Upcycling Local Waste Streams to Boost Urban Farm Productivity

Progress report for ONE21-395

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2021: $26,883.00
Projected End Date: 10/15/2023
Grant Recipient: Ridge to Reefs, Inc.
Region: Northeast
State: Maryland
Project Leader:
Paul Sturm
Ridge to Reefs
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Project Information

Project Objectives:

This project will work with the staff at Filbert Street Garden/ BCC to:

1) initiate new composting methods including 5 new BEAM bioreactors and one Bokashi Composting system. BEAM produces a fungal dominant compost that improves yields and Bokashi compost allows for the processing of both meat and dairy which reduces waste to landfills. We will determine if these methods are viable for urban farms and if they help to increase production of healthy fresh vegetables by conducting side by side trials in raised beds.

2)  make fish hydrolysate to be used as fertilizer. Fish scraps will be collected from seafood wholesalers and used to make high quality fish hydrolysate fertilizer to reduce costs of urban farming and create a more circular economy around urban food systems. The performance will be compared to organic fertilizers normally used by urban farms.

3) share results with other urban farms (3-5) and 50 home gardeners  on soil health and production improvements as measured by Cornell’s CASH analysis through 2-3 workshops and presentation at an annual sustainable agriculture conference as well and 3 how to videos co-produced with the Youth Composters and BCC


In 2015, Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), in collaboration with the Baltimore Food Policy Initiative, found that one in four of the city’s residents live in 'food deserts' with limited access to healthy foods. This project will address this issue by increasing local food production at the Filbert Street Garden Urban Farm through the application of high quality locally-made organic fertilizers and soil amendments. Use of these novel products will reduce the farm’s cost of production by providing a viable substitute for imported or store bought fertilizers. It is also important to note that the Baltimore region has some of the worst air pollution in the country, with some neighborhoods such as Brooklyn-Curtis Bay having 3 active trash incinerators. This has led to myriad problems in this area including high hospitalization rates for pediatric asthma and over 114 days in 2018 being classified as yellow or worse by the EPA’s Air Quality Index. Baltimore Compost Collective is currently diverting over 400 pounds a week of waste from the incinerators.  This project seeks to increase this number significantly by creating other products separate from the “Black Gold” traditional aerobic compost that is currently being produced. These novel products will include fish hydrolysate fertilizer, fungal dominant compost produced in passively aerated static composting bioreactors (similar to Dr. Johnson’s Johnson- Su Composting Bioreactor), and anerobic lacto-fermented “Bokashi Compost” created from a variety of local waste streams. As opposed to traditional compost, Bokashi composting allows for the conversion of meat and dairy waste into a valuable soil conditioner allowing Baltimore Compost Collective to process a wider array of waste materials and divert them from the incinerator. Fertilizer and input costs are a significant portion of total farm expenditure for Urban Farms. This project will develop and disseminate methods that will enable the Urban Farming and Home Gardener Communities in Baltimore to be more profitable, competitive, and resilient by directly reducing these costs. This sort of model also provides for ample ancillary benefits such as (i) a reduction in material being sent to incinerator (ii) opportunities for educational/vocational training and employment , and (iii) improvements in soil health and fertility.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Marvin Hayes - Producer
  • Phal Mantha (Researcher)
  • Paul Sturm (Researcher)
  • Ricardo Liquet (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

This project will carefully analyze a variety of important metrics in order to accurately quantify impacts from the proposed efforts. The total weight of biomass diverted from the incinerators and converted into compost will be carefully recorded throughout the project period. The project team will also calculate production costs and price per unit volume for each of the novel products that are being developed (fish hydrolysate, fungal dominant compost, and “bokashi compost.”  This will highlight actual local costs of production for these products and provide other urban farmers with highly valuable information that can greatly accelerate the adoption of these practices and encourage the formation of local, circular economies. In addition, soil health and fertility at the Filbert Street Garden Urban Farm will be carefully measured throughout the project. Initial soil samples will be taken at the start of the project in order to establish a baseline. Subsequent samples will be taken at 6 months, 1 year, and 18 months to determine the impact on soil health and fertility these locally made inputs will have. These inputs will be tested in production areas both individually, and in combination, and will be compared to a  control area using existing nutrient management methods. Soil analysis will be conducted by Cornell University’s CASH (Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health) Lab which include parameters such as soil type, Soil pH, Organic Matter, Modified Morgan Extractable P, K, micronutrients, Soil Texture, Active Carbon, Wet Aggregate Stability, Soil Respiration, Total Carbon, and Total Nitrogen. Soil biological composition will be accurately assayed through Autoclave-Citrate Extractable (ACE) Protein Index. Therefore, this project will carefully analyze, document, and assess the impact that these locally made, low-cost fertilizers and soil amendments have on both soil physicochemical and biological characteristics. In addition to establishing costs, and impact on soil health and fertility, this project will also assess the impact these novel products have on overall yields and production. The Filbert Street Garden urban farm performs much of their production in raised garden beds. Therefore, the project team will compare yields and production for the same species (planted consistently) in both the control and the trial beds. The control beds will use the same fertilization methods that Filbert Street Garden traditionally uses, while the trial beds will test the impacts that locally made fertilizers and soil amendments have on overall production and yields. In addition to these metrics, the project team will also track (i) the number of Urban Farmers and home gardeners engaged (ii) number of local youth trained and employed, and (iii) the number or workshops held, multi-media materials created, and people educated about these efforts. The team will also investigate different types of BEAM compost Bioreactors to determine more efficient designs for composting larger volumes and improving the ease of loading and unloading the compost. One of the designs for larger volumes of compost that was effective is attached. Composting Bioreactor Materials List Composting Bioreactor Side view Composting Bioreactor Top View

Research results and discussion:

We have made several observations and learned a number of things that will help us moving forward in the project. We have completed items 1-5 below but were delayed on the other items particularly associated with COVID concerns at the farm and folks not being ready for in-person meetings and a lack of fall planting at the farm due to COVID. Items 6-8 have been rescheduled for this spring. 



Responsible Party 

1. Determine location for bioreactors, bokashi systems and hydrolysate production 



2. Conduct baseline soil testing 


Ridge to Reefs (RTR) 

3. Draw up plans, review with team, revise and distribute 



4. Purchase materials and deliver to site 



5. Construct BEAM bioreactors, produce fish hydrolysate, construct bokashi systems 



6. Hold additional workshop/s for local urban farmers 



7. Design trials for spring crops with control plots 



8. Incorporate Bokashi, BEAM and fish hydrolysate into experimental plots 



Lesson Learned thus far:

  1. The process of making bokashi grains for composting relies on the ability to dry the wet grain product as it comes from the brewery. We rigged up a 55 gallon drum to be a heated dryer but were certainly challenged due to the the wet grain product being allowed to sit too long before being dried. As a result we had to spread out the grains and air dry them, at least to a point where it was dry enough to place back in the 55 gallon drum dryer. 
  2. We researched a larger dryer system used especially for grain to help us expedite this part of the Bokashi process.  We purchased the larger scale grain solar dryer and ran tests on how long drying larger volumes would take and learned several things: 1) the grain coming from the brewery is very wet much wetter than grain harvested from a field -- for example 40 -50% moisture versus 10-15% from grain harvested from a field -- therefore it takes much longer and needs to be placed in the dryer in a thin layer 1 inch or less; 2) adding a false bottom to the 55 gallon barrel helps to separate and decant and remove the liquid from the bottom as the grain cools also leaving the lid cracked to allow steam to leave the barrel helps as well. 
  3. BEAM compost production is challenging in a relatively cold climate (central Maryland) where freeze thaw is common in the winter time. We realized that the 1-2 minute cycles of daily watering (1 minute is what we recommend in this climate due to frequent rainfall and humidity) should be ceased in the winter time to avoid freezing the timer and irrigation lines. The system overall in this climate would benefit from being either indoors or within a greenhouse -- we considered a fish tank heater for the water but the compost would be subject to freezing as well. That said, we believe freeze-thaw is a beneficial mechanism of the creation of compost and aids in the breakdown of organic materials -- so halting watering in the winter and allowing that process to occur is beneficial we suspect. If the system is exposed to the elements and precipitation, we recommend the use of a moisture sensor that can cut off daily watering when these is already ample moisture. 
  4. For BEAM to achieve optimal fungal domination, it would be critical to have the compost under cover from  rainfall or only water the compost when there is not adequate existing moisture (watering dependent on moisture sensor level -- this could likely be done using a low cost moisture sensor connected to a timer which are commercially available). Frequent rainfall in the Mid-Atlantic may ultimately be too much moisture for the system as saturation/over saturation is likely to occur too frequently (every 4-6 days on average).  
Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 On-farm demonstrations
4 Tours
3 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

20 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

Ridge to Reefs is a national and international organization working on food and water security in the Chesapeake Region, Caribbean and the Pacific and as such it has a regional and national presence and website to distribute information and resources. Ridge to Reefs and its partners Filbert Street Garden/ Baltimore Compost Collective will share results in three primary ways: 1) Hosting at least 3 workshops for urban farms and home gardeners on the three methods employed in this project; 2) through how-to and lessons learned videos and written project summaries and 3) through conference attendance and presentations at both regional and national venues.  Most workshops will be hosted at Filbert Street Garden where Baltimore Compost Collective is located and will include some initial workshops during construction of the Johnson-Su bioreactors for BEAM, bokashi composting area and grain dryer, and fish hydrolysate production and include use of these products to improve soil health and fertility. Youth Composters will team with RTR staff to make videos on how to do various techniques, incorporate them into urban agriculture, results and lessons learned -- which would go beyond the usefulness of simple how-to videos that often do not show the agronomic benefits and soil health improvements. This info will also be shared in short-technical guidance fact sheets that will be included in the final report. Lastly, the team will present at Future Harvest: A Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. Youth members of the project team will participate in presentations and summarize the data that they have collected.  Marvin Hayes as the founder and director of Baltimore Compost Collective and Phal Mantha, Director of Agriculture of Sustainability are often asked to present in National forums and will discuss these new methods that they are incorporating into those speaking engagements.

Marvin Hayes recently presented at South By Southwest SXSW in a session on composting, climate change and food security. Marvin has done numerous tours with school groups, several with foundations, and participated in a radio show. Phal Mantha and Paul Sturm were grateful to be asked by our colleagues in Palau and at the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences |JIRCAS to contribute a chapter based on our work and philosophy on creating local inputs for regenerative agriculture. The book is titled Agriculture in Palau: A Manual for Production through Soil Assessment - the chapter they contributed is called Soil Amendments for Increased Agricultural Output. They have also been asked to contribute to a second book with the same partners.   


Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Knowledge of composting techniques and options for bokashi which allows for more "waste" food to be composted as well as BEAM composting which can provide a lot of fertility for urban farms based on the small amount needed to improve soil health. 

We anticipate later in the project expanding the benefit to urban farmers in the Baltimore area. 

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
$80,000.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:


  1. Bokashi and BEAM composting are becoming elements of fertility in at least one urban farm in Baltimore and we anticipate adding a significant number of additional farms as the project progresses. 
  2. We are refining our original processes for drying Bokashi and developing new ones that we'll be able to report on later in the project. 
  3.  We are modifying the designs for the BEAM composting units based on our experience in this project building the original ones; and using pallets to build larger units that are easier to load and unload and which have additional capacity. 
  4. We have secured additional resources for the broader project which includes Baltimore Compost Collective picking up curbside compost from residents and recycling it into high quality composts for urban farms. This includes a $55,000 grant from 11th Hour Racing for expanding the composting curbside pickup program and a $25,000 grant from Hoffberger foundation toward an electric vehicle for the curbside composting portion of the project.  
Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

This is still in process but we anticipate having a lot to report out on.  


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.