil carbon so that the carbon in the atmosphere could be put back in the ground where it belongs. And while these are still goals, eventually this kind of heavy thinking left me feeling very fatigued. It’s way overwhelming to think about the mountains we must move to turn this around.
I’ve reeled it in a bit. Now my goals are to see people awaken with composting in real time. I hope when people go deeper into finding a process that comes full circle in the kitchen they uncover the potential to heal and nourish in their homes.
The real revolution will happen when people across our country start taking this on at home. I believe it's going to be this kind of grassroots effort that turns it all around. I see the head of a household having the most impact in being the person who influences others by caring enough to do something with their food scraps because it matters to them. And growing up in that kitchen you realize it’s in the follow-through where we all get to feel so good. Future generations carry this knowledge forward because in coming full circle, we get closer to feeling a greater sense of peace.
Imagine a future with networks of people across the globe building black earth, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it deep in our collective root-systems, restoring our land and our reality all at the same time.
With this gift of peace, it is my hope that we will awaken and our planet will transform.
Britt Browne, founder of Finca Tierra Negra, with her dog Samson

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