Our project aims to address a constellation of social and environmental problems in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that can be seen as connected from a systems perspective and addressed collaboratively through a systems approach.
First, tens of thousands of residents do not have adequate access to safe, affordable food even in the peak of growing season, partly because urban soils capable of producing fresh produce have been paved over, compacted and contaminated. Meanwhile, city residents and businesses generate an estimated 47,000 tons of food waste annually, and much of that organic matter is sent to a nearby landfill that serves four counties in Southeast Wisconsin. This presents two more problems: it contributes to the constrained capacity of the primary landfill accepting the city’s municipal solid waste, and despite the landfill operator’s efforts to capture the methane from organic decomposition, the EPA reports that significant quantities of methane escapes into the atmosphere and pose dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. (EPA 2016) A fourth problem is that older portions of Milwaukee sewer system are forced to release untreated wastewater into Lake Michigan during heavy rain events.
By assembling an interdisciplinary, multi-sector team of partners, our project will create a plan that substantively addresses all of these four problems by diverting more of Milwaukee’s food waste to composting, and utilizing the increased compost production to improve soil in the city for gardening, farming and rainwater absorption.
A team of university faculty and students will interview and collect data from a diverse group of stakeholders in the Milwaukee region, including food waste generators, food waste haulers, composters, urban and peri-urban farmers, gardening organizations, and public agency staff. The information will be used to conduct supply chain analysis, to model the existing food-waste-to-compost system, and to compare different scenarios for expanding it. Frequent contact and meetings with stakeholders will use the results of our research and analysis to create of a collaborative, multi-year plan that could involve public and private infrastructure investments, policy changes, promotional campaigns, and other actions. The plan will aim to maintain a balance of food waste supply and demand compost demand as the system grows.
We will share our process and results with other cities facing a similar set of interconnected problems by ramping up food waste composting at metropolitan scale.
Through an interdisciplinary systems approach led by the University of Wisconsin Extension, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison, we will combine a macro-level analysis of food waste supply and compost demand with micro-level compost trials and supply chain analysis on a 1.25 acre urban farm in Milwaukee. The primary outcome will be a collaborative strategy to increase supply of affordable compost to enhance the profitability of urban farming that provides a model for other North Central Region cities.
Food waste generators, haulers, composters, farmers, and public agency staff will share knowledge to design and launch a multi-year plan to increase supply of affordable compost that meets the varied needs of urban agriculture in Milwaukee. Participants will coordinate feedstock supply to minimize transportation costs and anticipate end-product demand. Information will be generated to guide public policy and investments in new sites for waste transfer and composting. Private sector efforts to generate soil for food insecure neighborhoods will be celebrated. Evaluation methods will track food waste diversion and compost utilization to guide future modifications and share results with other cities.
Our primary product will be a collaborative, multi-year plan outlining specifically WHO (among food waste generators, haulers, composters and policy makers) will do WHAT (investments made, contracts signed, products delivered, policy actions taken, etc.), WHERE (site specific), WHEN (timeframe and sequential actions), and HOW (e.g. modified feedstock recipes, new transportation routes and transfer stations, web-based inventory management, etc.)
Our planning process will collect and share information incrementally, gradually building a baseline of common knowledge and trust while respecting private interests and independence. The plan will enhance existing collaboration among some stakeholders while encouraging new partnerships and public-private sector alignment. Not everyone will choose to participate, but the plan will evolve with those who do. We will track any new collaborative activities that can be partially attributed to the planning process. The completed plan may only be five pages long but will include appendices supplied primarily by students supervised by academic faculty and staff.
Collaboration occurs even in the most competitive industries and is especially critical in emergent systems like food waste composting. By pulling together this proposal, we feel confident that our project’s success will be of interest to other NCR cities. Another product will be a series of professional videos (20-30 minutes total) outlining our process and results. Finally, through compost trials and field days we will identity farmers’ compost-related educational needs by uploading new and existing peer-reviewed composting information to a website developed for urban agriculture in 2015 by one of our participating faculty: http://urbanagriculture.horticulture.wisc.edu.
For such a large project with many interconnected parts, a critical evaluation tool will be the Work Plan Timeline we submitted as an attachment. This provides a month-by-month description of who is taking the lead on activities, where they will occur and who will provide support. It has been shared with all major participants, collaborators and advisors and will enable us quickly address why any activities are not proceeding as planned.
As we have stated often, our primary deliverable will be a “collaborative multiyear plan” involving private stakeholders across the food waste-to-compost-to-farm supply chain as well as public sector agencies. Therefore, during the project we must evaluate whether the information we are assembling is sufficient and appropriate for developing that plan. For this assessment we will ask all collaborators to refer regularly to the 12 questions listed in our Approach to confirm whether our research is addressing them. The questions may also be amended and expanded over time. We cannot expect to answer every question completely, but we need everyone to feel confident that the quality of data is sufficient for individuals to make decisions with respect to an evolving collaborative plan.
Our means of evaluating the finished plan will be qualitative and quantitative. Quantitatively, we will consider the number of participating private sector entities who sign onto the plan, their company size in terms of employees, the growth in the amount of food waste they are committing to divert from landfills to composting system generate, the number of urban and peri-urban farmers who are identified as interested compost customers, and the projected increase in the amount of compost that is distributed affordably to food insecure neighborhoods of Milwaukee. Long-term outcomes, like reduction in methane gas and increase in food security, cannot be evaluated as part of our project, but the collaborative multiyear plan will include measures to assess progress in those goals over time.
Qualitatively, we will ask all project participants, including any who choose not to participate in the collaborative multiyear plan, whether or not the process was productive and fair, and what recommendations they would make to other cities seeking to replicate our efforts.
We will also commit to using the evaluation metrics provided in the SARE application appendices (farmer participation, new collaboration, citations, etc.) during and following the project, and an expanded version of the outreach survey for our field days.
Another important product is a set of videos that will help other communities learn from our effort. We will upload them to YouTube soon enough to solicit feedback from academic and community partners to help us evaluate whether the videos are effective at explaining our process and results in a compelling and useful way. Finally, for our commitment to assemble and upload relevant composting information to a national urban agriculture website, we will evaluate the quantity and quality of those resources.
We see two different audiences for our project: the larger community in Milwaukee and SE Wisconsin; and other cities in the North Central Region and nationwide. Regarding the local audience, we could not possibly invite all potential Milwaukee area stakeholders into our SARE proposal process. Two important groups who are underrepresented are food waste generators (restaurants, supermarkets, cafeterias, breweries, coffee roasters, food processors) and neighborhood leaders and residents. Once the project is underway we will ask the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Milwaukee Community News Service to help us publicize the effort. And several of our partners—Will Allen, Antoine Carter, Gretchen Mead, Tim McCollow, etc.—have deep ties throughout the community and we ask them to raise awareness of other local leaders.
As for the NCR and national audience, our main outreach product will be a series of professionally edited videos, 20-30 minutes in total, that use short interviews, photos, B-footage, and PowerPoint slides to provide an overview of the entire process of our project and its final results. Some of our academic partners have asked if they can publish results from their portion of the project work, and of course we will encourage and support that. But we believe the audiences we hope to reach—public agency staff, commercial composters, urban farmers, food security advocates, food waste generators looking for more environmental options—are more likely to gain value from audio-visual presentations. However, our Final Report to SARE will provide a readable text, tables and graphics summary of the project as well.
We will distribute links to the videos and the Final Report via national list serves like the Community, Local and Regional Food Systems that includes Extension colleagues across the country, and we will offer to host at least six “GoToMeeting” webinars near the end and immediately following our project to discuss our process and results with leaders from individual cities in the North Central Region.
Finally, we will be uploading resources on composting to the national urban agriculture website (http://urbanagriculture.horticulture.wisc.edu) that was launched this year by one of our project’s academic advisors, Dr. Julie Dawson. The resources we add will consolidate existing resources that describe best practices or offer data and tools for improving composting efficiency and product quality using food waste, yard waste and other sources of nitrogen and carbon feedstocks. The materials will by vetted by Dawson with additional peer review as needed.
The research in our project was not designed to test a specific hypothesis. Rather, it is meant to inform a planning process with a multi-sector group of stakeholders, with goals of diverting more food waste away from the landfill toward local and regional composting facilities, while ensuring sufficient demand for the resulting end products.
At the start of the project we identified 12 questions we hoped to answer through our research:
- What sources of food waste in Milwaukee are already being composted?
- Who is composting Milwaukee’s food waste now, and where?
- What are the most promising new sources of food waste?
- What constrains composters from expanding food waste composting?
- What qualities are urban and peri-urban farms and gardens looking for in compost?
- How do different mixes of food waste and other organic material affect compost quality?
- What types of compost are appropriate for different urban farm practices, products and existing conditions?
- How knowledgeable are urban farmers of the benefits of using different compost mixes?
- Would food waste generators favor greater recognition for their efforts to compost if it went to farms and gardens in food insecure communities?
- How might the plans of public agencies to divert food waste from landfills and develop green infrastructure boost the supply of affordable compost for urban agriculture?
- Could changes to existing city codes and regulations facilitate composting in the city?
- Could new composting facilities or transfer stations in the city lower transportation and handling costs?
We did not expect to answer any of these questions completely, but well enough to develop and actionable plan to expand the food-waste-to-compost system in the Milwaukee region while making more compost available for building soil in food insecure areas of the city. We expected that the questions might change somewhat as we proceeded, and more questions would arise.
Research activities to date have included:
- private interviews with key stakeholders;
- group meetings with stakeholders;
- surveys of urban, peri-urban and rural farmers and other compost users;
- analysis and mapping of primary and secondary data;
- review of policy documents;
- monitoring local events and public actions;
- conducting a “compost trial” on an urban farm with input from seven Farmer Advisors (including two that also produce compost commercially)
The first six bullets above involve standard qualitative research methods and were designed to answer Questions 1-4 and 9-12 above. The compost trials at Cream City Farms on the north side of Milwaukee were designed to help us answer Questions 5-8 above.
The research design for the compost trials were explained in detail in our proposal. We made some modest modifications to that approach, which are not able to document at this point in the project. The trials were run in 2016 and we have only begun to document the results.
Most of the research activities were conducted by students at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee. Three students were paid with SARE grant resources, and about 40 students contributed effort as part of their course studies.
What follows is a preliminary review of our results for our 2017 annual report to SARE.
The meetings that we held with stakeholders during the proposal stage continued after we were funded and have provided substantial research value. These meetings combined private visits with individual stakeholders, subsets of similar stakeholders (including direct competitors), and “All Partner Meetings.” Once relationships became established, we used video conferencing more often and effectively to reduce travel time and costs for all involved.
One of our most important research contributors from the fall of 2016 to August 2017 was a UW-Madison graduate student, Tim Allen, who earned his master’s degree while conducting research under the guidance of his academic advisor, Stephen Ventura, and project coordinator Greg Lawless. Tim conducted multiple interviews with several key private sector actors in Milwaukee’s food-waste-to-compost supply chain, and the data he collected and presented in his thesis has been crucial to our subsequent modeling of that supply chain.
Meanwhile, a graduate student at UW-Milwaukee, Nicole Enders, assisted by Donna Genzmer, Director of the Cartography & GIS Center, utilized available data to generate maps and analysis of potential compost sites around the city of Milwaukee. Ender’s efforts were stymied somewhat by some unexpected limitations on data collection. We were only able to secure partial data that we requested from some of the commercial composters in the Milwaukee region, either because of competitive concerns or their lack of time to provide the data. For similar reasons we had difficulty collecting the locations of community gardens in the city and their compost requirements. Industry (NAICS) data that we expected to receive from a UW Extension partner but that exchange has been delayed for over a year because the partner has not received the data from his own source.
The primary and secondary data that Enders was able to collect enable her to complete senior project paper to earn her undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences, Geography, and GIS, which included maps large vacant lots in Milwaukee that would serve our project as hypothetical composting sites in the modeling and supply chain analysis led Dr. Anthony Ross of the Supply Chain Institute at by UW-Milwaukee. Ross also utilized data from Allen’s thesis and he collected additional and substantial data from Melissa Tashjian, owner of a small but growing compost hauling business serving the Milwaukee region called Compost Crusaders.
Ross and his colleague Mark Kosfield have been using the data to create scenarios and conduct sensitivity analysis to examine the impact of establishing new compost sites in areas around the city. They have produced a PowerPoint presentation of their results and a draft paper which currently inform our research and planning process and will eventually be made available to the public.
Two groups of students contributed to our compost trials at David Johnson farm. First, under the guidance of Dr. Julie Dawson of the Horticulture Dept at UW-Madison, twelve students conducted a greenhouse study of the our three selected compost products and measured germination and plant growth. While not conclusive, the process of running that study helped us design the outdoor trials.
The design of the outdoor trial is pictured below on the left, and a photo of its implementation appears on the right. Higher resolution images will be provided in the future.
We are still working on the results of the trials. Aside from whatever scientific conclusions we might make, the compost trials had several positive and intended impacts. One was that we build trust with the three competitive compost producers who supplied their product for the blind study. Second, we drew public attention to David’s farm and urban farming in general. Also, there is one bit of anecdotal evidence worth noting. Because of the isolated, multi-week drought that his the Milwaukee area last summer, and the breakdown of the watering system installed under David’s farm, much of his production for the year was lost. However, the plants grow in the compost beds above did considerably better. “The trial plots basically save my CSA farm this year,” he recently reported.
When graduate student Tim Allen graduated in August 2017 we used remaining funds for to hire another UW-Madison graduate student, Sheamus Johnson, to begin attempt to model Milwaukee’s food-waste-to-compost system using a software called Stella. This is a snapshot of that model from late 2017:
In 2018, we will continue integrating the results of all our research into creating a collaborative, multi-sector plan to ramp up Milwaukee’s food-waste-to-compost system.
Here are links to three student papers were completed in 2017 that provide some documentation of our research results to-date:
- Tim Allen’s master’s thesis, “THE STATE OF FOOD WASTE COMPOSTING IN GREATER MILWAUKEE: AN ILLUSTRATIVE CASE STUDY”, developed under the guidance of Dr. Stephen Ventura
- Joe App, Kelsey Busch, and Jessica Kanter’s, “Food Waste Composting for Urban Agriculture in Milwaukee”, developed under the guidance of Dr. Alfonso Morales
- Nicole Endders’ “Finding solutions for diverting food waste from landfills to compost: An urban, vacant lot assessment for the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin” (link to be provided pending permission from author).
SARE COMPOST PROJECT MILWAUKEE – 2018 Report
- Strategic Planning for The Growth of a System
- Data Collection Challenges
- Garden Team
- Compost Trials Team
- Farmer Network Team
- Green Infrastructure Team
- Supply Chain Modeling Team
- Circulating a Draft Strategy
- Joining a Statewide Network (Research Questions)
- Equity and Inclusion Goals
- Securing Public Sector Buy-In
STRATEGIC PLANNING FOR THE GROWTH OF A SYSTEM
In its essence, our SARE project is a multi-year exercise in strategic planning. While that practice is typically undertaken to help a single organization or business improve its outcomes, our strategic challenge is to develop a system involving multiple independent entities, including private businesses, non-profit organizations and public agencies that vary in size and maturity and are spread around the Metropolitan Milwaukee. Individuals representing these independent entities are stakeholders of the system. When they are engaged in the project and contribute to the strategic planning process, we have called them partners.
Many of the organizations our partners represent own and control segments of the system we are trying to develop. In that sense they are “proprietors” of the system components. A public agency owns the right to allocate tax dollars to purchase bins for a residential food waste collection pilot. A food waste hauler owns the trucks that empty the bins and hauls the contents to a property 13 miles south of Milwaukee that has been owned by the same family for six generations. There the food waste is combined with yard waste collected from multiple municipalities and converted over time into compost.
Small farms and gardening organizations purchase the system’s end-product and apply it to land they own or lease to produce food. When supported with public funds, homeowners can apply the compost to their lawns to fortify the turf so it absorbs stormwater more effectively, mitigating the discharge of raw sewage into public waterways.
Of course the system we are trying to grow is embedded in other interacting systems, including the natural environment, which mutually impact each other continuously. For example, when food waste is sent to a landfill, it emits significant quantities of methane gas before it is properly capped and the gas can be captured and utilized. The escaped gas is widely acknowledged as a major contributor to climate change, which has increased the frequency of severe weather events. In 2018, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) tied its record of six overflows of untreated wastewater, which also occurred in 1999. This happened despite a public investment of $1 billion to build a “deep tunnel” in 1994 under the sewerage district to capture more water.
Another example of complex interrelated systems involves the human, technical and natural resources that combine to feed 1.5 million people living in Metropolitan Milwaukee, a portion of whom rely on food pantries to sustain their diet. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EDA) uses an inverted pyramid to promote its “food recovery hierarchy” to prevent and divert wasted food. After its highest recommendation to reduce waste at the source, it urges us to redirect edible unused food to hungry people.
Our project focused attention on the EPA’s fifth advised action, processing food waste into compost. Furthermore, in our strategic planning to scale up the food waste composting system in Milwaukee, we made it a priority to ensure that a portion of the increased end-product would be made available and affordable to people living in 10 of the city’s 40 zip codes with the lowest average household income. For this reason we engaged several gardening organizations and urban farmers who grow food in those neighborhoods.
In summary, our shared goal as project partners is to scale up a multifold system of (a) separating inedible unused food from the waste stream, (b) combining that organic matter with yard residuals to produce compost, (c) growing markets for the increased end-product to cover the costs of hauling and processing, and (d) ensuring that some portion of the compost is made available and affordable in food insecure communities of Milwaukee.
The intended long-term outcomes include reduction of methane emissions from decomposing food in landfills, extended landfill lifespans, business expansion and job creation in food waste hauling and composting, and improved urban soil for food production and stormwater management.
To reiterate, the partners in this effort are independent entities who own and control different segments of the system we are trying to grow. There is no “boss” forcing us all to the planning table. A plan will emerge only if the respective parties agree to one.
DATA COLLECTION CHALLENGES
It is typical practice of strategic planning to gather a baseline of data about current operations before planning changes and improvements. For that reason we expended substantial resources in 2017 on research by University of Wisconsin students supervised by faculty and staff. We provided a brief overview of the research in our 2017 report above. To reiterate, our purpose was not traditional academic research, such as in testing an hypothesis, but rather to collect information that would inform a strategic planning process.
In March 2018 composter Sandy Syburg of Purple Cow Organics shared an important insight regarding the prospect of scaling up his segment of the system we hope to grow. Syburg said that most large composters like himself, who operate under the DNR’s 5,000 cubic yard permit for food waste, are going to maintain their system as close to that upper limit as possible. That means most will not expand in increments but rather in units of 5,000 cubic yards. To make that jump may require acquiring additional land and equipment, and they will only proceed if they are assured of having enough inputs to optimize the new site and enough markets to take the increased output.
Around that same time composter James Jutrzonka of Blue Ribbon Organics (BRO) explained that the DNR permit limit is for food waste held on the site at any given time. As Jutrzonka reported to project research assistant Tim Allen in 2017, he processed 7,736 cubic yards of compost in the prior year, from which he generated approximately 2,000 cubic yards of compost from food waste. From that we can calculate a 25.9% “conversion rate” from food waste to compost. More recently he estimated that he might be able to process as much as 12,500 cubic yards of food waste each year by converting it quickly into compost and selling it off his property. Achieving that “turnover rate” means his annual capacity could be 2.5 times his DNR permit limitation.
Allen, who was advised by project co-PI Dr. Stephen Ventura, also collected detailed information from Melissa Tashjian, owner of Compost Crusader (CC) a food waste hauling company based in St. Francis. She provided Allen with detailed data for all of 2015 and seven months of 2016, which broke out the food waste she collected from restaurants, schools, food manufacturers, food retailers, hospitals, corporate cafeterias and other miscellaneous suppliers. In 2015 she reported hauling a total of 428 cubic yards of organic waste, most of which was food. All of her product went to Blue Ribbon Organics in Caledonia, 13 miles from her current headquarters.
The detailed operational data from CC and BRO enables us to construct a partial model of the food waste composting system in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, so far we have been unable to collect updated supply chain data from them or any other partners, primarily due to project staff limitations.
We have also identified a number of specific challenges with regard to collecting data about the food-waste-to-compost supply chain. The include:
- Deciding on geographical boundaries (City, County, Metro)
- Getting same-year data from partners
- Converting weights to volumes and visa versa (lbs, tons, cu yds, gallons)
- Coping with “weight ranges” (food waste and compost per cubic yard)
- How to account for non-food in food waste (e.g. residential yard waste, paper towels, biodegradable plastic)
- Measuring food-waste-to-compost “conversion rates” given varying input proportions (food waste, yard residuals)
- Measuring food-waste-to-compost “turnover rates” which vary by system & season
- Factoring compost blends when quantifying demand (e.g. 50-50 compost-topsoil blend vs. 100% compost for new vs. mature garden beds)
- Incomplete data from stakeholder
The system we were trying to understand and expand is very broad in scope, and as we entered 2018 we felt it necessary to break up our group of approximately 25 active partners into teams to focus attention on segments of the system that interested them commercially and professionally. Most of our funding for student labor had been expended in 2017, and we were not able to arrange any further free support via coursework assignments. Any further need for would need to come from two paid project staff or from project partners, some of whom were provided honoraria at $100/hour for their time.
The teams we established in early 2018 reflected our need to analyze data collected by students in 2017, and to acquire remaining essential data. Meetings were held to ascertain the compost needs of three prominent Milwaukee gardening organizations; to analyze the results of the compost trials at Cream City Farms; to improve our understanding of urban and peri-urban farmers’ compost-related needs; to explore opportunities to utilize compost for stormwater management (green infrastructure), and to conduct supply chain analysis.
A “garden team” involving two prominent non-profits, Groundwork Milwaukee and Victory Garden Initiative, plus Milwaukee County Extension, estimated an aggregated need for 1,312 cubic yards of compost per year for community and backyard gardens they support.. Given time constraints, we were not able to determine how many individual gardens or people this total quantity would serve, or how much of it would go into neighborhoods considered food insecure. Nevertheless, the figure provided a useful measure from three organizations who were recruited as partners because of their long-standing reputation of service in the city and county of Milwaukee.
COMPOST TRIALS TEAM
The “compost trials team” concluded with some regret that the results of our 2017 experiment on an urban farm in the heart of a food insecure neighborhood were largely inconclusive. While soil samples were taken from the plots as well as high resolution images of plant growth taken in intervals through the season, our project requested insufficient to analyze the data comparing three local compost products in a timely manner and draw useful conclusions.
The trials were also set up as a means of attracting area farmers to one or more field days, to allow them to observe and compare the compost products themselves, while enabling our team to assess their knowledge of compost attributes. A couple of informal visits were arranged, involving most of the seven farmers directly associated with the project. However, our two attempts to organize public field days to attract more farmers were cancelled. In the fall of 2017 our Milwaukee-based project staff determined that the farm site was not presentable due to weed issues. In the fall of 2018 we offered project funds to hire young people from the community to help with weeding, but due to insufficient pre-registrations and competing events we decided to cancel the second field day.
Nevertheless, the compost trials of 2017 did produce some real value. As mentioned in our 2017 report, David Johnson who farms on the site reported anecdotally that his crops grown in the compost trials fared considerably better through a period of drought than those in the rest of his field. Better enough, he said at the time, to “save my CSA farm this year.”
Furthermore, while Johnson farms the site, it is actually owned by the City of Milwaukee, and substantial investments were made by the City, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and other entities to make it a model for stormwater management. The City leases the land to one of the gardening organizations mentioned above, which subleases is to Johnson. Our project had to engage with this confluence of public and private partners, purchase compost from three competing partners, while also coordinating contributions of students and faculty from two universities.
It may still be possible in 2019 to leverage the relationships formed through these interactions to showcase the property and the use of compost for both food production and stormwater management.
FARMER NETWORK TEAM
Partly because of our failure to attract area farmers to the compost trials in 2017, we developed a new plan in 2018 to invite farmers from the region to attend six monthly educational events, specially designed for urban and peri-urban vegetable growers. Our hope was to re-establish a network of such farmers that had dissipated a few years earlier due to insufficient coordination, and to tap the revitalized network to gain a better understanding of local farmers’ needs related to compost.
One planning meeting and two educational workshops were held and well attended. The workshop in May 2018 featured a seasoned CSA farmer who spoke to the apparent decline of that movement. A video recording of her presentation on our project’s YouTube playlist has had 173 views to date. While her talk was not about compost, the turnout showed promise for the reinvigoration of a farmer network in SE Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the project staff person responsible for this team was unable to organize additional workshops, because he left the project for another job in August.
Another farm-related development was the dissolution of Growing Power in November 2017. Their founder and CEO, Will Allen, was originally a major partner in our SARE project, and a passionate advocate for the role of compost in urban agriculture. At the start of our project, we hoped to tap Allen’s connections to the Mayor’s office and other public agencies to raise awareness of our efforts.
As one of the country’s most prominent representatives of urban agriculture, the demise of Growing Power may bolster those who have questioned the real potential of growing food commercially within cities.
In a survey of farmers that we circulated before and after the start of our project, we tried to determine demand for compost among farmers in Southeastern Wisconsin. Only 22 farmers have completed the survey to date. Most demonstrated good knowledge of the value of compost for growing food. However, in aggregate these 22 farms represented a modest demand for compost: only 308 cubic yards per year, or less than a quarter the demand from our three Milwaukee gardening organizations.
It is also worth noting that both farmers and garden program managers said it is cost that inhibits them from purchasing as much compost as they would like to use each year. That may explain why some farmers, including Will Allen, are turning to cover cropping and green manure to achieve some of the same benefits that compost provides.
We will continue to invite our original farmer advisors to participate in “All Partner” meetings in 2019. We hope to include provisions in our strategic plan that address their compost needs and cost concerns–especially for those located in food insecure neighborhoods of Milwaukee.
GREEN INFRASTRUCTURE TEAM
Even prior to the start of our project, while writing our pre-proposal in the early fall if 2015, we recognized that sales of compost to gardening programs and local farmers might be insufficient to cover the costs of hauling and composting a significant quantity of Milwaukee’s food waste. In 2018 it became clear that the best prospect for fully utilizing an increase in compost production is to incorporate it as a soil amendment to absorb stormwater, which is one of several forms of green infrastructure (GI).
In February 2018 we convened a small team of project members to explore the possibility of utilizing composted food waste as component of a holistic GI strategy. One year earlier, several project partners toured the facilities of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD). After the tour MMSD representative Jeff Spence speculated that his agency might be interested in testing the ability of residential yards, fortified with compost, to hinder the runoff of rainwater into storm sewers during heavy rain events. He suggested an area of the city where there was a new public program to remove downspouts that ran directly into the sewer system.
After more meetings, many emails, and a substantial investment in project staff time, we were able to jointly support a pilot project in the 53212 zip code. In September 2018, 33 households received approximately 3 cubic yards of compost from Blue Ribbon Organics, plus aeration and grass seed, in exchange for a promise to care for the lawn after the application. A third party not originally involved in our project, Natural Solutions of nearby Menomonee Falls, aerated the lawns and spread the compost and seed. In aggregate the households received 101 cubic yards of compost, covering 65,637 square feet with approximately half inch depth. The total cost, paid for by MMSD, was $5,050, which is $153 per household and $50 per cubic yard of compost applied.
The results of the GI pilot on turf improvement will not be known until early summer 2019, and it is unlikely that measurements of stormwater absorption will be taken. But the value of the initiative, which was supported substantially by SARE-funded staff, was in strengthening our relationship with MMSD and elevating the prospect of using compost as a major component of stormwater management strategies.
The potential demand is substantial. In a major report from 2013, MMSD projected to spend nearly $1.3 billion on GI by 2035. As explained above, their motivation is that extreme weather events can overflow their water treatment capacity and force substantial discharge of raw sewage into basements, rivers and Lake Michigan, which pose a serious threat to public health while also causing major property damage.
Their $1.3 billion spending forecast was spread over 22 years. The portion to be spent specifically on soil amendments was $1.045 million per year. If all of that was used to purchase compost, it would buy 20,900 cubic yards, based on an estimated cost of $50 per cubic yard for delivery, spreading, turf aeration, and grass seed.
To summarize the demand estimates made above, we found that three prominent gardening organizations would like to utilize 1,312 cubic yards of compost each year that 22 area farmers would purchase 308 cubic yards each year, and that MMSD might purchase as much as 20,900 cubic yards every year through 2035.
While public agencies are not beholden to honor the projections of their long-term plans, the size of the MMDS projection is striking. We hope our decision to invest some SARE resources to spark some movement in that direction will prove worthwhile.
Furthermore, MMSD’s Jeff Spence indicated that when GI investments are made to properties adjacent to urban gardens and farms, the compost could be spread generously to support food production and stormwater management. In other words, MMSD’s investment in GI could subsidize soil improvements for farms and gardens in food insecure communities.
SUPPLY CHAIN MODELING TEAM
Beginning in January 2018 and throughout the year, faculty and staff from UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison met with a small group of individuals who owned private businesses in the food-waste-to-compost supply chain, namely haulers and composters. The most consistent attendees from the latter group were Melissa Tashjian of Compost Crusader and James Jutrzonka from Blue Ribbon Organics. From the start of the project Tashjian and Jutrzonka were very willing to share data from their hauling and composting operations, respectively, and it was primarily their data that allowed us to begin modeling and analyzing the supply chain.
Project partners Dr. Anthony Ross and Mark Kosfeld from the UW-Milwaukee’s Supply Chain Management Institute (SSMI) presented drafts of their supply chain analysis in January and March. Their final presentation will be attached to our 2018 report. Their analysis utilized real data from Tashjian on food waste quantities coming from 33 locations in and around Milwaukee, and transportation costs. With that data, they ran scenarios for different headquarter locations for Compost Crusader as well as eight different hypothetical composting sites within the city of Milwaukee.
Currently Tashjian’s trucks and office are located in St. Francis, just outside the southern border of Milwaukee, and she hauls 100% of her collected food waste to Blue Ribbon Organics, 13 miles south in Caledonia. The SSMI analysis found that Tashjian’s overall costs could be reduced significantly by relocating her HQ to locations closer to certain hypothetical composting locations.
SSMI also ran scenarios for increasing food waste origin volumes. This was important because our project’s goal is to scale up the volume of food waste diverted from landfills to composting. Under a scenario of quadrupling volumes, the optimal destinations to the hypothetical composting sites in the city only changed marginally, while the capacity at Blue Ribbon Organics was exceeded.
An important limitation on the value of this analysis is that several project stakeholders who have been actively looking for sites to compost in the city have not been able to acquire any. After the 2008 economic recession, many properties in Milwaukee went into foreclosure and the city took ownership. As the economy has improved, it is much harder to locate affordable land for composting, even if it does satisfy the requirements of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) for set-backs from waterways and city zoning restrictions. Blue Ribbon Organic operates on 14 acres in a rural area south of Milwaukee. Those looking for just one acre in the city for composting have found nothing during the 2.5 years since our project started. If new composting facilities that accept food waste do become available, most likely they will be located outside the city of Milwaukee.
However, it is possible Tashjian could relocate her HQ. Another less disruptive option is for the City and DNR to authorize transfer stations in optimal locations for Compost Crusaders and other haulers to aggregate food waste for transportation out of the city. Serious analysis of this option has not been undertaken yet.
Another aspect of our supply chain analysis in early 2018 involved developing a “stock and flow” model using a software called Stella to examine how increases in the input of food waste would impact the current capacity of processors. We were able to tap remaining dollars to pay graduate student Sheamus Johnson to take data that former student Tim Allen collected from Tashjian, Jutrzonka and another composter, Sandy Sieburg of Purple Cow Organics.
The model was useful in two respects. It was able to provide a simple illustration of what happens in a throughput system when inputs are increased and capacity is exceeded. A related benefit is that it demonstrates the value of sharing system-wide data. We made a short video about the development of the Stella model to demonstrate the value of the effort.
During the first quarter of 2018 our project also had an opportunity to connect with another similar research project at UW-Madison. Dr. Victor Zavala of the Scalable Systems Laboratory, Dr. Rebecca Larson of the Biological Systems Engineering Department, and their colleagues are developing optimization models and solution algorithms to identify new efficient pathways to recover valuable products from agricultural livestock waste and other waste streams. We gave Larson access to all of our data folders, but the quality and completeness of our system data is unfortunately lacking.
While our staff resources to collect additional supply chain data were severely limited, we did make an attempt to circulate a survey tool using Qualtrics to gather critical data from haulers and composters. Our efforts were frustrated when some partners were reluctant to share operational data, either because they felt it would compromise them competitively, or they did not have time, or they did not see the value in sharing the data. The prospect of only gathering partial data for the system was discouraging, and we suspended our efforts at supply chain data collection. Another factor was that the project had expended the last of its student dollars, and we were short on staff to enter new data into our Stella model.
Originally we expected that GIS mapping would be an important component of our supply chain analysis work. It did prove useful in that the work of UW-Milwaukee undergraduate Nicole Enders, under the supervision of Co-Principal Investigator Donna Genzmer, provided Ross and Kosfeld with real locations of unutilized City-owned land for analyzing transportation costs under various scenarios. However, much of our best data was acquired after Enders completed her degree.
For example, we were promised access to industry data (NAICS) from a UW Extension colleague that would have allowed Enders to map densities of potential food waste sources. While that raw data for Milwaukee was never acquired, in July 2018 the EPA released an outstanding resource, the Excess Food Opportunities Map, which provides food waste estimates for all companies across a range of industry segments (restaurants, retailers, schools, hospitals, etc.) Unfortunately, this valuable data arrived after Enders had graduated and our funds for student mapping were expended.
At the close of 2018, the difficulty of collecting sufficient data on an annual basis from private sector partners was an obstacle to meaningful strategic planning. But it was not the only obstacle.
CIRCULATING A DRAFT STRATEGY
The update above spans much of 2018 and includes on-going efforts to collect critical data from “proprietors” of different components of the system we are collectively trying to grow. A quarter into the year, despite lacking sufficient data for reliable planning, we began to circulate elements of a plan. Back in the summer of 2017, as Tim Allen was completing his master’s thesis, we asked him to generate a list of recommendations related to growing the system. At that point, thanks to his interviews with many partners and stakeholders, we felt Allen had a sufficient overview of the entire system to understand some of the essential necessary steps to growing it.
In March 2018 we presented an “8-Point Plan” to all project partners that were developed from Allen’s original recommendations. Partners had a brief period of time to provide feedback on the rough outline before it was presented as a poster at the SARE National Conference in St. Louis. We made a more concerted effort to collect their feedback though a series of three video-conference meetings in the summer. The meetings were fairly well attended, though participation from public agency partners was somewhat lacking, and we did not make substantial progress on fleshing out the plan.
By mid-summer 2018 the planning process had grown stagnant. A few partners, namely Tashjian of Compost Crusaders and Jutrzonka of Blue Ribbon Organics, were always ready to contribute time and energy to the project. Both relatively small businesses, they have both made a considerable investment in food waste hauling and composting, respectively, and it may be fair to say they have the most to gain from a plan to scale up the system.
JOINING A STATEWIDE NETWORK (RESEARCH QUESTIONS)
One of the recommendations that surfaced in the summer video-conference meetings was that Wisconsin should form a state chapter of the US Composting Council. To learn more we reached out to the primary leader of the Minnesota chapter, Ginny Black, and we arranged a video-conference with her for July 26. Knowing that Milwaukee would need other composting activists from around the state to join an effort to form a Wisconsin chapter, we invited individuals who we knew.
As can be said of many large American cities, Milwaukee is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the state in many respects, far beyond the world of composting. Nevertheless we were able to entice about 20 individuals to join the video meeting with Black from Minnesota. The group concluded in subsequent email communications that it may not be necessary at this time to form a Wisconsin chapter of USCC, but instead Milwaukeeans were encouraged to get more involved in some networks and associations that were already meeting regularly across the state.
To continue the attempt to connect advocates statewide, in July 2018 SARE project staff travelled to UW-Stevens Point in north central Wisconsin, where it was reported that both the university and private efforts were underway to scale up food waste composting. Also, 1-on-1 visit was arranged with a long-time composting advocate, Meleesa Johnson, Director of the Marathon County Solid Waste Department, located north of Stevens Point. These visits and intermittent emails involving about a dozen public and private sector composting advocates led to another statewide video-conference in late November that was focused on pressing research questions that were common across the state. Many of our SARE project faculty partners participated in this meeting. The 90-minute conversation spanned many research topics, including:
- The compostability of compostable packaging–best practices in the Wisconsin climate
- Practical steps to get more municipal yard waste to accept food waste
- Best recipes and practices to utilize compost cost-effectively for stormwater absorption for different soil types (e.g. compacted clay soil in Milwaukee)
- Learning what municipalities needs are regarding food waste composting
- Review of current public policy in other states
- Are micro-impurities (chemicals, pharmaceuticals) a concern with compost
- Revisiting the prospect of using compost for green infrastructure the Wisconsin Department of Transportation
- How develop markets for products coming out of the composing process
- Most cost effective way of connecting community goals and end user needs
- Public education needs on compost – how to create an educated populace
- Best in-vessel composting systems
- How in-vessel compare to digesters
- Citywide collection logistics for a city the size of Ashland – especially curbside
- Big picture look at what kinds of processing communities need to achieve their desired ends. Working on an optimization model to that end. Drivers are finances, price points, markets, city needs like green infrastructure, reducing phosphorus, etc.
The point was made that there has been plenty of research on many of these topics, and Dr. Rob Michitsch at UW-Stevens Point shared the following sources:
- USCC: https://compostingcouncil.org/factsheets-and-free-reports/
- USCC Industry Publications: https://compostingcouncil.org/publication-resources/
- CCREF Toolkits: https://www.compostfoundation.org/toolkits-resources
- CCREF Publications: https://www.compostfoundation.org/Education/Publications
- BioCycle Magazine: https://www.biocycle.net/
- Journal of Environmental Quality: https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/jeq
- Compost Science and Utilization: https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/ucsu20/current
- The Composting Collaborative: https://www.compostingcollaborative.org/resources/
By the end of 2019 our SARE project had added 25 “statewide” names and email addresses to our original Milwaukee-area contact sheet of 40 partners. In 2019 we will continue to explore prospects for and practical steps to strengthening the connection between food waste composting in Metro Milwaukee and the rest of the state.
EQUITY AND INCLUSION GOALS
From the beginning our project embraced goals of equity and inclusion. Our strategic goal of scaling up the food waste composting system in Milwaukee included a priority to make high quality compost available and affordable to improve soil for food production in sections of the city that are food insecure. We also intentionally developed a team of project partners that is diverse in race, gender and socio-economic status. We also chose a site for our compost trials in a neighborhood on the city’s North Side that is 49% African American and where 35% of residents live below the federal poverty level.
Several efforts were made in the course of the project to adhere to these goals. We made repeated attempts to locate an acre of land for an African American entrepreneur and partner to realise his plans for a composting facility in the city. Unfortunately, none has been found to date. We held a public workshop on composting at the former location of Growing Power on the far North Side.
When implementing the green infrastructure pilot in the 53212, we found that the initial group of 20 households that signed up for free compost were located in the eastern half of the zip code (Riverwest), which is predominantly white. They were all participants in the City’s residential food waste collection pilot and reachable via email. Unhappy with the geographical distribution, we delayed implementation, produced promotional door hangers, and paid youth working for gardening program partner to distribute them in the western half of 53212 (Harambee). As a result of the effort, we were able to recruit 13 households from that neighborhood.
For our SARE project’s dedication to working with community-based partners to develop a food waste composting strategy that benefits all city residents, in July 2018 we received a Community Partnership Award from UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank.
Equity and inclusion are priorities for Milwaukee public agencies as well. We recently learned that it plays an important factor in whether and how the City’s Department of Public Works (DPW) will expand its small residential food waste collection pilot, which currently involves 500 homes in the predominantly white and relatively affluent neighborhoods of Riverwest and Bay View. In the pilot, households must pay $12 per month for the service, which occurs weekly in warmer months and biweekly in the winter. Further expansion of the pilot cannot occur with DPW support unless provisions can be made to include a more diverse population and accommodate those of restricted economic means.
SECURING PUBLIC AGENCY BUY-IN
Our project was originally supposed to end on September 30, 2018. However, we requested a 6-month no-cost extension (and later another) because we had not accomplished our primary goal of getting project partners to agree to a plan to scale up food waste composting in and around Milwaukee. In October we circulated a version of a plan that built on the 8-Point Plan that was first revealed back in March. We recruited partners to take roles in presenting the new draft at a video-conference originating from UW-Milwaukee campus on October 25, 2018. The event was pitched as a “practice run” for formal presentation of plan to a public audience in early 2019.
While the practice-run went well and produced a lively discussion among those who attended, it had become all too apparent that an important subset of partners was insufficiently engaged: the relevant public agencies, particularly DPW and City’s the Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO), and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD).
It was a promising sign in the final two months of 2018 when Tim McCollow of ECO was able to give more time providing leadership in the project. In a series of video-conference meeting, he, Tashjian of Compost Crusaders and project PI Greg Lawless of UW Extension met to discuss a public awareness campaign and other details of our draft strategic plan. In late December Lawless injected a touch of humor into personalized holiday video messages he sent to about 20 key partners, in hopes of persuading them to help complete a meaningful plan in 2019.
We conducted one major educational event in 2017, which occurred on June 24 and was held at the headquarters farm of Growing Power. This workshop was targeted primarily at people living in our project’s targeted 10-zip code area of Milwaukee that experiences food insecurity. The workshop covered the reasons to compost, how to compost, and how to use compost to promote soil and plant health. Our expectation was that the audience would primarily be urban gardeners, rather than urban or rural farmers, and that was the case.
However, the quality of the information that our diverse group of experts presented was excellent, and we believe valuable to most beginning farmers. Knowing that, we videotaped the entire day, and over the course of 2018 we will be releasing very short segments on YouTube, and when they are all done we will compile them into a playlist and include them as resources for farmers. Here is the flyer for the June 24 event:
We also planned to hold a field day in the fall of 2017 on the urban farm that hosted our compost research trials. However, we made the determination that the farm was not in a position to host a field day, mainly due to an overgrowth of weeds late in the season. This was a result of the farmer, David Johnson, facing a number of obstacles throughout the season, including personal injury, a period of localized drought in the Milwaukee-area, the technical and mechanical failure of the automated cistern that was installed under his farm, and his need to take on full-time employment outside of farming. He is also relatively new to farming, having now completed three full seasons.
The struggles that David faced led a subset of project members to conclude, after several conversation late in 2017, that it was critical that we redirect some of our SARE Project resources to address the educational needs of beginning farmers in the city and the surrounding rural area. We decided to focus most of the 25% project appointment of Ryan Schone of Milwaukee County Extension on reviving his beginning farmer program that was suspended several years ago due to lack of funding. We spent the last month of 2017 developing a plan to hold 6 or more workshops for beginning farmers in 2018. Here is a flyer for the first planned event: Farm-Hack-Festival-Feb-13-2018.
Educational & Outreach Activities
For this 2017 annual report we have discussed education and outreach activities in other sections of this report. We would like to discuss with SARE staff some of our questions about this reporting mechanism. The one educational tool we identify above is the video that we have submitted as a project product.