Cal Poly Professional Development Compost Training and Establishment of the Cal Poly Compost Project

Final Report for EW11-029

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2011: $57,582.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Hunter Francis
CAFES Center for Sustainability
Expand All

Project Information


In the fall of 2011, the CAFES Center for Sustainability received funding from USDA Western SARE to establish the Cal Poly Compost Project and to conduct a comprehensive professional training in large-scale composting together with the Maine Compost School. With this funding, we were able to develop a successful training program integrating the award-winning Maine curriculum with Cal Poly’s range of expertise and resources, and to establish a number of collaborative partnerships that has resulted in research and educational programs within the Cal Poly Compost Project that will extend far beyond the timeframe of this grant.

Project Objectives:
  • Establish a “compost consortium” tasked to develop a Cal Poly Compost Project (CP2)
    Conduct a pre-training assessment of Cal Poly resources capable of supporting education in composting
    Develop training curriculum integrating Cal Poly and local expertise into the traditional Maine Compost School curriculum
    Promotion of the workshop using the extensive on-line outreach vehicle the Center has developed
    Hosting of the week-long training program at Cal Poly in spring 2012. Those successfully completing an optional examination receive a “Certificate of Technical Ability.”
    A day-long field trip during the training to visit Central Valley agricultural composting operations
    Distribution, collection and compilation of participant surveys
    A post-training debriefing conducted by the Cal Poly consortium with Maine staff and local collaborators
    A web-based directory of composting resources for Central California to be posted on the Center website
    Identification of opportunities for future student projects, research and funding
    Conduct a post-training assessment and devise a plan for the Cal Poly Compost Project and future use of the Cal Poly Compost Unit as an educational and professional development training venue

One of the goals of the CAFES Center for Sustainability is to promote an understanding of ecosystem services agriculturalists can provide to society that go beyond the production of food and fiber. Composting is an example of one such ‘service’, and one that has potential to serve a variety of needs including: waste reduction and diversion, soil enhancement, renewable sources of organic (non-synthetic) fertility, water conservation, and carbon sequestration. In spite of new interest in composting over the past decade, there is still significant untapped potential for agriculture to play a role in appropriate conversion of organic matter. Furthermore, where the opportunity has already been identified and acted upon (through the establishment of on-farm composting systems), questions remain. These include questions on: 1) processes involved in the composting method, including technical and engineering aspects; 2) the microbiology involved in composting, including the role compost can play in soil and plant health; 3) analysis and evaluation of compost, including testing for pathogens; and 4) the economics of composting, including the successful marketing of end-product. The purpose of our Professional Compost Training was to help producers in California find answers to the above questions, to help them assess whether composting, or use of compost, is right for them, and if so, to help them incorporate composting (or use of compost) into their overall business model.

Our secondary objective was to improve the coordination of scholarly and research activities on campus which relate to composting. We formed a compost consortium comprised of faculty and staff with expertise in soil science, waste management, agricultural engineering, resources management and farm operations to develop teaching modules for the Compost Training and to form the Cal Poly Compost Project. The Cal Poly Compost Project has facilitated a number of collaborations and partnerships that have galvanized the initiation of compost-related projects at Cal Poly.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Hunter Francis
  • Mark King
  • Christopher Kitts
  • Tryg Lundquist
  • Kevin Piper
  • Steven Sherman
  • Craig Stubler
  • Dr. Sam Vigil

Education & Outreach Initiatives



The five-day Professional Compost Training was held at the Cal Poly campus in San Luis Obispo, CA from April 23rd - 27th, 2012 for twenty-seven registrants plus participating faculty and staff. The three Maine Compost School instructors, Mark Hutchinson, Mark King and Bill Seekins, presented their award-winning curriculum with a combination of classroom instruction, laboratory experience and hands-on project exercises utilizing the Cal Poly Compost Unit for many of their demonstrations. Topics covered during their classroom instruction included: the biology of compost, feedstocks, site selection and management, composting equipment, compost utilization and marketing strategies. Indoor and outdoor exercises focused on site development, pile management, troubleshooting, recipe development, and testing for quality, maturity and stability.

Our compost consortium assisted with development of supplemental presentations and tour agenda. Supplemental presentations included methods used by the Cal Poly Compost Unit by Kevin Piper and Steve Sherman (Cal Poly Agricultural Operations), Best Management Practices for odor, vectors and leachate by Dr. Sam Vigil (Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept.), regulations and operating considerations by Matt Cotton (U.S. Composting Council) and Doug Graham (New Era Farm Service), anaerobic digestion and nitrate-removal by Dr. Tryg Lundquist (Civil and Environmental Engineering Dept.), business model for compost and compost tea facilities by Josh Heptig (Dairy Creek Golf Course), vermicomposting by Jack Chambers (Sonoma Valley Worm Farm), and packaging and marketing considerations by Gisele Schoniger (Kellogg Garden Products).

A day-long south coast field trip took place on Wednesday, April 25th. The tour highlighted four local businesses incorporating innovative composting and waste management strategies into their business model. These destinations were:
Engel & Gray, Inc. (Santa Maria, CA), a regional composting facility processing organic waste to produce the Harvest Blend brand of compost to the highest standards;
The Berry Man, Inc. (Santa Barbara, CA), a fresh produce supplier that works with the City of Santa Barbara to recycle fruit and vegetable scraps through the city’s composting program;
Agromin (Oxnard, CA), producer of compost, mulch, biochar and other premium soil products and a pioneer in the sustainable management of biodegradable resources; and
Gills Onions (Oxnard, CA), one of the largest, most sustainable fresh-cut onion processing plants in the world, a facility that converts its onion waste to energy and cattle feed.

Each workshop attendee received a binder including the course syllabus and all presentation slides and worksheets. All 27 participants also completed the final certification exam and received a ‘Certificate of Technical Ability.’

Outreach and Publications

List of publications:
Professional Compost Training Schedule (attached in Methods)
Evaluation Survey and Results (attached here)
BioCycle article (due out in November)
Presentation materials and slides (given to participants as binder)

The professional training received excellent reviews from its participants (see Appendix B - Survey Evaluations attached). All aspects of the training on the questionnaire rated a 10 by a majority of the respondees. Overall, the most popular topics within the training were regulatory issues and understanding of feedstocks. The participants in general expressed an interest in learning more about soil microbiology, nutrient analyses, organic certification, food safety concerns and regulatory compliance.

Our student assistants worked as a group for public outreach of the benefits of composting, the composting activities at Cal Poly and for the Professional Training. They designed hands-on composting presentations for Cal Poly Open House and the Earth Day festivities at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in April, and lead public tours of the Cal Poly Compost Unit to inaugurate the Cal Poly Compost Training. They also participated in the initial discussions with our new industry partner, VermiVision, Inc., about bringing a vermicomposting system to Cal Poly.

We also worked with partner organizations listed in the grant to outreach the workshop to their stakeholders. The training was advertised in local media and using the Center for Sustainability’s outreach network. The training was also advertised in calendars of ATTRA (Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas), OFAC (Organic Fertilizer Association of California) and CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers).

The Center has compiled a directory of excellent resources for both large-scale and home composting that will be featured on our Cal Poly Compost Project website due to be launched in January of 2013. The directory will include links to the U.S. Composting Council which features a searchable map of compost suppliers and fact sheets related to scientifically verified compost benefits for plant health and environmental quality, the Cornell Waste Management Institute and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service which both have developed comprehensive resources for agricultural production and use of compost, the California Materials Exchange website, and our partners Agromin and VermiVision who have developed informational resources describing the links between compost and soil health. Also included will be the brochure for home composters designed by student assistant Adrian Gallo which features links to the EPA’s composting homepage and Composting 101, and a bibliography of guides for home composting.

Outcomes and impacts:

Both the Professional Compost Training and the Cal Poly Compost Project, initiated as a result of this grant, have made demonstrable impacts by engaging a number of agricultural producers, professionals, and researchers in educational activities and discussions that have helped identify opportunities for increased and improved composting practices.

The five-day Professional Compost Training enrolled a full-capacity group of 27 participants, and was attended by an additional group of roughly a dozen members of the Cal Poly compost consortium. The 27 workshop participants represented a wide range of industries, including dairy, poultry, organic crops, tree services, and food processing, as well as composting operations and waste management services. All participants completed the certification exam, received a ‘Certificate of Technical Ability’, and were enthusiastic about starting or improving composting programs within their operations. The Maine Compost School team agreed that the workshop was of excellent caliber, and they see the Cal Poly Compost Unit as a superior venue for similar trainings. The Center and its new collaborator at the Woods End Laboratories have commenced planning for a weekend workshop to be offered in the spring of 2013 focused on nutrient assessments of soil and compost. The current and future impact of these compost workshops will be demonstrated through continued communication with participants, assessing the contribution of this type of education on the increased adoption of composting in a wide range of industries.

The Cal Poly Compost Project has brought attention to the multi-disciplinary interests and approaches that are applicable to composting from both the agricultural and the waste and resource management perspectives, and helped initiate many new projects at Cal Poly. The Center’s new industry partner, VermiVision, has commenced plans to construct a state-of-the-art, commercial-scale worm composting system on campus beginning in 2013. The Center helped draft a Master Services Agreement which will serve as an umbrella for research projects testing the impact of vermicompost on water quality, turf management, early plant development, and disease suppression. The VermiVision project is expected to produce numerous research and educational opportunities for Cal Poly and has already attracted additional resources from industry partner, Growing Solutions, Inc., which installed a compost tea brewer on campus in June 2012.

The Cal Poly Compost Project will also make demonstrable impacts into the future through the continued work of the inter-disciplinary team of faculty and staff at Cal Poly. Dr. Rob Shortell (Horticulture and Crop Science) is now conducting research under the VermiVision Master Services Agreement to investigate the potential use of vermicompost and vermicompost tea as a replacement for synthetic fertilizer and pesticide inputs in golf turf. Drs. Jim Hanson and Nazli Yesiller (Civil and Environmental Engineering, Global Waste Research Institute) have compiled a report on regulatory issues surrounding composting and will be involved with a waste audit of the Cal Poly campus. Dr. Lynn Moody and Craig Stubler (Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences) will be incorporating compost testing methods into their soil science classes. Dr. Sam Vigil (Civil and Environmental Engineering) is pursuing funding for equipment that will allow for studies of the air quality impacts of compost facilities, and Dr. Tryg Lundquist (Civil and Environmental Engineering) is pursuing the development of manure management protocols for nutrient management and carbon offset credits.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

All proposed objectives for the funding period were accomplished, including establishment of the Cal Poly Compost Project and the successful implementation of a unique five-day Professional Compost Training tailored to the interests of the central California region by combining the award-winning curriculum of the Maine Compost School with special topics presented by local experts. Topics such as regulations, best management practices, nitrates and water quality, business models and marketing considerations specific to the region were successfully integrated into the traditional Maine School course template. In addition, the day-long south coast field trip exposed participants to real-world enterprises applying methods of biomass conversion in their operations.

Discussions among the Cal Poly consortium, the Maine Compost School, and workshop participants have resulted in a number of new partnerships. As described above, the Center’s partnerships with VermiVision and Growing Solutions have resulted in plans for a new vermicomposting system and installation of a compost tea brewer at Cal Poly that will support many new projects. The Center has also formed a partnership with a collaborator from Woods End Laboratories who has come to Cal Poly to present a special seminar on the use of Solvita compost and soil test kits, and will be collaborating with the Center on a special compost-related workshop on nutrient assessments to be offered in the spring of 2013. In addition, representatives of VermiVision and Diestel Family Turkey Ranch have joined the Center as board members and will be participating in a composting workgroup to inform future projects at Cal Poly.

Much support for Compost Project activities came from student assistants hired through the grant. An interview process was conducted and three interns were hired in September of 2011. Interns participated in weekly meetings, assisted with many of the logistical aspects involved in hosting the Maine Compost School instructors and setting up laboratory exercises at Cal Poly, and developed the individual projects described below. Their work did much to advance composting activity as a whole at Cal Poly, particularly in the development of a certified, bagged product made available to the general public for the first time in the spring of 2012.

Eric Boyd, of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, used Solvita test kits to take field measurements of compost maturity at the Cal Poly Compost Unit and was able to determine that the compost was mature within 60 days from the beginning of the process. He also conducted plant germination trials, but found these tests were not necessary for maturity testing of Cal Poly Compost due to the feedstocks used at the Compost Unit. In addition, Eric was involved in planning for a community garden and compost site for the Poly Canyon Village dormitories.

Adrian Gallo, also of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, conducted pH, electrical conductivity, and moisture content measurements on finished, bagged Cal Poly compost and was able to determine that for a minimum of 5 months, the bagged compost did not undergo any detectable changes in chemical composition. He was able to verify the stability and maturity of the compost for sale to the public. Adrian also led weekly composting lessons for visiting groups of 3rd to 8th grade students through Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing Lab program, and designed informational brochures both for school-age children and for adult home composters.

Luke Kimmel, of the Agribusiness Department, compiled a complete description of the manufacturing process for Cal Poly Compost and provided lab analysis of its N-P-K content in order to complete the US Composting Council and OMRI organic certification processes for labeling purposes. He also conducted a price comparison of various sources of compost to determine an appropriate price for Cal Poly Compost, so as not to compete with local businesses. He also assisted in finding local markets for Cal Poly Compost.

The three assistants worked as a group in designing hands-on composting presentations and tours as part of the outreach activities of the Compost Training and Project (see Publications/Outreach section).

Formation of a state-wide Compost Committee resulted from discussions among the many industry leaders who took part in the Compost Training. The first task of the group is to draft a set of protocols for the production and processing of compost, which producers may voluntarily adopt to boost buyer confidence in product safety. Specifications will be aligned with the National Leafy Green Marketing Agreement being developed by the USDA and other industry standards. Center Director Hunter Francis now serves on the committee and leads an Education and Outreach sub-committee.


Potential Contributions

The Professional Compost Training received exceptional reviews from its participants, mainly due to its in-depth and hands-on treatment of the practical considerations associated with large-scale composting operations. Attendees of the training gained a thorough understanding of the composting process from start to finish, from feedstock and site selection to utilization and marketing. The south coast tour exposed participants to how existing local enterprises are incorporating composting into their business model and running a profitable and sustainable business.

Through the planning process for the Compost Training and the Cal Poly Compost Project, Cal Poly faculty, staff, and collaborators gained insight into the educational and research opportunities for agricultural and landscaping applications, business aspects, and the environmental impacts of compost production and use. Cal Poly Compost Project participants have learned much from each other about both the technical and practical aspects of large-scale composting.

Future Recommendations

Based on the experience of offering the professional training workshop, we believe that the resources and interest in the Central Coast region are currently insufficient to support an annual offering of such an in-depth workshop. However, the Maine team was impressed by the caliber of expertise represented during the workshop and the enthusiasm of the participants, and has offered their support and consulting services for future workshops, which we would like to offer on a biannual basis. In the interim, we plan to continue to use the Cal Poly Compost Project as a vehicle for coordination and hosting shorter workshops, seminars and demonstrations on compost-related topics. We also plan to use the Compost Project and Center interns to assist in the continued development and improvement of the Cal Poly Compost Unit as a training and demonstration site. In the winter of 2013, this will include the development of a standard operating procedures manual for the use of Compost Unit students and staff.

Feedback from the workshop participants has resulted in a number of recommendations for future workshops and/or educational opportunities focused on more specialized compost and soil-related topics. These include more thorough treatment of regulations, quantitative soil tests, food safety protocols, and the mechanisms by which soil microbes contribute to nutrient uptake, plant growth and disease resistance.

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.