Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Composting: Turn farm waste into extra cash

If there is one thing my farmer/gardener friends know about, it's soil. And my non-farmer friends, well, they want and need that black gold/nutrient rich soil. I propose a way to bring a little bit of revenue to your farm by bringing that product straight to the people who want it. We propose selling compost. It's both good for the farm and good for the environment. In some areas it a high demand item. With a little research into your local market you might be able to bring in extra cash into your farming revenue stream.

A large issue world-wide is waste. Food waste is an item that makes up to 20-30% of what we throw away. According to the Food and Agriculture organization of the United Nations 1.3 billion tons of food (worldwide) is lost or wasted each year. Much of this can be composted back into the soil. Starting small, you might find some solutions locally that make financial sense. Instead of throwing it away, put it to use for the farm.

Here are a few ideas and considerations:

Picking a spot:
Finding a location for your compost might sound like the easiest part of this operation but there are some things to consider. You could find an out of the way spot for your compost and keep it your pile in the same spot all the time. Alternatively, you could put the compost pile on a portion of your growing area and move it every year. The soil underneath will be perfect for planting the following year.

Make sure your space will be able to heat up, has access to water so you can add water easily, and make sure it's in a spot that's manageable to turn.

Another thing to consider is having outside waste brought to your farm. The Rodale Farm found off-farm sources using municipal leaves and grass clippings as well as horse manure to add to their on farm compost. You can read about how they incorporated a compost revenue source here.

Add it up:
All plants have different needs when they're growing and so when they break down they give off different nitrogen and carbon levels. Be sure to incorporate both green (nitrogen) and brown (carbon) items as you add to your pile. At the bottom of this post is a list of things to add and not to add.

Just like the plants you grow, the ingredients you add to your pile are important. The nitrogen and carbon in your compost pile should be balanced as well as the temperature and moisture level. Composting bacteria works best under neutral acidic conditions with the pH ranging from 5.5-8. Compost decomposes fastest between 120-160˚F.  Decomposition happens at lower temperatures but it happens much faster at these temperatures. Keep your pile moist but not wet. A good practice is to water as you add things and turn regularly.

Use it if you've got it:
To cut down on smell of your pile aerate your pile regularly and make sure it's not too wet. You can use an aerator or front loader if you have one to turn your pile.

Add a variety of things to your compost. By mixing in items like hedge clippings, shredded newspaper and larger items you will improve airflow and help break down the compact items like grass clippings. Make sure to smash cornstalks and other large items so that they can be broken down more easily.

When it's done:
After all the dumping and turning and watering it's time to check your product. Finished compost breaks down to about half the volume of the original pile but it's much denser. Compost should look and smell like rich dark soil. You shouldn't see any of the items you've put in the pile. They should have broken down.

In your research you might find information on hot and cool piles. The hot pile will take less time to break down but a cool pile will also break down, but will take longer. Possibly about a year to complete. Which type you have depends on the area and the items you have in your pile.

When you think you're all composted and ready it's time to screen your compost. You can do this by running your compost through a wire screen with about 1/2 inch mesh. Screening can be done to sort out the larger pieces that haven't broken down all the way. Separate theses larger pieces from the smaller ones and add the larger pieces back to compost a little longer.

Bag it up:
You may wonder how you're going to easily bag up this new form of revenue. You have many options.You can sell this to customers by having your own measuring device like a 5 gallon bucket or sell it by the cubic yard. Alternatively you could have the customers bring something to transport it or put it into old feed bags (reuse). If you have the resources you might also give the option to deliver to individuals for an additional fee.

As you're bagging up your black gold you'll need to determine your price for your compost. You'll want to do some further research to see what other compost is going for in your area so that you can be competitive. Screened compost can go for roughly $50 a cubic yard and potting soil will go for $150 per cubic yard. If you're organic or bio-dynamic you can charge more. These prices vary though so do your own research to find your price.

I hope you find that incorporating compost into your agricultural operation can be beneficial to your bottom line as well as helping building back up the soil and reducing the amount of waste that goes into the landfills. Composting seems like a win-win-win for you, the environment, and your community.

Compost is an item you can sell year round as well. Bag up that black gold for the time when the ground is frozen and tuck them away for the winter when clients have smaller projects. A steady stream of income is just good for business. A few ideas that you could help you capitalize on compost are offering compost to your clients that garden, adding it to your own starts, or finding local businesses that need compost - like landscapers. If you're Organic you could sell to local organic gardening groups.

Note: Check with your local Department of Agriculture. There are some areas that are more regulated than others.

Do Compost
- Coffee grounds & filters (greens-N)
- Fruit & vegetable scraps (greens-N)
- Shredded newspaper (browns-C)
- Ash in small amounts (browns-C)
- Garden trimmings (greens-N)
- Eggshells (greens-N)
- Manure (plant eaters only) (greens-N)
- Leaves (browns-C)
- Grass trimmings (browns-C)
- Sawdust, hay or straw (browns-C)
- Finely copped wood or bark (browns-C)
- Old potting soil (browns-C)

Don't Compost
- Animal bi-products, grease, fat & bones
- Meat, poultry, fish
- Seeds and weeds
- Plants that have been treated with pesticides
- Charcoal or Duraflame® ashes
- Treated wood products
- Cat litter or other pet waste

Additional information:
Here are some additional stories of farms that have incorporated composting into their revenue stream.


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