Sustainable Urban Farm Composting
For those urban farms without access to non-urban venues for composting, there are few published models for sustainably composting all farm and customer waste in a limited space, at least while meeting quality standards for the product, generating revenue sufficient to sustain the operation, allowing for appropriate growth of the farm, and meeting neighbors’ and others’ reasonable aesthetic standards for appearances, with controlled odors and rodents. Added Value stepped into that gap and launched a sustainable enterprise development project for its compost program, working to improve labor practices related to the program, improve farm profits and farm stewardship, and promote a healthier environment. The project accomplished many of its objectives, including a 30% increase in organic waste processed. Hurricane Sandy then added significant delay to full completion of the project, but successful closure is at hand.
The first objective was to capture all data necessary for reaching sustainability and creating a business plan, develop a spreadsheet tailored to capture the project’s input/outputs of material, revenue, and labor activities (paid or volunteer).
The second objective was to promote a professional aerobic process for a superior soil amendment, accelerate production for greater volume in less time, reduce unpleasant aromas and deter insects/rodents. That included waste harvesting teams on the field observe protocols for processing material at point of extraction, rather than mounding the material in a pile, at least 7 out of 10 sessions; in the weekly emptying of organic waste in storage into active thermal compost bins/windrows, breaches in protocols (storage methods to control aroma/insects/rodents/ anaerobic conditions) in only 1 out of 4 weekly sessions; observance of protocols and increased efficiency free up time for the composting teams to turn active compost bins/windrows on a weekly basis at least 3 out of 4 weeks/month; and in the weekly transfer of individual market customers’ organic waste from tumblers to worm bins, breaches in protocols for acceptable materials in only 1 out of 4 weekly sessions.
The third objective was to create a starter mix from the Farm’s own organic waste sufficiently equivalent to or better than commercial mix as measured the superior rate and quality of germination/growth. The fourth objective was to enlist and deploy the labor of the broader community to launch in the sustainability effort, an Autumn leaf collection program (for carbon-based material) launched with collection of 120 bags.
The fourth objective was to further deploy the labor of community members, while increasing the volume of product and meeting customer demand for year-round compostables drop-off, and launch a Winter composting program with windrow sessions on a weekly basis.
The fifth objective was to reduce the planned cost outlays for commercial compost and starter mix for the 2013 season by at least 25%.
The sixth objective was to convert a “requested donation” model to a commercial sales model, and develop an appropriate finalized business plan.
The last objective was widespread dissemination of results.
Overall, the project scaled up the volume of organic waste processed by approximately 30%, with testing demonstrating a microbial quality in the product described by the lab as “great diversity, good for soil functioning in all conditions.”
In a one year span, only two rodents were spotted, representing a vast improvement over the prior season and a huge achievement for an urban farm. With new protocols, odors have been consistently controlled. Revenue streams have been identified and developed enough for a solid business plan. The project was successfully registered with the State’s regulatory agency. A unique spreadsheet was developed to capture an urban farm compost project’s input/outputs of material, revenue, and labor activities (paid or volunteer).
Waste harvesting teams on the field observe protocols for processing material at point of extraction, rather than mounding the material in a pile, for 9 out of 10 sessions, surpassing the goal of 7 out of 10. In the weekly emptying of organic waste in storage into active thermal compost bins/windrows, breaches in protocols (storage methods to control aroma/insects/rodents/ anaerobic conditions) occurred in only 1 out of 4 weekly sessions, meeting goal. For turning active compost bins/windrows on a weekly basis at least 3 out of 4 weeks/month, the goal was unmet because of increased resources otherwise required for scaling program up 30%, so turning kept to minimum necessary to preserve compost quality, maintaining an average system time of 120 days from windrow build to windrow sift. In the weekly transfer of individual market customers’ organic waste from tumblers to wormbins, the goal was unmet for breaches in protocols for acceptable materials, in particular with use of biodegradable bags (that do not break down in our system).
For the creation of a starter mix from the Farm’s own organic waste sufficiently equivalent to or better than commercial mix, the goal goal was met in part with superior rate and quality of germination/growth for some crops, but not others.
On an Autumn leaf collection program (for carbon-based material), Hurricane Sandy blasted apart the community-based program launch, but a subsequent partnership with the Parks Department yielded 60 cubic yards of leaves. A winter composting program has launched and surpassed goal at present with at least two community composting sessions per week. The compost coordinator is working with other urban farms to provide the benefit of Added Value’s experience, and is scheduled to present project results in 2013 at a national conference for the compost industry.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Overall, the project has developed a model for urban farms to manage a sustainable compost program. That model: closes the loop on the food system, with the produce sold returning as compostables that help create the soil amendments to grow the produce; builds customer loyalty by meeting needs for a compostables drop off point; fosters farm stewardship by processing all of the farm’s organic waste as compost; improves the environment by diverting 30% more organic material from the landfill waste stream; improves farm profits by lowering costs for compost needed by the farm; improves farm profits by generating revenue for the compost product; improves labor practices and quality of life for field and compost workers so they see themselves as part of a sustainable whole rather than in conflict; and improves relations with the community and increases interest in volunteer participation (further lowering costs of labor) by reducing unpleasant aromas and insects/rodents.
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