Composters Build Strong Links to California Farms
The rapidly increasing amounts of compost applied to California farms can be traced to numerous factors — better crops, fewer disease problems, greater emphasis on product quality, mandated state recycling goals, savings in disposal costs and savings in chemical inputs. And then there’s the factor of friendship, longtime personal relationships that build trust between composters and farm managers. All these reasons surfaced in a series of interviews with individuals in charge of organics recycling and farming operations.
A good example of how all these factors get played out is provided by composter Mike Brautovich, Jr. and grower Steve Dobler. Brautovich is production operations manager for Sun-Land Garden Products, Inc. in Watsonville, California, supplying compost to some of the state’s largest conventional and organic growers. “Watsonville is a tightknit community of growers,” he notes. On its 5,000 acres of vegetables near Watsonville, the Dobler & Sons family farm grows lettuce, peppers, broccoli and spinach — using compost from Sun-Land on about 1,000 of those acres. “Mike Jr. and I grew up together,” recalls Steve Dobler, “going from baseball dugouts to farmland ditch banks.” For the last four years, Dobler has been applying compost at the rate of four to five tons/acre. “We look for a product that has low salt content and has been finished off right,” he says.
Compost Site At District Landfill
Sun-Land Garden Products was started in 1961, when Ed Minasian acquired rights to the entire production of redwood sawdust from a local furniture mill. The company steadily expanded its product line to include proprietary and private labels for peat, bark, planter mix and potting soils. In 1986, Sun-Land and the Monterey Regional Waste Management District (MRWMD) started a project to divert spent mushroom substrate from the Monterey Mushroom Corporation. The mushroom farm had been taking 200 tons of substrate daily to the county landfill, causing odors, particularly during the rainy season. With the district providing property and assisting with regulatory and environmental issues, Sun-Land started its composting facility on five acres.
“When the California legislature passed AB939 mandating recycling levels, Sun-Land and the Waste Management District continued to work together to develop separating, processing and composting of green materials. The result is our Green Material Standardized Composting Facility,” says Brautovich. The company now operates on approximately 40 acres at the district’s Environmental Park. Besides residential yard trimmings, feedstocks include agricultural residues, cannery waste and livestock manure. Most materials are collected in Sun-Land trucks and combined in open windrows.
Windrows are monitored daily for temperature, respiration and moisture. After an active composting stage of 30 days, materials are cured for more than 90 days. When the process is finished, product is either distributed and applied to agricultural crops or hauled 30 miles from Monterey to the company’s blending and packaging facility in Watsonville. Approximately 20 different compost blends are produced. Compost is bulk shipped or packaged for the retail or wholesale horticultural markets.
The MRWMD processes about 25,000 to 35,000 tons of woody materials and green waste annually. Sun-Land utilizes most of the green waste and some wood into its proprietary blends and as compost feedstock. Commenting on the district’s long relationship with Sun-Land, MRWMD general manager David Myers notes: “It’s been a good public/private partnership. The Minasians have always been concerned with quality.” The district’s multifaceted facility recently received the Solid Waste Association of North America’s first Excellence Award for the Best Solid Waste System.
Sun-Land pays for the district’s feedstock, working closely with the agency to insure product quality. “Initially the district was grinding everything together,” explains Brautovich, “but we were able to show the advantages of separating woody and green materials, which has resulted in better products for us both.”
Because the company works with agricultural users, including some organically certified growers, Sun-Land has developed a quality assurance and control program to document laboratory testing and process control steps. “Growers are extremely concerned about pathogens, particularly given recent food safety concerns,” adds Brautovich. In addition, Sun-Land has recently applied to the California Compost Quality Council, which certifies compost producers.
“Despite California’s stringent composting regulations, Sun-Land has had no difficulties operating at the Marina site,” observes Matthew Cotton of Integrated Waste Management Consulting, who oversees permitting and regulatory compliance as a consultant to Sun-Land. “Because they have been operating so well for so long, getting the permits was pretty straightforward.” Sun-Land had been composting successfully for almost ten years before the California Integrated Waste Management Board composting regulations were completed.
The Monterey Regional Environmental Park, where the facility is located, includes a regional wastewater treatment plant, landfill, MRF and reuse facilities. The park is in relatively rural Monterey County situated between the Salinas River, a closing military base and rolling agricultural land. From its initial pilot project, Sun-Land’s composting site is expanding its current 40 acres to include an additional 40 acres, which should double compost production.
For the last three years, Cappuro & Sons has been applying compost to 500 acres of its vegetable crops in the Moss Landing region, where it grows radishes, parsley, cilantro and kale. “I don’t have any definitive numbers, but the quality of our production has improved,” reports Mike Manfre, director of farm operations. “Since it takes time for compost to have an effect on the land, I think we’re going to see a large impact in the coming year.” Compost is applied at four tons/acre for conventional crops and ten tons/acre for organic.
Continues Manfre: “We’re looking for compost that doesn’t have much moisture and is fully broken down. The material we use is much lighter than raw manure, and the salt content is much less.” According to Manfre, compost prices in the region range from $14 to $35/ton depending upon the supplier.
At his Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, Bill Peixoto uses compost on his entire 500 acres of vegetable crops. “Since we often double crop — for example, planting spinach and lettuce — we can use five tons/acre for each crop cycle,” says Peixoto. Lakeside has been using Sun-Land compost for four years, usually with a manure spreader and then chiseling it into the soil.
As reported in last month’s BioCycle, compost has been a key in the transition at Grimmway Farms in Bakersfield from growing carrots conventionally (with chemical fertilizers and pesticides) to all organic methods. The compost is supplied by New Era Farm Services based in Tulare, which last year supplied about 125,000 tons to 680 growers. NPK content of the blended manure-straw compost is 1.2, 1.5, 2.5.
Grimmway grows 42,000 acres of carrots in California’s Central Valley, applying compost at three tons/acre on 3,000 acres of its conventionally managed fields. The farm began using compost in 1991, and now has 3,000 acres under a certified organic program. On those fields, Grimmway uses 12,000 to 18,000 tons of compost/year depending on specific conditions. Concludes Grimmway agronomist Joe Voth about the role of organics recycling: “It’s all part of our more aggressive program to deal with soil microbiology. The stress is on quality compost, and we’re getting proactive. We’re still in the infancy for compost utilization based on all our acreage, with lots of room for growth.” By Jerome Goldstein.