Sustainable Urban Farm Composting

Final Report for CNE12-092

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,445.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
David Buckel
Added Value
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Project Information


This project has provided a loud “YES” to the question of whether urban farms can sustainably run compost programs. In a small space at the perimeter of the farm, with just one part-time coordinator pulling on every available potential for volunteer/donated labor, we processed 225 tons of organic waste in one year, a 65 ton increase over the prior year, and we did so while reducing odors and rodents to a minimum. We captured 100% of the farm’s organic waste stream, and got high marks from the independent lab for the finished product. For amendments to the farm’s soil, we supplied a market value of $12,000 worth of high quality compost.

Project Objectives:

The first objective was to capture all data necessary for reaching sustainability and moving toward a a business plan, develop a spreadsheet tailored to capture the project’s input/outputs of material, revenue, and labor. We largely achieved that objective, and the template for the spreadsheet, as well as the tallied results, accompany this final report.

The second objective was in general to promote a professional aerobic process for a superior soil amendment, accelerate production for greater volume in less time, and reduce unpleasant aromas and deter insects/rodents (overall objective surpassed in achievement). That second objective also included specific targets: waste harvesting teams on the field observing protocols for processing material at point of extraction, rather than mounding the material in a pile, at least 7 out of 10 sessions (surpassed objective); in the weekly emptying of organic waste in storage into active thermal compost bins/windrows, breaches in protocols (storage methods to control aroma/insects/rodents/ anaerobic conditions) in only 1 out of 4 weekly sessions (met objective); observance of protocols and increased efficiency freeing up time for the composting teams to turn active compost bins/windrows on a weekly basis at least 3 out of 4 weeks/month (objective unmet); and in the weekly transfer of individual market customers’ organic waste from tumblers to wormbins, breaches in protocols for acceptable materials in only 1 out of 4 weekly sessions (objective unmet).

The third objective was to create a starter mix from the Farm’s own organic waste sufficiently equivalent to or better than commercial mix as measured the superior rate and quality of germination/growth (objective met in part).

The fourth objective was to enlist and deploy the labor of the broader community and launch an Autumn leaf collection program (for carbon-based material) with collection of 120 bags (Hurricane Sandy required a modification to this objective because the community was otherwise mobilized to recover from its losses, but we surpassed target by working with the Parks Department).

The fifth objective was to further deploy the labor of community members, while increasing the volume of product and meeting customer demand for year-round compostables drop-off, and launch a Winter composting program with windrow sessions on a weekly basis (objective largely surpassed in achievement, but weekly turns not achieved because of substantial increase in volume of material).

The sixth objective was to reduce the planned cost outlays for commercial compost and starter mix for the 2013 season by at least 25% (Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge washing over the Farm compromised achievement of this objective by salting the compost reserved for launching the 2013 season).

The seventh objective was to convert a “requested donation” model to a commercial sales model, and develop an appropriate finalized business plan (Hurricane Sandy compromised achieved of this objective as well, not only because of short-term damage and the diversion of resources to storm recovery at the Farm and in the compost program, but also because in the long-term there were issues to address for stakeholders regarding the vulnerability of the Farm and compost program to future storm surges).

The last objective was widespread dissemination of results (objective met).


For those urban farms without access to non-urban venues for composting, there are few published models for sustainably composting all farm and customer waste in a limited space, at least while meeting quality standards for the product, generating revenue sufficient to sustain the operation, allowing for appropriate growth of the farm, and meeting neighbors’ and others’ reasonable aesthetic standards for appearances, with controlled odors and rodents. Added Value stepped into that gap and launched a sustainable enterprise development project for its compost program, working to improve labor practices related to the program, extensively develop volunteer/donated labor resources, improve farm profits and farm stewardship, and promote a healthier environment.


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Materials and methods:

The overarching approach was first to change the culture relating to compost, at the Farm and in the community, in order to improve efficiency and quality. Further, the approach was to deploy more fully the potential for labor. The design included the creation of written materials, supplemented by oral presentations, as well as an aggressive outreach for volunteer and other sources of labor.

For the Farm staff and other key stakeholders, we drafted “protocols” (accompanying this report) for the compost program that explained briefly the science of composting and used that background as a basis for laying out protocols for the compost program. This was important for achieving objectives relating to processing the organic waste coming off the farm (formerly left in unmanageable mounds or left in open buckets to rot), as well as honoring the compost process itself (previously raw material was injected into curing material, and wormbins were deeply disrupted for educational or other needs resulting in poor performance in the bins). The compost coordinator presented the compost program protocols at a staff meeting, and otherwise presented them in workshops for youth programming and job development teams.

The oral presentation of the protocols was followed with further materials for individuals who would be leading teams (volunteers, youth, job development), so they had more specific steps to follow in implementing the general philosophy of the protocols (attached to the accompanying protocols is a sample document which relates to leading a team on capturing nutrients on the Farm’s fields, sometimes known as weeding). Lastly, the check lists for team leaders were supplemented by one-pagers that the team leaders could give to team members during a work event so there was a visual aid to orienting those members at the beginning of the task (also attached to the protocols is a sample “do’s and don’ts” sheet directed at team members about to weed).

Separately, we developed new orientations for partners who bring compostables to the program (for example, shifting away from continuous feed bins to barreled material that was rodent proof), as well as for community members (accompanying this report is a flier that we developed for distribution to community members at our farmers market).

On the labor necessary for an urban farm’s sustainable compost program, we moved on several fronts. For example, we tapped into a criminal justice community service program, which resulted in an effective equipment repair program at the beginning of the season. With one of our partners, a Food Coop that brings compostables and in return supplies some labor, we reconfigured the labor so it was more impactful for the system, developing the role of “windrow workers.” Then we adapted that approach with other partners, incorporating them into the work itself.

Working with a job development group, we ran teams twice a week within a “certification” program that allowed team members to master different tasks in the compost program. They first achieved the stature of conducting a task independently with minimal supervision, then leading others in conducting the task, and finally teaching others how to lead teams (accompanying this report is a sample certification sheet). Successful participants received certificates of completion.

Tapping into civil community service, we launched a weekly work session with a premier community service organization, and then the compost coordinator trained to become an official “team leader” for that organization to further expand and realize that source of labor.

Lastly, we deployed principles of volunteer management to cultivate a pool of labor from the general community, launching a monthly Sunday event called “Big Salad” day, when a team would build the largest windrow of the month, with snacks, a warming firepit for winter days, a “repurpose bin” for small items that volunteers could bring and exchange, and a growing list of email addresses to sustain consistent outreach.

Research results and discussion:

As to specific outcomes and impacts relating to our verification plan, the deliverables are replicable on other urban farms. With new protocols in place, not only was volume increased by 30%, but at the same time only two rodents were spotted in a one-year span, representing a vast improvement over the prior season and a huge achievement for an urban farm that can be replicated elsewhere. Further, with new protocols odors have been consistently controlled. Revenue streams have been identified and developed enough for a solid business plan once we have recovered from Hurricane Sandy and rebuilt the Farm. The project was successfully registered with the State’s regulatory agency. A unique spreadsheet was developed to capture an urban farm compost project’s input/outputs of material, revenue, and labor activities (paid or volunteer). Waste harvesting teams on the field observe protocols for processing material at point of extraction, rather than mounding the material in a pile, for 9 out of 10 sessions, surpassing the goal of 7 out of 10. In the storage of organic waste, breaches in protocols (storage methods to control aroma/insects/rodents/ anaerobic conditions) occurred in only 1 out of 4 weekly sessions, meeting goal. For turning active compost bins/windrows on a weekly basis at least 3 out of 4 weeks/month in order to further accelerate the rate of maturity, the goal was unmet because of increased resources otherwise required for scaling program up by 30% in volume of inputs, so turning was kept to a minimum necessary for PRFP (Process to Further Reduce Pathogens) and preserve high compost quality, maintaining an average system time of 120 days from windrow build to windrow sift. In the weekly transfer of individual market customers’ organic waste from tumblers to wormbins, the goal was unmet for breaches in protocols for acceptable materials, in particular with use of biodegradable bags (that do not break down in our system). For the creation of a starter mix from the Farm’s own organic waste sufficiently equivalent to or better than commercial mix, the goal was met in part with superior rate and quality of germination/growth for some crops, but not others, and the project of saving on compost expenditures was compromised by Hurricane Sandy washing ocean water over compost reserves. But prior to the Hurricane we did supply a $12,000 market value of compost as a soil amendment to the farm during the season. On an Autumn leaf collection program (for carbon-based material), Hurricane Sandy blasted apart the community-based program launch, but a subsequent partnership with the Parks Department yielded 60 cubic yards of leaves. A winter composting program has launched and surpassed goal at present with at least two community composting sessions per week, as well as a significant increase in the usual monthly inputs.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Based on the project’s success, the compost coordinator was invited to present the project at a January 2013 national conference convened in Orlando by the United States Compost Council, which was heavily attended by members of the farm community. In addition, the coordinator presented the project at local conferences, including the MillionTreesNYC conference in March 2013. The compost coordinator has also helped set up compost programs at 2 other urban farms and a large-scale dedicated community compost site in NYC. Lastly, accompanying this report are materials developed for the program, including protocols for educating staff and volunteer team leaders, a certification template for job development programming, and a flier for community household composters.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

As mentioned above, this project has provided a loud “YES” to the question of whether urban farms can sustainably run compost programs. On the perimeter edges of one city block mostly devoted to space for growing food, we scaled up the compost program’s volume by 30% in one year, to an approximate total of 225 tons of organic waste processed, and we did so while reducing odors and rodents to a minimum. We achieved what had never been achieved before, capturing 100% of the Farm’s organic waste stream for controlled composting that resulted in a superior product. Professional lab tests concluded that our finished compost had “excellent numbers of flagellates and amoebae,” “with great diversity, good for soil functioning in all conditions.”

Our starter mix, made from our compost, surpassed the commercial mix for roughly half our starts, as measured by rate and quality of germination and early growth. For the other half, performance was inferior to the commercial mix. We were gradually improving the mix, with the most demonstrable leap in performance when we shifted to sustainably harvested peat to cut the compost – more research and development is required.

Our operational efficiency leapt dramatically to higher levels when we shifted away from a bin system to a turned windrow system and otherwise conducted trainings of staff to introduce appropriate protocols. Our goal had been to turn windrows on a weekly basis, to accelerate the rate of development to the curing stage, but the significant increase in volume of 30% did not allow for an accelerated schedule. Thus we turned on a schedule that maintained temperatures sufficient for pathogen/weed seed kill and otherwise kept moisture levels balanced to promote a mature, stable, high quality product – that meant an approximate 120 day schedule rather than a 90 day schedule. That said, we still expanded our volume of processed organic material by 65 tons/year.

We modified and improved our protocols and outreach to our community composters, who feed the tumblers with the kitchen waste that in turn feeds our wormbins after the thermophilic phase has concluded in the tumblers. While the protocols were largely a success, and problems continue to diminish, three challenges persist to a small degree:
* Folks still add in their biodegradable bags, even though we explain that they do not break down within our time frame – that culture will take a bit longer to change because the bags are popular, and the plan is to have a volunteer physically present for several community composting sessions to review protocols;
* Folks still occasionally bring material that has sat too long, having gone anaerobic and densely wet, draining leachate quickly out of the tumblers – that problem is slowly diminishing as we suggest that, when possible, folks put material in repurposed plastic bags that go in their freezer, as it is easier to manage some frozen material than wet smelly material; and
* Folks still occasionally leave material outside our gate outside community composting hours, thinking that we consider it a gift when in fact it will attract rodents, but that problem also is diminishing.

We realized our enormous potential for donated labor through development of materials on specific tasks to equip volunteer team leaders, one-pagers for team members to drive home salient points on task day, certification programs for job development and other program partners, cultivation of in-kind labor from community partners who bring compostables, launching a weekly work session with a community service partner, and perfecting volunteer management principles unique to supporting an urban farm compost program.

Overall, the project has developed a model for urban farms to manage a sustainable compost program. That model closes the loop on the food system, with the produce sold returning as compostables that help create the soil amendments to grow the produce; builds customer loyalty by meeting needs for a compostables drop off point; fosters farm stewardship by processing all of the farm’s organic waste as compost; improves the environment by diverting 30% more organic material from the landfill waste stream for a total of 225 tons on a small urban space; improves farm profits by lowering costs for compost needed by the farm; improves farm profits by generating revenue for the compost product; improves labor practices and quality of life for field and compost workers so they see themselves as part of a sustainable whole rather than in conflict; and improves relations with the community and increases interest in volunteer participation (further lowering costs of labor) by reducing unpleasant aromas and insects/rodents.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

This project has demonstrated that urban farms can sustainably run successful compost programs, on a scale of 225 tons/year of organic waste, despite limited space, no gas-powered equipment, regulations, neighbors right across the street, and higher aesthetic standards than those required of most commercial operations or non-urban farms. Challenged by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge washing over two feet of ocean water over the food and compost spaces in October 2012, the project did not convert to sustainability based on retail sales, but did identify significant operational efficiencies and volunteer/donated labor resources to form a solid ground for long-term financial sustainability.

Future Recommendations

Two salient needs for additional work remain: first, to further develop revenue streams to bolster the staffing of urban farm compost programs on a long-term basis (this goes hand-in-hand with the need for developing revenue streams for the food growing programs themselves); second, to further develop the seedstart mix recipes to meet or surpass commercial mixes as much as is feasible.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.