News & Updates
July 10, 2018
Getting to Know You – Will Bakx
Getting to Know You
Will Bakx – Renewable Sonoma
Interviewed by Gretchen Reed
Today we are getting to know Will Bakx, founder of Renewable Sonoma. Originally established as Bennett Valley Farm Compost, and then Sonoma Compost, Renewable Sonoma, with Will and Alan Siegle at the helm, has served Sonoma County since 1985. They know that local farmers, landscapers and backyard gardeners deserve high quality composts and mulches that are processed locally and are affordable. Renewable Sonoma added a renewable energy component to their original facility. A fraction of the green can and commercial food scraps will be processed in an anaerobic digestion plant to produce over 1 MW of green energy. The remaining organics from the anaerobic plant will then be composted with the remaining fraction of the green can into a high-quality soil amendment.
Recently, Will received great news: Sonoma County Waste Management Agency (SCWMA) staff and review committee have unanimously recommended Renewable Sonoma as the future municipal organics processing and composting company in Sonoma County. Renewable Sonoma has proposed a state of the art renewable energy and composting facility to be co-located adjacent to the Laguna Treatment Plant on Llano Road in Santa Rosa.
Renewable Sonoma will help the County of Sonoma and its cities meet greenhouse gas reduction targets, as well as comply with stringent new regulations that require at least 75% of organic materials to be diverted from landfills.
There is a public hearing for the Renewable Sonoma project on August 15th. We encourage your support, and Renewable Sonoma would like to hear from you! Please contact the team at email@example.com.
How did you get interested/involved/engaged?
It goes back to my days at Sonoma State University, working at a student farm which had a heavy adobe soil. I learned about composting from Dutch compost mentor, Hank Zandbergen. Sonoma State University is also where I met my future business partner, Alan Siegle. I became manager at the student farm and began presenting about composting at many conferences. I got to be regarded as an expert on soil and compost. I partnered with Alan to create Bennett Valley Farm Compost in 1985.
In 1989, California adopted its first comprehensive solid waste management program, and an Act was passed that required jurisdictions to implement programs to achieve 25% diversion of all solid waste from the landfill by 1995, and 50% diversion by 2000. Waste Management saw a news article written about Sonoma Compost and contacted us to collaborate.
The bill had begun fueling interest in composting throughout the state, but it also resulted in the startup of composting facilities with companies that had very little knowledge in soil science. And we could help them.
In 1992 I co-founded the California Organics Recycling Council (CORC). We helped provide a voice for organics recyclers on government regulations, product standards, environmental impacts, marketing, research and education. I then established the California Compost Coalition (CCC) in 2002, which is a registered Lobbying Coalition with the Fair Political Practices Commission. We needed representation in Sacramento to protect the industry against threats of pesticide use. The CCC was successful in passing AB 2356 to limit the use of Clopyralid and other persistent herbicides to enhance the production of clean compost. My passion for educating others on soil life and good quality compost keeps on growing!
What do you want to people to learn/do in your work with them?
There are two major categories:
- I want people to see organics (yard debris and food scraps) as a resource.
Our society has created a very convenient system to take care of discards. People see them as waste, and not as a resource. As a result, people put all kinds of contaminants in them because they don’t think of that material as important. My main emphasis here is that you cannot throw organics away and let them go to the landfill. They need to be recycled back into the system, and they need to be kept clean. And that needs to happen at the source where it is being produced.
- Carbon gardening, carbon farming and healthy soils.
We must use finished products wisely. We want to build carbon in the soil and we want to build healthy soils. We know that tilling destroys soil carbon, which goes against what we want to achieve. We need to go to a low or no-till system where we increase organic matter. As we increase organic matter we get better soil structure, improved nutrient management and better water holding capacity, and as a result you get better plant growth and deeper roots. Then the plant itself becomes a pump to put more carbon into the soil, and we really trigger that carbon pump to sequester carbon into the soil.
One thing you have learned over the years?
Patience! I have great visions of where I think the world should go, but people around me do not often move as fast as I do. And so quite often I find myself just moving forward until I am standing all by myself. I really need patience to ensure that whoever I work with has the time to acclimate, adjust to new ideas, try them on…it takes time for people. I have learned to be patient with the goals that I have. They don’t happen overnight.
A perfect example is that I started the process for Renewable Sonoma a year and a half ago. Everything has taken much longer than we expected. But the attitude that we’ve taken is let’s assume that every step along the way was actually a step to make things better. To make the process defendable, open, transparent and fair… And times flies! Even if it takes two or three years before we have the new compost facility, we’ll be there before we know it. Time is all relative.
A big failure that (you) turned into a positive:
What is a failure? Like waste is not waste until its truly wasted, failure is not a failure until it has truly failed. But most things we see as failures are actually life lessons to reevaluate and make things better. And so the question then is, “Are you able to listen to the life lessons in order to make things better and move things around so that they do work?” So in my life failures do not really exist. It’s like trying on, readjusting and moving on.
What is most precious to you?
Family. Beyond that I really value integrity. That is something that is high up on my ladder. And then of course the soil, the planet and its health. That is what I’ve built my life around. My relationship with my family, working with people who I believe have integrity, and working with soil and the earth.
What do you most value in your colleagues?
Every single person that I’ve worked with has their own expertise that I value. That is why I am working with them. And the way I work is by giving them full autonomy in their expertise. I found that this works really well because it allows that person the chance to blossom to the fullest extent. It doesn’t mean that you can’t provide feedback to them and interact. But let them own their field. If you fully trust them, you feel comfortable working with them and so you’re never double guessing them. You work together as a team and build something great. Much of that is treating people with respect.
Who are your heroes?
Hans Jenny, Vasily Dokuchaev, Justice von Liebig, Eugene Hilgard for soil science. This group really laid the foundation of soil science that we know today, which by the way is one of the last natural sciences to develop because the soil is so complex. These people really dedicated their lives to this.
John Wick, Jeff Creque and Whendee Silver for laying the foundation for carbon farming. This is really heroic because essentially, they are providing us with the tools we need to change the crisis on global warming.
Trathen Heckman for community engagement, changing the world one step at a time. He really is an engine in community engagement to get people to make changes in their daily lives, no matter how small, to create a better environment.
Pema Chödrön for tools to accept life lessons. She is a Buddhist monk and is full of wisdom, providing a lot of the concepts I use in my life.
What is your greatest achievement?
Number one is raising a wonderful son and a stepdaughter. They are both so wholesome, stable and grounded. That is a life accomplishment. That is number one.
Another one was standing up against the chemical Clopyralid. This was a real threat to our industry and to take that on and get a bill passed to curb the use of that chemical was a great achievement.
And finally, I think learning to be resilient even when the tide turns against you. When Sonoma Compost shut down, I never missed a night’s sleep over that. As long as you have integrity with yourself and you are doing the best you can do, there’s no reason to lay awake. You keep adjusting to the situation and working with it.
What is the thing for which you want to be remembered?
I remember when I applied for graduate studies at UC Berkeley. In my letter I wrote about working towards a better world for the next generation. I think that as a generation we have lost ground. We were not able to make that happen. We have a crisis on our hands. We have too much carbon in the atmosphere and we wounded the world rather than made it better. However, I think that maybe I helped a little bit by educating people on carbon farming and soil health so that it is in the awareness of farmers, landscapers and gardeners that they can actually have an impact.
When I speak about carbon farming and soil health, I’d like to be remembered more as an Earth healer, not soil scientist – it sounds so dry! The earth is a living organism and what we are trying to do is to heal it. The Earth will survive without us- no problem, but if we want to live on it, we need to heal it in a way that we can actually be an integral part of it.
And the last part is that…there is also tremendous beauty out there. I do landscape photography and this is bringing the beauty out. It reminds me when I stand in nature that it’s not all about the troubles we see. There is right now in front of us tremendous beauty to be enjoyed.
What would you tell your younger self?
I would rephrase this question: “What do you tell your younger self?”
Here is how I see things: As a child you are very impressionable. If things happen in your life where you feel rejected, where you feel unworthy or insecure or you don’t get enough love, it leaves scars. It imprints you and it has an effect on how you behave in life. There is something called shenpa, where suddenly, in interactions with others, you may become extremely insecure. It may have nothing to do with what is happening in that moment but it triggers something that you felt as a child. You are reacting to that as if you are in that moment as a child again. So your reaction is actually out of proportion to what is happening to you. Once you become aware of this, you can do something about it. To heal that feeling, what you need to do is actually go back to that time when you were a child and have a conversation with that child, in that moment, to heal the memory, the scar. You have a conservation with it that says “Hey, I love you, you are worthwhile. I know you. I know who you have become, and you’re great. And I’m here to let you know that you’re okay.” That way you can heal the scar that lives in you.
The one thing you have not done/achieved and want to before you die:
I’ve been saying that we need to place value on soil carbon for the last 10-15 years and until recently people would laugh at me. But we’ve been depleting, without penalty, soil carbon for ages. It’s just something we cannot see, so who cares? But it has had a significant impact on our atmosphere and soil. We know also that soil carbon can actually capture some of that atmospheric carbon, even from fossil fuels, and put it back into the soil. So we either need to put a monetary value on it, or if possible (and preferred) an intrinsic value that people just feel it is the right thing.
Did you hear about the Japanese when they lost the soccer match during the World Cup? They lost the match and the team left their locker room absolutely impeccable. In every section where the Japanese fans sat, there was no garbage. They picked up after themselves. That is an intrinsic value that the Japanese have. When I was visiting Japan, I got a coffee in a paper cup, or food in a paper container, and would look around for disposal. I could not find a garbage can and I was initially really annoyed. But the intrinsic value there is that it is your garbage, you deal with it respectfully and responsibly. You take it with you, and you dispose of it properly. That is amazing. That is the intrinsic value that I would love if we could bestow on our people here.