August 9, 2010
It isn't often that you get to go to a press conference in a freshly mown rye field and come home with a brown paper bag full of composted manure. That's what I took away from a recent trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new and unusual composting facility that will occupy a five-acre corner of the Hurst family farm.
Compost has been much on my mind, and in my hands, with garden season at its glorious peak. In this summer of environmental disaster, it feels restorative to nurture your own little piece of the planet. As a gardener, I sometimes think about the environment on a micro level—such as my own backyard. What I have never fully appreciated until now was the planetary value of composted manure; nor did I understand its connection to one of our chief environmental problems: water pollution from the nitrogen used in agriculture.
In 1909, a chemist named Fritz Haber developed a way to capture nitrogen, abundant in the air, and turn it into fertilizer for crops. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for "obtaining bread from air." Today, 110 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer are spread onto fields worldwide; at best, only 50% actually goes into making food. The rest washes into rivers and groundwater, or is absorbed into the atmosphere. There, it is wasted, and lays waste to the water.
The greatest long-term threat to our coastal waters today is nutrient pollution from diffuse sources such as agricultural and urban run-off, sewer and wastewater treatment facility overflows, and airborne nitrogen pollution that settles on land and water. When nitrogen flows into rivers and oceans, it enriches—or fertilizes—the water to the point of upsetting the equilibrium of entire ecosystems. The result is an explosion in the growth of algae, often referred to as an algae bloom. As the algae thickens, it blocks sunlight and sucks oxygen out of the water, so that other aquatic life is smothered and suffocated, creating a "dead zone."
The coastal United States is ringed with dead zones. The largest of these is a New Jersey-sized patch that funnels out from the Mississippi River Delta into the beleaguered Gulf of Mexico. This dead zone is so low in oxygen it cannot support life. Long after the effects of the BP Gulf oil disaster have been neutralized, the dead zone will remain with us.
We can put a stop to this explosion of dead zones. Farmers in beautiful Lancaster County, well known for its Amish population, have been worried about the health consequences of excessively high nitrate levels in the water they are drawing from their wells. They are also concerned about the crab and oyster nurseries downriver in the Chesapeake Bay that have been hard hit by nutrient pollution. (Please see sidebar for more EDF projects addressing nitrogen fertilizer run-off.)
And these farmers are doing something about their concerns. Thankfully, there's a solution as close by as the livestock barn. Manure contains nitrogen, along with phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients. As every gardener knows, this makes manure an excellent fertilizer, adding organic matter to the soil, improving soil structure, aeration and moisture retention. However, if manure is not applied at the right time and rate for crops to use the nutrients, its beneficial ingredients will wash away, possibly contaminating streams and drinking water. (Chemical fertilizers are even more of a challenge as synthetic nitrogen is washed out of the soil during rainstorms and deposited into waterways more quickly than organic nitrogen.) Composting the manure binds the nutrients and makes them more stable. The heat in the composting process also destroys pathogens, like E.coli, that can taint water and plants when raw manure is spread around crops.
The Hurst family business—a 950-head beef and dairy farm, grocery store, restaurant and garden center—is now also home to the Oregon Dairy Organics composting facility. Operated by Terra-Gro, Inc., it will take the manure from the Hurst farm, as well as other farms in the area, along with excess yard clippings and food waste from local schools and restaurants (which would otherwise go into a landfill), and mix and bake it under the cover of large plasticized canvas tunnels. The carefully calibrated compost will be of such good quality that it can be used by organic farmers and landscapers for private gardens and sports fields—replacing the commercial fertilizer now used where our children play.
The turnout at the press conference for the groundbreaking of the new facility was impressive—and a good indication of how many people were involved in the project. EDF provided the managerial expertise of high-energy Suzy Friedman, deputy director of the Center for Conservation Incentives. Friedman visited with farmers and coordinated project development and funding, which came from a dozen sources.
Among the 45 guests were several generations of the Hurst family, as well as the family of the family of site manager Merle Ranck. "I taught my son Loren everything he knows about compost," said a twinkling Floyd Ranck. "That was back in the sixties, when everyone thought I was nuts to use manure in my vegetable garden." Now his grandson will spend the summer overseeing the new facility. Oregon Dairy Organics expects to be selling compost by September, generating about 18,000 cubic yards of compost each year. Judging by the sample I took home and fed to my Meyer lemon tree, I expect wholesalers will be placing hefty orders.
The Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, which provided some funding, was represented by John Dawes. "Farmers have gotten the blame for lots of problems. The pressure on them has been enormous," he said. "But farmers must be seen as part of the solution; they know that water has to be clean for their crops to thrive. Farmers have worked with the land for generations around here. They are the original environmentalists." Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who grew up on a farm, noted the fresh cut fields with delight. "Can we really find solutions to the difficult problems facing the Chesapeake Bay? I look around here, and I say, 'Yes!'" The Chamber of Commerce representative added: "This a good business venture. And it is the right thing to do."
Dawes captured the sentiment of all involved. "We're ready to move dirt!" This composting venture should be replicated around the country. There's nothing better than a crock of…compost. Black gold.