Bi-annual compost sales face challenges, decline in sales
October 16, 2008
Behind the new Dairy Learning Center at Mann Valley Farm (Lab Farm II) lie large piles of compost. Here, time and proper tending turns cow manure and wood shavings into a soil amendment.
The largest pile is about six feet high and 30 feet long and when a buyer shows up, a loader lifts compost from the pile with its shovel apparatus and drops it into the buyer’s nearby truck. The cost is $28 for a yard, which is about two scoops from the loader and whenever compost is extracted from the pile, steam can be seen from the excavated area.
“The heat is from the bacteria and other microbes that love thermophilic temperatures [95 to 160 degrees]” Lab Farm Director Bill Connolly said.
The bacteria, which are already present in the environment, break down the manure and wood shavings over several months into the particle-sized compost seen in the piles.
The process called windrow composting is relatively easy, Connolly said. It requires moisture (which comes from the manure and rainfall), oxygen and the right temperature.
The bacteria will use too much oxygen and create too much heat if left alone. In order to maintain a flow of oxygen and keep the temperature in the desired range, the piles are occasionally turned.
Every year, the UW-River Falls Lab Farms produces about 400,000 pounds of compost, which is then sold in the fall and spring to local farmers and gardeners. With the exception of last year, in which sales never got going as a result of moving the composting operation from Lab Farm 1 to the new Dairy Learning Center at Mann Valley Farm, selling compost has been an ongoing tradition since 1998.
Sales have occurred on Sept. 27, Oct. 4 and 11. Sales, which are never enough to turn a profit, are down this year in part because composters are trying to get used to the quirks of a new location and have not had time to advertise.
One of the new challenges is that the compost is sitting on asphalt as opposed to dirt. The asphalt is causing problems since the compost piles are retaining too much moisture.
“We just have to get used to the new system,” Connolly said.
Josh Roos, a freshman dairy science major, works the loader as part of an $800 work-study program in addition to tilling the compost and general farm maintenance.
“I’d like if [Josh] was doing nothing but loading and selling, but that’s just not the nature of sales,” Connolly said.
Sales in 2006-07 amounted to $9,600 whereas the cost of the wood shavings used in the compost is $25,000 annually. However, the wood shavings will be bought anyway to be used as cow bedding, and with a little effort to create and sell the compost, the overall cost is reduced.
The disadvantage of compost is that it needs to be applied to the soil, after which it will take several months for bacteria in the soil to break it down. Only then does the nitrogen in the compost become available to the plants, whereas with manure, the nitrogen is available right away.
The compost is sold primarily to gardeners who do not have access to manure and want to avoid over fertilization.
“I can’t sell manure - it smells and you can’t pick it up,” Connolly said. “But I can sell compost.”
David Matthews, a local gardener, buys 5-10 yards every year, puts it onto his soil in the winter and then by spring, it is ready for food production.
The time that it takes soil bacteria to break down compost also has its advantages because it is prevented from leeching into the soil where it can pollute ground water.
Connolly said he first became interested in composting in the 1980s because he was worried about the potential for nitrogen in manure to leech into ground water.
“Soils at [Lab Farm 1] are real sandy, and we were using a lot of manure,” Connolly said. “I thought, ‘What if I can tie up the manure?’”
At first, Connolly said he had trouble finding information about farm-scale composting but he eventually found several Wisconsin farmers that were experimenting with windrow composting and put them on a compost project team. However, UWRF was turned down in its initial grant attempt.
“We were ridiculed by the review board,” Connolly said. “The reviewers thought, ‘why would you want to take manure out of a barn, and put it into a windrow, and dink around with it for a couple of months?’”
UWRF received its first grant in 1990 and while compost is currently used as a soil amendment that stays out of ground water, Connolly said the composting program can be expanded to deal with food waste from the University Center. The plan would be to mix it with horse manure on Lab Farm 1, but it would require developing a site.
Connelly said that would require spending money and right now everything is tight.