Training in production and utilization of composted waste materials in warm, humid climates to improve soils for horticultural cropping systems

Final Report for ES01-056

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2001: $47,896.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2003
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $37,934.00
Region: Southern
State: Florida
Principal Investigator:
Monica Ozores-Hampton
University of Florida/SWFREC
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Project Information

Abstract:

Extension agents, NRCS conservationists, waste and compost producers, University researchers, state and local government regulators, and conventional and organic farmers were able to learn composting principles and promote the improvement of soil physical, chemical and biological properties by the correct use of composts. A planning meeting and three two-days compost short-courses funded by SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) were held during February, March and October 2002 and February and March 2003. A total of 230 people attended the training sessions. The lectures were used to explain compost principles and the subjects covered included: composting principles and biology, compost site safety, compost quality and testing, compost feedstock, composting rules and regulations, record keeping, and compost utilization on specific crops. During the “hands-on” sessions at the compost facility, participants applied the concepts they had learned by mixing feedstocks, sampling composts, and using field tests for compost quality. To evaluate the effectiveness of the training, pre and post-tests were administered before and after the training program. Additionally, the trainees were personally contacted four months after the training sessions to evaluate their input and their needs to continue compost production, use, and education. Each participant received a free compost training manual with copies of lectures; publications about compost; a list of resources for compost web-sites, testing and equipment; a list of participants; and copies of three books: “On-farm Composting Handbook”, “Compost Use in Florida” and “Recycling Yard Trash: Best Management Practices Manual for Florida”. The comparison of the pre and post-test indicated that there were significant positives changes in the knowledge and attitudes about compost and composting. All the trainees expressed a positive feedback about the overall outcome of the training and many of them are beginning to use compost in their operations or encourage its use by others. An interesting consensus emerged from discussions at the end of the day: the only thing hindering compost production and use is lack of education of agricultural professionals and consumers. A “train the trainers” program teaching scientifically-based principles of compost production and use can be the seed for encouraging the use of organic “wastes” from cities and farms as sources for soil improvement for fruit, vegetable, and ornamental production.

Project Objectives:

1. Agricultural professionals and compost producers who participate will be able to teach composting principles and promote the improvement of soil physical, chemical and biological properties by the correct use of composts. Our specific goals were:
• 50% of farmer participants will begin making compost and 100% of farmer participants will begin using compost from local sources.
• Extension agents should present at least one program on compost production or use or set up at least one results demonstration using compost in the year following the training.
• NRCS conservationists will assist at least one farmer with compost production or use during the year following the training.
• FSA professionals will be able to analyze applications of farmers who need help with funding for composting facilities or who wish to use it on their crops.
• Compost producer participants should raise the quality of their compost by using proper testing methods.
2. Personal interaction between representatives of the diverse communities will increase communication and strengthen their working relationships to expand the use of compost as an element of sustainable production systems. For instance, a trainer farmer who wishes to begin composting at her farm or help a neighbor to use compost, will now know that she can contact Florida Organic Recycling Association (FORA) members for information on availability of compost feedstocks and Cooperative Extension for information on testing and using the compost.

Introduction:

Soils in Florida are generally sandy and low in organic matter concentration. They have low cation exchange and water holding capacity and low native fertility Native plants in these areas survive on a thin but dynamic layer of organic matter on the soil surface. Therefore, addition of organic matter to crop production soils tends to enhance their overall ability to retain both nutrients and water (Ozores-Hampton et al., 1998). Conventional commercial vegetable, fruit, or ornamental growers, however, rarely add organic matter since the use of concentrated, inexpensive, and readily available synthesized fertilizers results in high yields with maximum short-term profits.
In areas of high population, there is a variety of non-hazardous wastes generated for which composting and land application can provide an economically-sound and environmentally-acceptable option for utilization, but the majority of these wastes are currently landfilled or burned (Goldstein and Madtes, 2001). Compostable organic wastes produced by urban populations include municipal solid waste (MSW); yard trash/trimmings (YT); food wastes from restaurants, grocery stores, and institutions; wood wastes from construction and/or demolition; wastewater (from water treatment plants); and biosolids (sewage sludge) (BS). Agriculture produces other organic wastes that can be composted: poultry, dairy, horse, feedlot, and swine manures; wastes from food processing plants; spoiled feeds; and harvest wastes.
Composting should be an attractive waste management tool, since 30 to 60% of these waste materials can be composted in an environmentally-safe matter (Smith, 1994). In 1999, 26.2 million tons (23.8 x 106 t) of solid waste were produced in Florida [about 9.5 lb (4.3 kg) daily per person]. If composted, this solid waste would yield 15.7 million tons (14.2 x 106 t) of compost per year [12 million tons (10.9 x 106 t) of MSW, 3 million tons (2.7 106 t) of YT, 230,318 tons (208,944 t) of dry BS and 0.49 million tons (0.44 106 t) of animal manure] or twice the national average (Goldstein and Madtes, 2001; Ozores-Hampton and Obreza, 1999). Recent information indicates that there are over 40 operating composting facilities in Florida, including 35 YT composting facilities (Goldstein and Madtes, 2001). Since a significant (50 to 65%) reduction in waste volume occurs during biological decomposition, approximately 8 million tons of compost would be produced annually if all biodegradable material in Florida were composted (Ozores-Hampton et al, 1998). From the urban viewpoint, compost production represents a safe disposal method for these thousands of tons of waste materials produced every year, but there are few qualified technical support personnel who have knowledge of compost use.
The largest potential compost user is the agricultural industry (Parr and Hornick, 1992) and the particularly high per acre value of horticultural crops encourages the addition of soil amendments such as compost. Florida is a major production center for horticultural products, with over 400,000 acres of vegetables and 800,000 acres of citrus under cultivation each year (Florida Agricultural Statistics Services, 2000), as well as many thousands of large and small nurseries and potted-plant operations. This high concentration of horticultural crops close to the centers of population and animal production creates an ideal situation for encouraging development of a sustainable system using organic “waste” materials in crop production.
Compost can be incorporated as a soil amendment for vegetables, fruit trees, and nursery crops; used to replace soil removed with nursery trees and sod; applied as a mulch to decrease evapo-transporation and control weeds; or used as all or part of potting media. An additional benefit of compost can be disease suppression. Research is demonstrating that this characteristic is a result of properly produced composts, so it requires a high level of knowledge of the composting process (Ozores-Hampton and Obreza, 1998).
Compost is a dynamic system, which makes recommendations for its use more complicated than standard fertilizer use. The lack of knowledge by agricultural professionals results in failure to use composts, or mistakes and problems with compost production and use, such as the utilization of immature compost (Ozores-Hampton et al, 1998).
A one-day compost short-course “Utilizing organic materials in horticultural production systems workshop” sponsored by the University of Florida (March, 2000) illustrated the interest in this subject in South Florida. Attendance was limited by space and funding, so potential participants were identified and invited, although the list of those desiring to attend was much larger than could be accommodated. Attendees included organic and conventional farmers, compost producers, Extension agents, and members of an NGO that teaches subsistence gardening to families in developing countries. An interesting consensus emerged from discussions at the end of the day: (To paraphrase the feelings of participants): The only thing hindering compost production and use is lack of education of agricultural professionals and consumers!
A “train the trainers” program teaching scientifically-based principles of compost production and use in these climates can be the seed for encouraging the use of organic “wastes” from cities and farms as sources for soil improvement for fruit, vegetable, and ornamental production in the tropical regions of the United States. The need to develop sustainable alternative production systems in horticultural crop production is an important goal, and compost made from local waste materials can play a significant role; this is a real opportunity for “closing the loop”!.

Cooperators

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  • Cass Gardner
  • Edward Hanlon
  • Nancy Roe

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

The first step in the development of the composting course was to hold a planning meeting with representatives of all cooperating and invited groups. The planning meeting was held in November 2001 at the University of Florida Everglades Research and Education Center/IFAS (Belle Glade, FL). After the planning meeting we were able to incorporate their suggestions about the evaluation process and additional subjects to include in the training, and decide on dates for the training sessions.
One of the recommendations from the planning meeting was to divide the compost course into two days: the first day was eight hours of lectures about “Why and how to use compost” and “How to make compost”. The second day was eight hours of “Hand on training” including a tour to a local compost facility, farms tours and compost use demonstration”. The planning meeting and three two-day compost trainings were funded by Southern Region SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).
The composting lectures were held at the University of Florida Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC)/IFAS in February 2002 and 2003 (Immokalee, FL) and October 2002 at the Florida A&M University (Tallahassee, FL). These are a relatively central location for South, Central and North Florida agriculture.
The hands-on training sessions included a composting facility tour to Palm Beach Solid Waste Authority (Palm Beach, FL) in March 2002, the Quincy mushroom compost facility (Quincy, FL) in October 2002 and the Amerigrow Recycling composting facility (Delray Beach, FL) in May 2003. The farm visits were used to show how the compost characteristics can influence crop growth and yield. The compost use demonstrations were at Green Cay Farm (Boynton Beach, FL). Green Cay Farm is a 40-year old commercial vegetable farm which has been actively experimenting with many “alternative” methods for over 10 years. Several months before the training, compost demonstration plots were planted at Green Cay Farm, by Farming Systems Research, a specialty vegetable grower who is farming some of the land. They included plots with varying rates of composts and fertilizers, to show the interactions between the two. Participants also were able to see fields which have had annual compost applications for six years, and plots being used for a post-harvest quality evaluation of vegetables grown with compost (SARE Producer Grant). Other plots included the use of compost as an alternative to plastic mulch.
All who attended the lectures received a notebook in 2002 and CD in 2003 with copies of the presentations during the lectures, publications about compost, a list of resources for compost testing, equipment and websites. During the hands-on training all participants received a copy of three books. The books were “On-farm Composting Handbook”, “Compost Use in Florida” and “Recycling Yard Trash: Best Management Practices Manual for Florida”. All training materials were provided by the SARE funding. A web site was constructed during the first year and up-date the second year to advertise the training and disseminate information on compost utilization and education (www.imok.ufl.edu/soils/compost/training). Additionally, a brochure was developed to invite the different communities to the compost training.
To evaluate the effectiveness of the training, tests were administered before and after the training program. Additionally, the trainees were personally contacted by telephone, fax, e-mail and regular mail four months after the training sessions to evaluate their input in their geographical area. The sample questions in the “Why and how to use compost” pre-test included: Define compost in your own words; list three reasons why you might use compost; name three crop production systems or situation where compost may be helpful; and how can compost be used? In the section “How to make compost”, questions were: What are the basic principles to follow in the composting process to obtain quality compost? Name three composting technologies available in Florida; as a compost user, what type of information would you like to have before using a particular compost? How can you know how much of a compost feedstock to add to your compost recipe? Name two safety practices that are important at a compost site; name the law that covers compost production in Florida; how can you get a copy? Finally, the questions asked four months after the 2002 training included: Was the training well organized? Did the training program help you to handle questions about compost? For the compost producers: did the training increase you ability to help users to understand the potential benefits of using compost? What additional information do you wish you had learned?. The 2003 four month evaluation included additional questions such as: was the location and length of the training appropriate? and name the things that you liked and dislike about the training.

Outreach and Publications

The results of the training were presented at American Society of Horticultural Sciences (ASHS) annual 2003 meeting. Also, the results of the training will be presented at the USCC (United State Composting Council, 2004).
Based on the interest and results of these five sessions a grant proposal was submitted to Florida Organic Recycling Compost for Excellence (FORCE) for $22,000. This proposal was accepted and will make possible continuing educational efforts toward the teaching of compost principles in Florida during 2004.

Outcomes and impacts:

A total of nine people attended the planning meeting representing diverse communities: University of Florida-Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), Florida Cooperative Extension Service, FORA, NRCS, and commercial Florida farmers. An interesting consensus emerged from our discussions. The original agenda was changed to include more lectures in “why and how to use compost”, therefore, four hours of lectures covered topics in compost utilization.
A total of 210 and 165 people attended the compost trainings during 2002 and 2003, respectively. The attendees included organic and conventional farmers, compost and waste producers, Extension agents, regulatory agencies and University researchers (Table 1).
The lectures were used to explain compost principles. Subjects covered during the section in “How to make compost” included: composting principles and biology, compost site safety, compost quality and testing, compost feedstock, composting rules and regulations, record keeping, and compost utilization on specific crops. The section in “Why and How to use compost” included: Sustainable agriculture and compost, why to use compost, compost use in citrus, nutrient benefits of compost, biological activity of compost, and compost use in vegetable production. A diverse group of compost experts was invited to give the lectures. Each lecture lasted 30 minutes and the materials used in the lecture were inserted in the training manual.
During the compost demonstrations, participants applied the concepts they had learned during the lectures by mixing feedstocks, taking temperature and moisture readings, sampling composts, and using field tests for compost quality. The influence of compost characteristics on crop growth and yield was also discussed. Also, compost application methods were demonstrated. During the composting facility tours the participants had the opportunity to see compost being made in windrows or an in-vessel system and ask questions regarding the compost technologies, regulations, feedstocks and compost quality factors they had learned in the lectures.
The comparison of the pre, post, and 4-month after tests during 2002 and 2003 indicated that there were significant positive changes in the knowledge and attitudes about compost and composting (Tables 2, 3 and 4). The lowest 50% of the class was able to improve their answers to questions about compost and composting at the post-test.
Only 40% and 30% percent of the trainees answered the 4-month after the training questionnaire in 2002 and 2003, respectively (Tables 5 and 6). All of them expressed a positive feedback about the overall outcome of the training and many were beginning to use compost in their operation or are encouraging others to use it.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Through lectures, compost tours, on-farm demonstrations and hands-on learning, participants learned compost production, quality measurements, and utilization methods. Agricultural professionals who completed the training were able to teach composting principles and promote the improvement of the physical, chemical and biological properties of soil by the correct use of composts.
All the trainees gave very positive feedback about the overall outcome of the training and many of them are beginning to use compost in their operations or encourage its use by others. Again the discussions at the end of the day indicated that the only thing hindering compost production and use is the lack of education of agricultural professionals and consumers. This program has the potential to increase compost production and use, as a component of sustainable horticultural production systems in Florida.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

There are three new composting facilities in our area. One of the local compost facilities sold out their compost last year (60,000 tons) to citrus (33%)and vegetables growers (66%). At the same time the owners of the facility enrolled in a Compost Quality Assurance Program at Woods End Lab to improve compost quality. A large specialty vegetable grower (600 acres of herbs and Asian crops) began an “on-farm” composting operation. A total of 100,000 tons of raw organic feedstock’s were composted last year. A large citrus grower (14,000 acres) is beginning his own compost operation from yard trimming waste from his local county. His main objectives are to save water by using compost and increase cation exchange capacity in the sandy soils.

Future Recommendations

In the 4-month after training interview, many trainees expressed the desire to cover topics such as compost cost production, compost quality, disease control, and feedstocks and recipes in more depth.

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.