July 14, 2008 | General

Connecting Food Scraps To Sustainable Agriculture

BioCycle July 2008, Vol. 49, No. 7, p. 22
Infrastructure grants from the state, along with technical assistance from various organizations, are helping to build local composting capacity.
Rhodes Yepsen

LOCAL food is enjoying a renaissance, with farmers’ markets booming, and books about the 100-mile diet proliferating – where food is grown within 100 miles of where it’s consumed. However, typically missing from this discussion is the connection to climate change, and more specifically to compost. Sustainable agriculture has several climactic benefits, including the ability to sequester carbon in the soil through cover cropping and use of compost. The benefits of composting are cyclical, with organics diversion from the landfill mitigating greenhouse gas production, and compost replacing fossil fuel-based fertilizers. The connection between the local food movement and keeping organics out of the landfill is being made on farms across the country.
In the Mid-Atlantic region, and specifically Pennsylvania, several organizations are supporting the growth of on-farm and community-based composting – the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region III, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). Farms in the local food movement have the ability to not only connect consumers to the source of their food, but to demonstrate environmentally responsible disposal of food scraps as well. However, initiating an on-farm composting operation can be complex.
In June 2008, EPA Region III launched “Campaign to Mid-Atlantic State Farmers to Promote Organic Material Composting,” which provides peer-to-peer training for farmers who want to start composting operations. “We see farms as a great resource for beneficially reusing the tons of food waste presently being sent to landfills,” says Mike Giuranna, Solid Waste Specialist for EPA Region III. “We’re hoping to achieve increased awareness of organic material composting as a revenue-generator for farms that will lead to increased organics recovery in the region.” Coordinated by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR), Ned Foley of Two Particular Acres farm will be the primary trainer for the program. Foley was among the first farm composting operations to be permitted in Pennsylvania to receive source separated organics, primarily from supermarkets and restaurants in the Philadelphia region. There will be no cost to farmers for the consultations.
Besides lack of training, another barrier to new composting operations is funding. The Pennsylvania DEP offers a Composting Infrastructure Development grant program, with the specific goal of increasing the volume of materials being diverted from landfills, while helping businesses use the organic materials as finished products. Last year, six recipients included college campus projects, farms and a nonprofit that services a restaurant. “The Composting Infrastructure grant was developed to assist private companies and nonprofit organizations with purchasing equipment to divert organics, particularly food waste and yard waste,” says Patti Olenick of the Pennsylvania DEP. “A lot of farmers are interested in composting on site, but there was no grant program for that before. What is happening is that farmers are using this grant as a way to get started composting.”
This year, $400,000 is available in the DEP grant program, with a maximum grant of $100,000. With rising fuels costs, Olenick notes that decentralized composting sites, such as on farms, will become increasingly important, due to higher hauling costs and increased prices for fossil fuel fertilizers. “Applications for the grant are often coupled with an application for an on-farm compost permit,” says Olenick. “For new composters, a condition of receiving the grant is that the site will apply to be permitted.” The on-farm permit is for a composting site of five acres or less, where food scraps, yard debris and manure are accepted (with a maximum of 3,000 cubic yards/acre/year, and a limit of 1,000 cubic yards/year of food waste). The DEP has been working to simplify the on-farm permit process so as to not be prohibitive for busy farmers. “We’re scheduled to release a user-friendly on-farm permit form in 2008,” continues Olenick.
“Going local is the way to go,” says Olenick. “The DEP is providing financial and technical assistance to farmers who in turn can provide a service to their communities, add to their bottom-line and improve soil health.” The DEP coordinates field days with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to provide technical assistance and guidance about on-farm composting, with one scheduled for August 12. “Besides the educational demonstrations, farmers gain an understanding of the permitting process,” says Olenick.
Composting field days are a hot topic for PASA members. PASA recommends that its farmers improve soil quality through various sustainable practices, such as regular testing, use of compost, cover cropping and responsible weed management. “Organic farming can be a stepping stone to sustainable agriculture, but the ultimate goal is to be regenerative, where the farm continuously reduces its external inputs and increases fertility, while connecting with local markets and local labor,” says Greg Boulos, Western Regional Director of PASA.
Of the farms that received the DEP grant last year, two are community supported agriculture (CSA) operations. With the CSA model, families and individuals purchase shares of the farm’s produce for a season (or sometimes a full year). This guaranteed economic support for the growing season, instead of having the farmer rely purely on the fluctuating sales at farmers’ markets and/or roadside stands, offers a degree of added flexibility. From the consumer’s perspective, they’re no longer purchasing just food (like at a supermarket), but are using their dollars to support the whole system of food production. The added stability offered by the CSA model may also make CSAs ideal candidates for on-farm composting.
Red Earth Farm, which operates a 300-family CSA in Schuylkill County, received one of the DEP Composting Infrastructure grants last year. Michael Ahlert of Red Earth Farm notes that the CSA model has been successful for them. “Operating a CSA takes some of the day-to-day stress off of being a market farmer,” he says. “It allowed us time to be a bit more experimental, to write a grant for our composting operation. It also allowed us to buy our own farm.”
Ahlert recognizes the direct link between growing food for a large CSA and diverting food waste. “Our farm is 14 acres, with 7 acres tillable, and those fields are used heavily, with as many as three rotations per field in a year, to meet the demands of our CSA and two farmers’ markets,” he says. Ahlert notes that he would like to use more cover crops when they have more land, but in the meantime compost is the more feasible soil fertility method. “Most organic amendments are expensive and not all that great. Food waste compost supplies most of the nutrients we need, and also bumps up the organic matter in soil, which is a soil management goal of ours.” Ahlert tries to apply a minimum of 50 cubic yards/acre of compost every season, but right now it’s mostly mushroom compost from commercial growers and manure. The DEP grant will allow them to take more food waste, which will add nitrogen to the carbon-heavy mushroom compost.
Ahlert sees composting supermarket food waste as a double benefit – it improves his soil, and is good for the environment. “We don’t have much leeway to be idealistic on the farm, but rather make decisions pragmatically, based on what will keep the farm running well, with crops looking good and customers happy,” he says. “Composting food waste satisfies that bottom line, but it also serves a second purpose of bettering the greater community.”
The Pennsylvania Recycling Markets Center (PRMC) helped Red Earth Farm make connections with area supermarkets, as well as aided in the grant application (DEP grant applications prepared with the PRMC are given special consideration). A pilot project with an area Redners grocery store allowed Red Earth to take food scraps from the produce department, delivered twice a week. With the grant and a permit, Ahlert now wants to add material from the bakery and dairy departments as well, which will make hauling economics more reasonable for the supermarket, and will provide the farm with more material to compost. “We hope to compost 2,000 additional cubic yards of material annually,” says Ahlert.
Red Earth Farm is not asking for a tip fee from the supermarkets. “We might change that in the future, if we start taking in a lot of waste,” he says. “But right now we just want to get the material on our farm, and in a timely fashion. At our end it’s the easy part. The harder part is to train supermarket staff to pick out contaminants.” Ahlert hasn’t volunteered to do any training, but notes that contamination was very low during the several month-long pilot project last summer.
The Ahlerts use a bucket loader and PTO-driven manure spreader that mixes material and then spins it into a windrow. The piles are then turned with the bucket loader. Although the Ahlerts would eventually like to make their own potting soil, the compost is currently used solely as a field amendment, and therefore doesn’t have to be very refined.
One of the other advantages of CSAs for composting food waste is the ability to incorporate its members’ leftovers. However, this is not always easy. Red Earth hasn’t offered this service to its members, mostly because with 15 drop off points located away from the farm, the logistics become tricky. “We’re a bit concerned about picking up food waste on our truck while delivering fresh CSA shares in the heat of summer,” says Ahlert.
Tait Farm, in Centre County Pennsylvania, was the other CSA to receive DEP funds last year for expanding its composting operation. It has a different set up than Red Earth, where CSA members come to the farm to pick up produce shares. This will allow the farm to accept food scraps from its 170 CSA members as an added service. To facilitate this, Centre County Solid Waste Authority is providing 5-gallon buckets for CSA members’ food scraps (as an in-kind contribution for Tait Farm’s grant). Each member will receive a bucket, to be brought back to the farm when they pick up the weekly produce share.
Tait Farm has been composting yard trimmings from Harris Township for 20 years, long before it started its CSA in 2000. Harris Township therefore offered to install a composting pad at Tait Farm as an in-kind contribution for the grant. “The actual grant money will then be used to purchase a tractor and turner for composting larger volumes, as well as a utility trailer to collect from our two restaurant customers,” says Kim Tait.
The farm currently takes approximately 200 tons/year of yard trimmings and manure, and plans on adding another 150 tons once the on-farm permit allows it to take food waste. “The majority of the compost produced will be used for improving our farm’s soil fertility,” says Tait. “This includes potting mixes for the greenhouse, but some will also be given away to CSA members, and some will be sold bulk at our Harvest Shop, a retail store.”
The last contribution match for the grant comes in the form of guidance. After a European tour of community composting facilities, Nadine Davitt, who manages the Penn State University composting facility, contacted Tait Farm. “She wanted to create a community composting program in Pennsylvania based on what they had seen in Europe,” recalls Tait. “With our farm at the center, it’s a collaboration between several existing establishments for a small, replicable project.” Farms are ideal for this model of community-based composting, bringing together customers, municipalities and universities for a closed-loop system of food production and recycling.
With funding from the DEP, training from the EPA, and PASA’s field day workshops and conference, Pennsylvania is a strong example of the momentum building in for community-based, on-farm composting. The connection of composting and food waste diversion to the reemerging local food movement will be explored further in future BioCycle articles, with a focus on urban gardens.
Sidebar p. 24
A FLURRY of articles on community gardens and impromptu farmers’ markets has filled newspapers recently. Urban gardens and markets are nothing new, but their increased popularity mimics the growth of CSAs, with people interested in supporting the whole system of agriculture, rather than just purchasing food. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s (PASA) annual Farming for the Future Conference attracted close to 2,000 people in 2008, with 10 preconference tracks and over 80 workshops. “In each of the five workshop sessions, at least one workshop focused on CSAs: growing the membership, packaging the subscription boxes, delivery and distribution methods, etc.,” says Allison Shauger, Director of Educational Outreach for PASA. She explains that there has been an increased interest in developing CSAs from PASA member farmers in the past few years.
Local Harvest ( has a searchable national database of small farms, CSAs and farmers’ markets to connect consumers to local food sources.

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