Developing Municipal/On-Farm Linkages for On-Farm Composting and Utilization of Yard Wastes: A Regional Resource Issue Project
On-farm recycling of organic wastes can benefit both agricultural and urban/suburban communities by producing a valuable soil amendment, improving waste management economics, and reducing landfill burden. A joint project between Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) and the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority (RSWA) project was designed to develop and document a process to divert municipal yard wastes, a natural resource, to farms for composting and agricultural use. Program objectives included:
1.) Develop an approach to link municipal waste authorities and farmers for recycling and utilization of yard wastes in agriculture;
2.) Ensure successful composting by farmers by providing technical and economic training and assistance;
3.) Promote on-farm composting by developing and conducting educational programs for farmers and agricultural professionals;
4.) Demonstrate the benefits of compost application on soil, physical, chemical and biological properties and crop growth in on-farm tests;
5.) Develop a manual, in hard copy and electronically formatted, that provides a framework for use by waste managers for implementing a yard waste distribution and on-farm composting program.
Virginia Cooperative Extension project coordinators collaborated with the RSWA to develop a plan to deliver leaves collected in the fall and winter of 1994 and 1995 to area farms. The RSWA and local Extension personnel solicited farmer participation through advertisements and personal contact. Two informational meetings were held to present the details of the program. Six farms, including landscape/nursery, organic vegetable production, and beef cattle operations, participated in the program.
An educational program was developed for participating farmers. The program included: a) a field trip to visit an on-farm composting operation in northern Virginia; b) a 30 page composting principles and resource guide, containing tables and charts for recording project expenses and process information; c) training in cost allocation to enable an economic assessment of the composting operation and the value of the end-product.
Five farms each received between 180 and 250 cubic yards of bulk leaves in mid-March of 1996. The sixth received approximately 160 tons (~1610 cubic yards) of bagged leaves which were debagged by municipal workers at the farm. The total volume of leaves delivered to all 6 farms was approximately 2600 cubic yards. All but one of the operations co-composted the leaves with chicken or turkey litter from production operations in nearby counties.
Windrow construction and turning/mixing was accomplished with a tractor and bucket and, sometimes with a manure spreader. Four of the participating farmers utilized a RSWA tractor-pulled type windrow turner to turn their compost at least three times. Additional turning and mixing was conducted with a tractor and attached bucket or fork. Project personnel made regular farm visits to provide composting technical support.
Two on-farm field and greenhouse studies were conducted to compare the effects of compost and commercial fertilizer on soil or potting media physical and chemical characteristics and plant growth and yield. Sweet corn was grown at one location and rooted cuttings of two potted perennials were utilized at the other. The research process has provided a basis for further independent investigation on the part of participants. Economic evaluations that compare the expenses of leaf delivery, composting, and compost utilization with the expenses of landfilling wastes and commercial fertilizer were also conducted.
Project outreach activities have included : a) an On-Farm Composting Field Day (June 1996) to demonstrate the windrow system at a participating farm and an aerated static pile system at a nearby farm; b) a 1996 municipal yard waste composting educational forum, sponsored by the Virginia Recycling Association Organics Recycling and Composting Committee; c) dissemination of program development and progress through a poster at the Composting Council’s 1996 annual conference and presentations at the 1996 Composting in the Carolinas Conference and the annual Virginia Sustainable Agriculture Conference; d) the production of articles and publications for extension agents and farmers; and e) an educational program and technical support for a pilot project in another Virginia county.
Project progress was measured by the degree of composting success, the adoption of proper composting processes by participating farmers, field day evaluations, attendance levels and feedback at other information/education events, quantifiable results from the field and greenhouse studies, the successful production of project publications, and the continuation of a successful partnership program in Albemarle County.
Finished compost has been successfully used in organic vegetable production and landscaping projects, sold in bags from a nursery retail operation, and sold in bulk from at least one farm. The range in cost for labor, co-composting materials, and all equipment use except the windrow turner for the four farms which used the turner was $4.36 to $17.40/cubic yard of finished material. The highest farmer cost resulted from extensive windrow construction activities necessary because of the inflow of many more leaves than originally planned, as well as other unanticipated circumstances.
The City of Charlottesville incurred an additional $1,970 in hauling and labor costs. Project expenses for the RSWA totaled $1,993. This program, however, allowed savings in avoided costs for the RSWA and the City from pending closure of the current leaf collection / stockpile.
All of the farmer participants are continuing to compost for on-farm use or sale of the finished material. One of the participating farmers signed a 5-year contract in 1997 with the City to receive at least 1,000 tons of leaves annually. This entrepreneur purchased a windrow turner and has established a successful commercial composting operation.
Results of the sweet corn field study indicated that although yield was higher in the fertilizer-amended plots than in those receiving compost, soil TKN and concentrations of calcium, magnesium, manganese and boron were higher in the latter. The greenhouse study involving two common bedding plants revealed that composted yard waste can be employed as a substitute in part or in whole for the commercial potting medium, Promix.
Outreach activities successfully included other waste managers, farmers and educators. Thirty-one people attended the on-farm composting field day. The Municipal Yard Waste Composting Forum drew approximately 30 participants. The poster session at the Composting Council Conference reached more than 200 individuals. Approximately 25 people attended the presentations at the Virginia Sustainable Agriculture Conference and the Composting in the Carolinas Conference. In addition, waste managers and farmers in two other counties requested information and guidance in developing similar programs for their areas. One of these cases resulted in a successful pilot composting project utilizing leaves and poultry litter from the Roanoke Valley and from which plans for a full-scale operation are proceeding.
Four Extension publications have been or are in the process of being produced: 1) On Farm Leaf Mulching: An Option for Farmers and Municipalities (VCE 418-017), a 4 page bulletin; 2) On-Farm Composting: A Guide to Principles, Planning and Operations (VCE 452-232) a 36 page guidebook for farmers; 3) Closing the Loop: Public-Private Partnerships for On-Farm Composting of Yard Waste (VCE # pending), a handbook for waste management entities and/or groups of farmers and others to utilize in establishing programs similar to that in this project; and 4) Compost: What Is It and What’s It To You? (VCE 452-231), a four-color educational fact sheet for use by Waste Managers and others seeking to establish a program.
In addition, an article entitled Yard Waste Composting Opportunities for Farmers are Enhanced by Available Exemptions From State Regulations, was published in the December 1995 Crop & Soil Environmental Science News and the Winter 1995/96 issue of the Virginia Biological Farmer, the quarterly journal of the Virginia Association for Biological Farming. Project publications will be available on the VCE web site.
IMPACT OF RESULTS
Establishing linkages between the agricultural and urban/suburban communities can help all parties realize the benefits of municipal yard waste recycling on farms.
Composting yard wastes with farm wastes can produce a valuable soil amendment, improve economics for waste management agencies, and reduce the burden on landfills. This approach serves the goals of sustainable agriculture by enhancing agricultural and horticultural soil productivity, protecting water resources, and reducing the use of non-renewable resources.
This project has demonstrated that increasing waste recycling through composting of municipal yard trimmings and agricultural manures on farms can be an attractive opportunity for many farmers and an economical option for waste managers. Project publications providing guidelines for farmers and tools for communities to establish linkages and create successful education and implementation programs will promote similar partnerships throughout the South.