4832 Home Avenue, City Heights
“When you’re running a small business and you get this stuff in the mail, you go, like, ‘Oh, crap.’” That was the initial reaction of Bill Tall in June when he received a letter from the City of San Diego charging his business, City Farmers Nursery, with noncompliance of a municipal waste-recycling ordinance. The letter, emanating from Kenneth Prue, recycling program manager of the Waste Reduction and Disposal Division of the Environmental Services Department, states that all business generating four cubic yards of waste or more per week must have “recycling service.”
But what does the city mean by the term “service?”
On a sultry August afternoon, I drive to City Farmers, wary of venturing to a part of town known a lot better for gang-bangers than for garden gnomes. At the scruffy edge of City Heights, Tall’s domain stands out as an agrarian oasis.
Pulling into the gravel parking lot, I see hand-painted signs, whimsical animal figures carved in stone and wood, hand-painted signs hawking “chicken poop” or directing patrons to “parkin’” spaces. The air is heavy with mulch, compost, and when the wind shifts, a hint of manure.
Inside the nursery office, I’m greeted by Tall, a big, affable man with a gray beard; true to his moniker, Farmer Bill, he’s clad in overalls.
I ask, “You do recycle, correct?”
“I’ve been recycling since I started on November 20, 1972,” he laughs. Tall says the ethos of self-sustainability has made recycling a core component of City Farmers’ operations. But, he admits, studying city ordinances hasn’t been a priority. “Back in ’72, I was 16 and I didn’t even have a business permit.”
“Nursery” is a bit of a misnomer for City Farmers. Inside, it’s redolent of an old-time general store, with beekeeping equipment, home canning supplies, bags of worm castings, and a thousand other things that speak of ruritania. Outside, it’s a maze of passageways, tiny plots, and sunny corners filled with the expected (and unexpected) plants, but also a menagerie: There’s 22-year-old Shetland pony that welcomes attention and a cantankerous turkey that doesn’t. Mosey around and you’ll find ducks, chickens, quail, goats, turtles, tortoises, and a rabbit; some are for sale, others aren’t. It’s perfused with a back-to-nature vibe, a hippie/agrarian ambiance that for Tall is much less a retail business than a spiritual calling, at the heart of which is re-use.
Re-use is City Farmers’ leitmotif.
Just about everything that isn’t alive and growing at City Farmers is in its second-or-more lifetime as a shed, wall, sign, or ornament; the hilly 1.5-acre lot is lined with big metal shipping containers that once did duty aboard cargo ships, and patrons will note that the nursery is strewn with hundreds of old tires, large pieces of corrugated sheet metal and a variety of wood.
I ask Tall why City Farmers was singled out.
“The code has been in force since 2008. I think the city went to the waste companies and asked them about all the businesses that had four-plus cubic yards of waste and checked to see if they had a recycling service; I assume they got info from our waste company, Edco.”
According to city spokesman José Ysea, who sounded an apologetic tone, “We use the form letter to put out a net to catch businesses that aren’t recycling. We only have 12 or 13 code-enforcement officers, so we can’t go out personally to every business. We do an audit by asking the commercial haulers, ‘Who doesn’t have a bin?’ The assumption is that if they don’t have a recycling bin, they’re not recycling. But in this case, City Farmers has been doing an exemplary job, so they don’t need a service.”
According to Farmer Bill, they go to extraordinary lengths to avoid trashing anything. “You know those old nursery containers? People bring them back and we clean them; we donate them, along with compost, to schools for their gardening projects.” He goes on: “We recycle all the soil and plant material we use. We have a guy who picks up all the cardboard and a gentleman who picks up our pallets. We take all our recyclable CRV [California redemption value] stuff, put it in bags, and literally drop it off in front of recycling centers so that someone who shows up first thing in the morning gets it all, because we really don’t want to go through it all and sort it. We take our paper and we shred it and put it in our worm bins for bedding. We take all the scraps from our restaurant [Nate’s Garden Grill, owned by one of the Talls’ tenants] and feed it to our animals; in turn, we sell the manure mixed with the earthworms as fertilizer. We actually call tree companies who bring us ground-up pine-tree trimmings, which we re-sell to customers or use around the nursery to keep weeds down. All the concrete we ever bust up we use for retaining walls and small planters.”
Without a hint of bluster, Tall notes, “I think we do a much better job than a service would; we’ve actually asked the waste company for a smaller [than four cubic yards] container.”
How much would a “service” cost? “I never checked into it,” says Tall. “I could call Edco or a similar disposal service to pick up recyclables. But a lot of what we recycle they probably wouldn’t even use, like the barnyard waste and the plant trimmings which we turn into compost. They wouldn’t accept it. It would end up in a dumpster and just get thrown out.”
It turns out, says Tall, that the city’s letter won’t lead to dire consequences for the nursery. “They’ve just noted our file. They called the other day [mid-August] and spoke to one of my employees. They didn’t flat-out say ‘I’m sorry,’ but they did say that they could’ve worded the letter differently, and that’s what we had told them. The city should have just said that they simply wanted to make sure we had a recycling program and wanted to see what we were doing. If they had worded the letter properly, I would’ve said, ‘Make an appointment, come down and I’ll show you what I do,’ and that would’ve been enough....
“Right now, we’re at about 15 to 20 percent trash; we’re working toward the goal of zero waste in the next four or five years. We actually won a California state award on March 22, 2000 for being the best recycling business in the state.”