On-Farm Food Waste Composting

Final Report for FNC95-112

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1995: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1997
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


The impetus for this project began with discussions among people involved with the solid waste management effort in Huntington County and in the state of Indiana.

Among those who have bothered to give much thought to the subject, it seemed less than sensible to landfill organic materials that could be otherwise dealt with; that is, recycled or reused, thus doing away with the costs (both immediate and long term) associated with landfilling anything.

People involved in these formative discussions included the Huntington County Solid Waste Management District Board, (created by law in Indiana for the purpose of oversight of non-hazardous solid waste in a specified District, in this case, the boundaries of the District and Huntington County, a separate and distinct governmental unit, are the same), members of the Citizens Advisory Committee to that board, (also created by the same law), and representatives form the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Huntington County Departments of Health and Community Development, and two USDA connected agencies, the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Valuable input was also given by Mr. Steve Scheer, Executive Director of the District; Mr. David Hacker, then solid waste manager for the city of Huntington, and Mr. Mike Stoffel, owner of T & C Disposal Service, a locally owned waste hauler. Last but not least, most appreciated knowledge was gained from Mr. Byron Greene of Morgan County Indiana, the most knowledgeable Hoosier I know in the arena of composting.

As discussions around the subject of diverting waste flow from landfills (as mandated by the EPA) continued, the desirability of having some alternative disposition of the organic non-toxic fraction of the waste stream became apparent.

Close examination of the current status of landfilling reveals that a realistic planning figure to fulfill the regulatory requirements to obtain the necessary permits and to open a new landfill is up to $1,000,000 per acre.

More fiscally important long term though, is the perpetual cost of monitoring and tending that landfill after closure. Current standards ensure that the contents of the landfill will remain identifiable and not go through the degradation processes that might naturally occur if they were not so effectively entombed.

Soon after the EPA issued the regulations that required the states to reduce flow of material into landfills, there emerged a group of businesses seeking to provide composting “factories” to communities, allowing those communities to divert some of the organic fraction of the waste stream from landfills.

The “compost factory” concepts generally included a sizable physical plant requiring upfront investment, usually in the millions of dollars magnitude.

For the most part, these schemes depended upon a fee structure imposed on the local economy. Also, most of these systems required a volume of material that precluded most communities in the United States from being able to justify the costs of building or operating such a facility. Many of these systems required multi-million dollar building costs, accompanied by continuing operating costs that ruled out their adoption by responsible decision makers in service areas of less than several hundred thousand populations. Also apparent was the lack of sensibility for a community of some 35,00 people to commit the kind of funding necessary for capital and operational costs that a “compost factory” costing many millions of dollars ($7,000,000 in our planning) would entail.

Figuring a $7,000,000 capital requirement, and a six percent annual yield, our taxpaying public would profit from any system costing less than $420,000 annually. That deferred organic waste from the costs associated with landfilling.

Note that the $420,000 figure is just the interest on capital investment, not including operation of a “compost factory” facility. Not even considered in this equation is the fact that most of the “systems” being proposed to prospect communities included a “put or pay” clause, wherein the community was liable for the planned operational costs of the facility, whether or not it actually received enough waste material to justify its existence.

With that concept upper most in mind, two colleagues on the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, each a concerned and interested faculty member at two local colleges – Huntington and St. Francis – have overseen projects which analyzed the resultant compost with regard to harmful components.

As this discussion went forward among people interested in the solid waste management effort in our community, it became evident that it was not wise to plan too far in the direction of a project requiring the commitment of resources of that magnitude. Nor, in the present climate of fast technological development, does it appear prudent to commit major resources too far into the future.

At the same time, it was deemed desirable to see if a feasible method could be devised to keep the organic fraction out of the landfill. A large portion of the organic fraction had been legislated out of landfills when our legislature banned yard waste from Indiana landfills.

Over the course of several years, markets have arisen for various segments of the non-hazardous waste stream, including most kinds of paper and cardboard, the largest segment of the waste stream at the time the reduction effort was begun. As with most emerging commodities, this market is subject to great fluctuation.

One large portion of the waste stream that has not benefited from the evolution of a market system is those paper products that include traces of food and/or wax or other coating that render them unsatisfactory for the normal paper recycling channels. These products therefore have remained in the stream that in conventional wisdom has continued to be deposited in landfills.

Additionally, a large tonnage of offal or waste food products in today’s society are processed into the sewage system, thereby requiring sewage treatment plant capacity to render them environmentally acceptable.

Neither waste treatment nor landfilling appear to make sense monetarily or with regard to most appropriate use of resources; financial, physical and nutritional. This becomes more evident if in fact valid alternative methods of dealing with these materials can be devised; hence, the origination of this project.

As originally conceived, this project was designed to combine knowledge, equipment, space, and inputs that already exist in the agricultural community in Indiana, with the compostable (organic) fraction of the solid waste stream that is currently being landfilled. These inputs are combined on the farm resulting in a composted product that can be reused safely in the agricultural/horticultural operations in the community. It was though important to determine if it was feasible to devise methods of dealing with organic waste using resources currently in the community rather than duplicating them anew.

*Note – in the original plan, the windrow was to have been turned by a front end loader; however, coincidental to the planning of this project, the District applied for and received a grant for equipment to be used in the waste diversion effort, and a tractor powered pull type compost tuner was purchased, not solely for this project.

This would accomplish at least two things; defray the use of landfill space and the related expense, both immediate and on going, and enable reuse of resources that otherwise would constitute a drain on the public treasury to be put to a positive use. Also, at least some additional on farm employment would be a valuable community asset.

The next step was the realization that if the proper groundwork were laid, we probably had the resources already existing on farms, not only in Huntington County, Indiana, but in a sizable majority of counties in the country with a significant farm enterprise.

There already existed in Indiana some specialized operations, particularly poultry based, that for their own reasons were composting manure and/or spent hens. However, these operators were not aware of the municipal solid waste (MSW) dilemma nor was the MSW world aware of what some Ag producers were doing.

The concept was first to intercept the most material for the least cost. This took the focus to large contributors to the stream, e.g. groceries, restaurants, and cafeterias. With the help of Mike Stoffel, Solid Waste Director Steve Scheer was able to identify three groceries, some “fast food” restaurants, and a college cafeteria from which T & C could collect the food and food contaminated paper waste and deliver it to the project site on the author’s farm.
A study within a study was conducted – the District obtained some biodegradable plastic bags which were provided to the cooperating establishments. The hope was to be able to upset the routine within the establishments as little as possible, thereby requiring little or no retraining of personnel.

The biodegradable bag idea seemed to work satisfactorily, but there was enough other plastic that made its way into the mix that it still constituted a problem. How much of a problem remains, a this writing, speculation until a final screening of the composted material occurs.

As predicted by Mike Stoffel, there was a sizable unwanted contribution to the stream delivered to the composting site. Since some of the containers that were used by cooperating establishments were where less perceptive and responsible humanoid life forms could access them, we were gifted with trash from sources other than our targets.

It was decided to only attempt to remove that contamination that could be easily sorted out; intact trash bags, discarded carpet, and such materials as could be separated fairly quickly. The remainder was included in the windrow and will be separated by the compost screening process “after the fact”. The theory being that it is the real world and there is no point in taking unrealistic pains to protect the integrity of the product from this pilot project, only to have it not be repeatable in practice.

The project was located on a 91 acre farm in a rural area, (five miles to the nearest town) not easily accessible nor evident to passersby.

Byron Greene suggested that several hundred feet of windrow would be enough to obtain a practical test of the theory. In fact, about 200 feet of windrow was placed on a bed of ground up pallets, etc. furnished to the site from the city landfill operation. The windrow was about ten feet wide at the base and four to five feet high.

T & C unloaded their packer truck in a pile, then the author loaded wheat straw on a relatively large regular manure spreader, weighed the combination, then loaded the spreader with a portion of the food waste, reweighed the combination, then applied more wheat straw on top of the load. The windrow was actually created by unloading the spreader in a slow, controlled manner. This resulted in some mixing of the components as the windrow was built.

In an effort to minimize inseparable mixing of unwanted contaminants into the final product, no grinding was done. Instead microbial action and the action of the windrow turner over the course of time served to reduce particle size so that complete composting appeared to occur.

At this writing, it is yet to be determined what a normal commercial compost screening operation will do as to separating out the remaining contaminants. That will be determined the next time the commercial screen comes to the local landfill.

First and foremost, analyses of the compost done in this project have shown no levels of materials normally considered to be potentially harmful to the environment.

And it can be done in a simple on farm, low cost manner that is potentially available to most communities in Indiana, or any other state where significant agricultural enterprises are to be found.

Additionally, it was shown that no large capital costs were incurred aside form the kind of equipment already present on many existing farms. The windrow turning that was done with a commercial unit could well have been done with a front end loader, but it would have been much more time consuming.

The use of the biodegradable (Novon) plastic bags instead of regular plastic trash bags was a pleasant and apparently successful side benefit accruing to the project. Declaring that those bags accomplished their intended purpose is only substantiated by the fact that they were very much in evidence when the windrow was new, and they became progressively harder to find as the windrow progressed in maturity. Finally, there is no sign to be found of those bags, even though there are many scraps of conventional plastic evident in the unscreened windrow.

In the discussion leading to the project, the question of animals, wild and otherwise, digging for food scraps in the occasional visit from some furry creature or another, but nothing that violated the integrity of the windrow or disrupted the process. Birds did like the warm windrow in cold weather, and probably helped control insects. Also, the cat on that farm prospered.

There is a woven wire fence on two sides of the site where the windrow was located. That proved to be beneficial – the fences were downwind from the common prevailing winds, and caught most of the blowing scrap plastic, making it relatively simple to pick up and dispose of. Fencing near a potential site seems a good idea for that reason.

In a real world application, collection of the materials to be composted will be one problem to be dealt with. We were fortunate to have a commercial hauler cooperating for the purpose of this project. On this limited scale, it worked, but it was a non paying imposition on the hauler.

If we are to put this concept into day to day operation, some sort of transport must be devised. Ideally, the same machine that picks up the material to be composted should be able to incorporate the carbon source and deposit the mixture into the windrow.

No attempt has been made to explore the possibilities for use/market/disposal of the resultant compost. The District Board originally adopted the stance that the District and its duties and activities resembled a public utility more than any other kind of entity. No attempt was made to address the question of fees or income that would be required to make an enterprise such as this a viable addition to an existing farm operation, or how those required inputs might compare to the costs, both current and ongoing, of landfilling these materials.

As a coincidence, composted organic matter, free of harmful components has a value in and of itself. Often, when a municipality has composted yard waste as opposed to landfillling it, the compost produced has been made available to the citizens of that community on a free or low cost basis. In other instances, ready markets have been found for such material. The only difference in this case is the intentional inclusion of food waste in the beginning feedstock.

It has always been understood that one of the greatest benefits of this project would be the sharing of information gathered with others in the Agricultural and Municipal Solid Waste communities.

With that in mind, this report will be made available to those agencies that were so helpful in the planning and implementation of the project, including, but not limited to, the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Indiana Association of Solid Waste Districts through the Huntington County Solid Waste Management District and their Citizen’s Advisory Committee. Further, it is hoped that the Indiana Association of Counties and the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns might find benefit form the work.

Also, it was my privilege to be a resource to Mr. Steve Bonney of the Indiana Sustainable Agricultural Association as he conducted a forum for potential future SARE grant applicants.

The author will remain available to those interested in either the subject of the project or the experience of cooperation with the SARE Program.


Participation Summary
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.