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Developing Linkages for Farm Composting and Use of Municipal Yard Wastes

Crop and Soil Environmental News, December 1996

Greg Evanylo
Waste and Nutrient Management

The following is a non-technical summary of the first year of a project designed to develop and document a process to divert municipal yard wastes, a natural resource, to farms for composting and agricultural use. This project was funded by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and Agriculture in Concert with the Environment Program.


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; and
5. Develop a manual that provides a framework for use by waste managers for implementing a yard waste distribution and on-farm composting program.


Extension project coordinators collaborated with the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority (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 resource guide on composting that contained tables and charts for recording project expenses and process information was written and provided to each of farmer participant; c) economic training for participants was conducted to enable an assessment of the composting operation and the value of the end-product.

Project Operation.

Five farms each received between 180 and 250 cubic yards of bulk leaves in mid-March of 1996. The sixth received approximately 160 tons (~990 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.

Three on-farm field and greenhouse studies are currently in progress to demonstrate the effects of compost vs commercial fertilizer on soil physical and chemical properties and plant growth. Economic evaluations that compare the expenses of leaf and manure delivery, composting, and compost utilization with the expenses of landfilling wastes and commercial fertilizer.


Project outreach activities have included : a) an On-Farm Composting Field Day to demonstrate the windrow system at a participating farm and an aerated static pile system at a nearby farm; b) a 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 annual conference and presentations at the annual 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 seminar to assist extension personnel, waste managers and farmers in the development of a leaf distribution and composting project in another Virginia county.


Finished compost has been 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 4 farms which used the turner was $4.36 to $17.40/cubic yard of finished material. The highest cost was incurred in extensive windrow construction activities due to the inflow of many more leaves than originally planned and other unanticipated circumstances. All of the participants plan to continue composting for on-farm use or sale of the finished material, with at least two continuing their composting activities at the new scale or larger. One of the participating farmers has signed a 5-year contract with the City of Charlottesville to receive at least 1,000 tons of leaves annually, indicating the economic attractiveness of the program to waste managers.

Outreach activities have successfully reached 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 have requested information and guidance in developing similar programs for their areas.

Impact of Results on Sustainable Agriculture

Establishing linkages between the agricultural and waste management 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 and reduce the burden on urban and suburban 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.

Potential Contribution to Producers or Consumers

This project is demonstrating 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. Publications providing guidelines for establishing linkages and illustrating how a collaborative information and education program can insure success will promote similar partnerships throughout the South.

Plans for the Remainder of the Project

Additional outreach activities will include a Spring 1997 field day to demonstrate the beneficial effects of compost use in agriculture and to present project results and economics. Three Extension publications will be completed and disseminated: 1) A Farmer's Composting Guidebook I, addressing raw materials, process principles and management, and compost application; 2) A Farmer's Composting Guidebook II , addressing planning and siting an operation, the economics of composting, and Virginia regulations; and 3) a handbook documenting the project and providing guidelines for other waste management entities and/or groups of farmers and others to utilize for similar programs. Guidebook abstract, highlights and program component summaries will also be available through the VCE web site. Research results will be published in appropriate journals, newsletters and Extension bulletins.

For more information contact:
Archer Christian, Project Field Coordinator, or Greg Evanylo, Program Coordinator
Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA 24061-0403
540/231-9801 or 231-9739; or