Written by Casey Willson, Fair Farms Intern
The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) hosted a 6 part webinar series on composting. This series supported the goals of the Million Acre Challenge to have one million acres of Maryland agricultural land using healthy soil techniques, like composting, by 2030. For each webinar in the series, ILSR brought in a composting expert to talk about their experience and share their composting knowledge. The series was targeted towards farmers but was open to the public as well. The first five installments are summarized below. The final will be on December 7th. You can find more information about the November 16th webinar on profiting from compost and register for the upcoming webinar about making high-quality compost on December 7th here. The series is free for farmers!
Dr. Robert Rynk’s webinar was entitled On-Farm Composting Fundamentals. He spoke about the different methods of on-farm composting and how to choose which process is right for the unique assets and capabilities of each farm and farmer. Rynk goes on to explain the fundamentals of how compost works. He then gave suggestions about what to look out for when choosing a site. He emphasized the importance of being thoughtful and intentional about your compost and the importance of being a good neighbor by making sure that your compost doesn’t negatively impact those around you.
The second webinar was on Integrating Composting into your Farming Business with Ellen Polishuk from Plant to Profit, a composting and farm consultancy. Polishuk spoke about her preferred method of composting: the Luebke Method, which she believes is the most efficient method for producing the best, most stable compost. This method includes a compost pad that is flat from side to side with a 3% slope along the length of the windrows. As well as, a good mix of “brown” carbon-rich materials with “green” nitrogen-rich materials in a volume ratio of 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. However, this method can be quite labor-intensive as it requires turning the compost pile daily to ensure that enough oxygen is getting to the microorganisms.
The third webinar in the series was by James McSweeney and it was entitled Composting Recipes and Integrating Food Scraps. He is the author of Community Scale Composting Systems. He believes that farmers should compost because they can leverage existing equipment and infrastructure. Farmers often have access to an abundance of organic materials. The many variable methods of composting mean that it can work in most scenarios. McSweeney talks about how important it is to be intentional with your compost recipe. He explains that being thoughtful and aware of what goes into the compost can improve quality, speed up the composting process, mitigate pollution from concentrated nutrients and pathogens, and has global impacts of returning nutrients like carbon and nitrogen to the ecosystem.
The fourth webinar was entitled Compost and Soil: Restoring Health and Rebalancing the Climate. It featured Calla Rose Ostrander and Jean Bonhotal. Ostrander spoke first about how she understood composting as closing the loop between life and death. Ostrander believes that when we engage in agriculture and composting we are helping to capture excess carbon to produce food, fuel, fiber, and flora. She contends that carbon, rather than being a pollutant, is a fundamental building block of life.
Jean Bonhotal went on to talk in more detail about the different types of compost. She detailed how leaf and yard residual; food scrap and processing residual; manure compost; fats, oils, and meats; and biosolids can impact your compost. She explained how compost can be used in restoration and conservation work and how important it is to choose ingredients that will support your overall mission.
The fifth webinar was a collaboration between Dr. Greg Evanylo and Jayne Merner Senecal called Profiting on Compost and the Importance of Compost Quality. Evanylo first spoke on the importance of having a thorough understanding of the properties of your compost and how testing can provide important insights into the best usages for each batch of compost. He recommends composting to assess how successful your process is, ensure that your compost is meeting certain regulations and guidelines, and provide your customers with more accurate information. He recommends that farmers and compost producers take advantage of the US Compost Counseling programs. These will test for things like nutrients, micronutrients, metals, pathogens, moisture content, pH, and soluble salts.
Next, Senecal spoke about Earth Care Farm’s 3 acres of composting production land. She explained that they have been producing compost for a profit since her father started the farm. They use a variety of feedstocks to attract a variety of microbes that will provide incredible fertile soil for their customers. This enhanced fertility will provide returns for the farm in the form of increased profits from better crop output. For Senecal, investing more time and effort into the production of compost has led to high profits from sales. They sell their compost for $80-$365 per cubic yard because of its high quality. This is about double what other suppliers are getting for their compost. She encourages farmers to be vigilant about controlling what goes into their compost and keeping tight records to ensure they are creating a good product.