Pragmatic farm composters forge new path to resource recovery

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

AG CHOICE is an on-farm composting operation located in the scenic countryside of Andover, New Jersey. On the drive to tour their site, it was astounding just how much of New Jersey, our most densely populated state, is still rural. Jay and Jill Fischer operate the two-year-old facility, which is one of a kind in New Jersey. Jay also owns and operates a sawmill in the area, and it was while selling sawdust to horse farms that he noticed problematic piles of manure.
The Fischers playfully refer to these small horse farms as “farmettes,” and they are just that: miniature farms, often on less than 10 acres. Whether a hobby or a business, most farmettes are not properly managing their manure. A 1,000-pound horse produces roughly 50 pounds of manure per day, or 9 tons a year. According to a 2007 report by Rutgers University on the equine industry, the state has approximately 7,200 equine facilities, spread out on 176,000 acres, producing an estimated 170,660 tons of horse manure annually (dry weight, discounting moisture content). These small equine operations often allow manure to build up in their fields or heap it in a corner of their property, because they have insufficient space to spread it, or are unaware that improper management can cause water contamination.

The Fischers realized the potential for collecting this unwanted manure and composting it to make a nutrient-rich organic product, benefiting the environment on both accounts. They went to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), which regulates composting operations based on size and origin of feedstocks. On-site composting operations have certain exemptions. For instance, if all materials have been generated at the site, there is no limitation on quantity. However, to accept materials from off-site sources, another exemption stipulates a limit of 10,000 cubic yards (cy)/year and only allows yard trimmings. In order to accept materials from off site other than or in addition to yard trimmings (such as horse manure), a Class C permit would be required. This can involve operating in an indoor facility on a concrete pad.

As the Fischers discovered, these permits and regulations are time consuming, expensive, and a bit confusing, making it a prohibitive process for many farmers and small-scale operators. That's because these strict requirements were set in place to oversee municipal composters, and don't presently have provisions for smaller facilities. “For a Class C permit in New Jersey you're looking at over $25,000 in the first year in permitting fees alone,” says Jay Fischer. After these initial permitting fees, the annual permits still cost over $16,000. “We want to be a smaller, higher quality composting facility,” he continues. The NJDEP worries that if it allows farms to produce and sell compost, farmers will take in more waste than they can handle safely, in an attempt to collect tipping fees.

Ag Choice currently operates under a Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) assignment from the NJDEP, which temporarily exempts it from the solid waste category of the Class C permit. The company is seeking to prove, among other things, that its composting approach addresses the NJDEP's environmental concerns without the requirements of a large building and a concrete floor.

FOOD RESIDUALS AS COMPLEMENTARY FEEDSTOCK
Following rigorous guidelines established by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey (NOFA-NJ), Ag Choice compost is approved for use in organic production. This focus on the end product, a quality organic compost, makes it vital to closely monitor the waste streams accepted. This is especially true for food waste, which might be chemically treated (with bleach, fumigation, etc.) and can quickly become fetid. The horse stall waste that Ag Choice collects, due to the bedding, is rich in carbon but slow to decompose. This led the Fischers to look for a complementary feedstock rich in fast-acting nitrogen, such as food waste. They currently service four ShopRite grocery stores, taking fruit, vegetables, bread and floral wastes. Recently they were contacted by several large manufacturers through BioCycle's www.findacomposter.com, and have started taking other organics such as coffee chaff from a local roaster.

Before the deal with ShopRite, the Fischers had approached several large grocery chains, but were told to contact corporate headquarters to make any kind of arrangement. Again, the sawmill connection was useful, because DJ Romano, at the Ronetco Group (owners of the area ShopRite), had ordered timbers from the Fischers' sawmill for the loading docks at local ShopRite stores. Jay recalls that, after mailing out requests for food waste, “He called me two days later, and laughing said 'Aren't you in the wood business?'”

To ensure quality control, Ag Choice uses its own trucks to service the Shop-Rite stores. The company provides 15 cy containers, sealed all the way around with lids that are padlocked. This limits access to only the store manager, and thereby reduces chances of contamination. Jay trained the stores individually, and although they get an occasional water bottle, the four to eight tons/pick up is relatively clean. The stores signed a contract that specifies if Ag Choice is forced to traipse through tipped food waste and pull out garbage, it will charge $60/hr. If the load is too contaminated, the charge is an additional $200/container, plus the tip fee at the landfill.

Two of the ShopRite stores have biweekly pick ups, while the other two are serviced once a month. Between April 2006 and May 2007, Ag Choice collected 192.18 tons of food waste from the four stores. Its tipping fee is roughly half the Sussex County Landfill charge of $98/ton, allowing ShopRite to reduce its disposal costs by 50 percent.
To be approved for use in organic production, composting operations must avoid certain materials. For instance, Ag Choice cannot accept waxed cardboard, because pesticides could be trapped in the wax. Sewage sludge cannot be taken because of heavy metals. And grass clippings are not allowed because of the chemicals homeowners use on their lawns.

These limitations are placed on feedstocks because it cannot be guaranteed that the contaminants will break down during the composting process. To ensure that accepted materials are properly decomposing, Ag Choice must document its turning frequency and temperature, proving that a minimum of 130°F (55°C) is achieved for 15 consecutive days. This is particularly important for composting manure, Jay notes, due to fears of E. coli and Salmonella. Turning the windrow frequently is crucial for proper blending, because the highest temperatures are reached at the core of the windrow, and outer layers might otherwise not reach the required temperature.

In addition to horse manure, Ag Choice processes 5 to 10 tons of ostrich manure per month, and loose hay and bales. The company offers a collection service, leaving an open-top 20 cy container (for operations with 25 or more horses), currently charging $200/pull when the container is full. Ag Choice has seven open-top 20 cy containers available. If a container cannot be left at the facility, the company will also pick up waste for a fee; drop off service at the compost site is allowed with an appointment.

COMPOSTING OPERATIONS
Ag Choice is permitted to accept a total of 10,000 cy/year of organic materials. Samples of each batch of feedstocks are sent to Midwest Bio-Systems for analysis to determine the carbon-nitrogen ratio, overall nitrogen percentage and density. This aids in the design of a balanced compost recipe, calculated using computer software, that is specific to that batch of materials.

All incoming feedstocks are tipped into a concrete pit. Horse stall waste is dropped in first, creating a bed to absorb the liquids in the food waste. After mixing, the materials are transported to the composting pad by a Kelly Ryan 6x14 TMR mixer (6-7 cy capacity) powered by an 80 HP tractor. The chute on the mixer wagon forms windrows on two compacted clay pads; five windrows are on a 1.5-acre lot, and seven others are on a 3-acre lot. The windrows are on the smaller side, as far as windrows go, measuring only 4.5 feet by 10 feet.

For turning, the Fischers use a Midwest Bio-Systems Aeromaster PT-120 pull-behind turner, powered by the tractor. During the first week, windrows are turned daily, the second and third weeks every other day, and then progressively less week by week. The windrows are covered, maintaining heat and moisture levels within, and repelling rain water (to reduce chances of runoff). Pulling the covers off and on by hand proved to be cumbersome, so Jay designed a roller that attaches to the tractor for easier off/on when the windrows need to be turned.

Compost stays in windrows for 8 to 10 weeks, and is then screened with a used Screen USA trommel, to 3/16 inch. At the end of each composting cycle, samples are tested for heavy metals, nitrogen, pH, salts, sulfurs, germination, carbon to nitrogen ratio, E. coli and Salmonella. These tests are conducted by either the Penn State soil lab, Midwest Bio-Systems or Rutgers University.

COMPOSTING ECONOMICS, FACILITY FINANCING
Tip fees cover the costs of collection (equipment and labor), and the Fischers make a profit by selling the finished product, in bulk and bags, to garden centers, nursery growers, landscapers, homeowners and grocery stores such as Whole Foods Market and ShopRite. Ag Choice bags its own compost, using a Weaver Line bagger and a system that Jay customized for their needs. The bags are poly-woven and breathable, allowing the product to remain “alive.” Ag Choice will custom blend the compost, and it has been used as a soil amendment in organic production, as well as spread on a conventional golf course. Horticulturalists often purchase straight compost, to make their own concoctions. The company also sells custom potting soil and topsoil, mixing the compost with coir (the outer husk of a coconut) rather than peat moss. The Fischers made this decision because coir is sustainable, while peat is harvested from sensitive environments. This is in keeping with their general philosophy of renewal and being environmentally responsible. The family sawmill doesn't contract with logging companies, but rather uses salvage timbers that would otherwise be chipped into mulch.

Besides Jill and Jay Fischer, Ag Choice has two employees: site manager Matt Hillsdon and CDL driver Bill Henderson, who helps with composting operations when he's not driving. Jay went to the Midwest Bio-Systems composting workshop in 2004, and was impressed enough that he returned, this time with Jill and Matt (who also holds a degree in turf management). They learned about soil fertility and microbiology, and were given first-hand experience with windrow formation and maintenance. The focus on soil fertility encouraged them to concentrate on the finished product, with controlled amounts of nitrogen and carbon coming in, instead of looking for a quick turnaround on large quantities of feedstocks.

In terms of financing, this process has at times been trying, working through regulations and searching for support. “I never imagined that getting the project funded would be a concern after working with the state to get the necessary approvals, finding a farmer willing to let us try this new thing on his property, putting together the business plan, etc.,” says Jill Fischer. But finding funding proved troublesome, because lenders were hesitant to back an unconventional start-up business. The Fischers ultimately received financing from a bank, the Paragon Federal Credit Union. “They looked at our business plan, met with us to learn more about what we were looking to do, and worked with us through the whole loan process to secure a Small Business Administration loan,” explains Jill.

The Fischers found additional financial support from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) of New Jersey, in the form of a $75,000 Conservation Innovation grant through EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). Ron Phelps, a district conservationist with NRCS, points out that with limited space to deal with their manure, and little to no interest in composting, currently the horse farmers' only other option is to send the manure to a landfill. However, New Jersey's landfills are also restricted, with only a few permitted to accept manure. “If anybody can show the right way, it's Ag Choice. They're doing a first class job,” says Phelps. He mentions that while many operations have cut corners, Ag Choice has paid close attention to the details.

REGULATORY JOURNEY
A positive voice on farm composting from the New Jersey Department of Agriculture (NJDA) is Monique Purcell, Director of the Division of Agricultural and Natural Resources, who is drafting an animal waste rule proposal. It will establish a statewide animal waste management program for a wide variety of what are called AFOs, or Animal Feeding Operations. These are smaller than CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, with 10 or more animals and often only limited technical resources. These farms need alternatives, so in the rule writing process Purcell is trying to offer solutions. Purcell mentions that while she was drafting this proposal, the Fischers came forward with their idea for a model facility, and she helped to set up a meeting with the NJDEP.

“We'd like to have 10 more facilities like theirs, maybe more, with statewide coverage,” says Purcell. As she describes it, there are currently two parallel regulatory systems, with the NJDA putting together manure waste standards on one side, and the NJDEP on the other, regulating composting operations by size and origin of feedstocks. The NJDA is working with the DEP to look at both systems together, and to tailor the DEP composting rules. The NJDA and NJDEP have been coordinating their efforts, using Ag Choice as the RD&D example. “Ultimately we want the same thing: to manage waste responsibly, so that it doesn't pollute our waterways, and is instead a valuable resource,” explains Purcell. This partnership is a good sign that beneficial change is on the way.

Joseph Staab, a NJDEP reviewer for Ag Choice, says that there simply need to be more facilities composting manure and food waste. Although it will take many years, it is only after viewing various sizes of composting facilities that the New Jersey DEP will change its regulation. “Ag Choice is exemplary,” says Staab. “This is because they are on a small scale; with a larger operation it would be difficult to have such complete control on what comes in.” Still, Staab notes that Ag Choice has kept the NJDEP from closing the door completely on outdoor food waste composting operations in New Jersey.

Nancy Wittenberg, Assistant Commissioner of the NJDEP, concurs. “Ag Choice made us realize that we need to reexamine the regulatory process, to reduce the strain and not overwhelm smaller facilities,” says Wittenberg. The NJDEP hopes that by modifying existing regulations to address this type of operation, it will be able to encourage more people to set up well-controlled composting operations. The agency's concern with odors stems from past composting facilities that had significant problems, but Ag Choice currently manages potential odors quite well. In fact, to highlight how controlled and minimal the odors are at Ag Choice, the Fischers invited NJDEP officials to lunch at their facility, and set up the table under a tent only 10 feet away from the windrows. It was a hot day, and there were no complaints.
Rutgers University has shown interest (and support) through Priscilla Hayes, Executive Director of the University's Solid Waste Resource Renewal Group. Hayes drafted a report on Ag Choice in March 2007, championing it and the NJDEP for its efforts to encourage more composting in New Jersey. “Jay and Jill were able to use the network established by the initiatives of the Solid Waste Resource Renewal Group to advance their project,” says Hayes. The group has been a valuable resource, since they were instrumental in facilitating food waste diversion in New Jersey. Stephen Komar, also from Rutgers, is conducting water quality tests at Ag Choice (see sidebar).

The Fischers are not just trying to set up a successful business, but want to spread the word about the benefits of high quality compost. Jay voluntarily drafted a basic outline for the NJDEP as to what he thought was needed for small composting facilities in New Jersey. This included creating a tiered system based on size, volume, feedstocks and knowledge level, ranging from the most basic to the most restricted.

After the Fischers' RD&D certification ends, they're interested in researching mortality composting, an environmentally friendly method of disposing of dead animals, if done properly. This future endeavor is another way to encourage practical and environmental composting regulations. “I've never been what you'd call a tree hugger, but this whole process has been eye-opening,” says Jay. He talks about the increasing problem of weeds in local lakes due in part to the number of new houses (with individual septic tanks) and the excessive use of lawn chemicals. The Fischers' perspective goes well beyond running a profitable business. They are committed to improving the place they live, one windrow at a time.

WATER QUALITY MONITORING

STEPHEN Komar, the Sussex County agriculture agent on faculty at Rutgers University, is testing and comparing water samples at Ag Choice from three different piles: a “static” pile of manure (similar to those found at local horse farms), and two actively managed compost piles, one covered and one uncovered. “We are doing a grab sample from a gravity fed water collection system, with a weir,” says Komar. The tests at Ag Choice are a starting point, serving as a real world demonstration rather than a true scientific study. Because the conditions cannot be controlled (he cannot accurately measure water flow, time, slope, etc.), the results will not be replicable, making them of more interest to the layperson than the scientist. Also, they know pretty much what the outcome will be: the static pile will decompose at a very slow rate, allowing nutrients to run off; the uncovered compost pile will decompose more quickly, but will also have some potential leachate; and the covered compost pile will, not surprisingly, have the best results, with a more rapid decomposition and negligible leachate.

“We hope to demonstrate that proper manure management can positively impact water quality,” says Komar. With funding, Komar hopes to conduct similar trials in a lab, with a specifically sloped pad, applying water to the windrows through monitored nozzles for specific times in order to simulate rain events. The results are expected to be similar to the studies at Ag Choice, but will be scientifically valid, with easily replicable results. The equine industry needs a management plan, because anaerobic manure piles may cause environmental problems. “Instead of being a possible contaminant, it can be a possible revenue source, in the form of a valuable nutrient,” explains Komar.

Komar is also working on a study comparing the direct application of manure and bedding to hay fields to the application of compost. The study, which currently has one year of data, seeks to quantify the effects of composting horse stall waste on volume reduction and the yield and quality of grass crops.

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