By M.L. Dehm For The Herald Business Journal
For three years, dozens of Snohomish County farms have been using composted yard and food waste from homes and businesses to add to soil to see if their crops grow better.
It’s a study being performed by the Washington State University Extension office in the county. So far, the farms have used 4,700 tons of compost generated through curbside recycling programs in Snohomish and King counties.
Through this project, the benefit of adding compost to crops has been proven. In fact, the program has been so successful that it recently received additional funding from the Washington State Department of Agriculture for some specialty crop block grant studies.
The original project grew out of a conversation at Snohomish County’s annual Focus on Farming conference in 2010. A representative from Cedar Grove Compost told Andrew T. Corbin, a Ph.D who works at the WSU’s Snohomish County Extension Office, that they wanted to sell their product to local farmers but needed some on-farm trials to prove the benefits of compost in agriculture.
Corbin decided to get involved. “Together with some of my colleagues at WSU, we designed a couple of on-farm experiments,” he said. One was with pumpkins and the other was with triticale, a type of grain.
There would be a control plot with no compost, just the grower’s business-as-usual management. A second plot would also be business-as-usual but would have the benefit of added compost.
That was in 2011. The results have been impressive. Pumpkins amended with compost for two years had a 20 percent increase in yield over business-as-usual management while triticale yield nearly doubled.
One of the first farmers to participate in the program was third generation Snohomish County farmer Darren Carleton, of Carleton Farm. Located between Everett and Lake Stevens, Carleton Farm is noted for its annual pumpkin patch and corn maze.
“The first year was pretty dramatic for us,” Carleton said. “Pumpkins have a canopy and the canopy was dramatically different. We also noticed an improvement in the health of the plant.”
Soil samples were tested for nutrient content. The after-compost samples showed significant differences in available nitrogen, one of the most important nutrients that farmers usually need to supplement synthetically.
Carleton later rotated sweet corn onto the composted land. Although the number of marketable ears didn’t change, the previously composted plots produced much larger ears of corn. The corn also tasted better. A taste test proved it.
“We took sweet corn from three years of compost versus no compost for three years and did a blind taste test all day at Carleton Farm stand,” Corbin said. A total of 62 people volunteered to participate. They chose compost-raised corn almost two to one over the standard product.
With such results, it would seem that most farmers would be eager to give compost a try. But there is a snag and that is cost. Currently, the farmers are receiving the compost free through the WSU Extension program. If they have to purchase it themselves, that might be a game changer.
“The financial aspect of it is the single reason for us not to use the compost,” Carleton said. It is not something he wants to give up but the added expense could prove a hardship.
Currently there is an effort to set up focus groups to meet with the growers and composters. They hope to see how much farmers would be willing to pay for compost and how little the composters are willing to accept.
“Right now we’re nowhere near those being the same,” Corbin said. Compromise is needed for this to work, not just for the composters and growers but also for the consumers.
Composting keeps food and yard waste out of landfills and keeps those landfills viable longer.
But if commercial composters can’t sell their product, they may not want to contract for curbside waste.
For farmers, there is the added concern that current business-as-usual agricultural practices aren’t sustainable. Compost is a long-term investment in building the soil.
“Farming as usual has to change,” Carleton said. “We can’t stay stagnant because the soil is our livelihood. As long as we treat it accordingly, it is always going to provide for our family.”
He is hoping that a deal can be reached between the growers and composters.
People at home can also help, said project coordinator Hallie Harness.
One of the key problems uncovered by these studies is the amount of contamination — plastic, Styrofoam and metal — that is being carelessly tossed into curbside organic recycling containers by consumers.
Before you toss a pizza box in the curbside green can, remove plastic cheese protectors, Harness said. Take twist ties, plastic and labels off of produce peels and never throw household trash in a green can.
It does not get sorted prior to composting and even a little bit adds up when you multiply it by the number of households.
The WSU Extension’s compost program is still actively seeking participants both for the original ongoing study and for the new WSDA specialty crop block grant funded study. Growers interested in learning more can go online at http://snohomish.wsu.edu/compost to view videos and download information on the project.