Where are the Farmers?
I have heard a lot of discussions about reducing food waste lately. Most waste audits show that food waste and other compostable paper represents the largest slug of divertible material in many waste streams, especially in areas where traditional recyclables have already been removed from the waste. As such, there are a lot of conversations about how to reduce these food wastes, capture them for composting, or otherwise treat them (to capture energy, extract the water, or otherwise stabilize them). These conversations these are being had by a diverse mix of advocates, environmental regulators, waste haulers, waste authority staff, and equipment makers, and occasionally a grocer or restauranteur. But too often, one group seems to me to be missing from these discussions: farmers. That confuses me. I have been developing institutional composting programs since the early 1990’s. Maybe it’s because I cut my teeth doing composting in a state that still had some small family farms and that allowed those farms to compost a certain amount of off-farm waste. But it seems to me that farmers are a critical part of both compost use and food production. As such, it seems to me that they should be more fully represented in the discussions about managing organic wastes.
On the compost use end of the cycle, farmers are one of the largest and/or most important users of finished compost. As such, it seems to me that they should be a critical voice at the table when determining what is compostable. They know the nutrients and soil amendment properties they are looking for. They know the contaminants that will be of the biggest concern to them. How can you declare that something is compostable if you don’t consult with the user to see what properties they are looking for? I have seen far too many composting programs fail because advocates and collectors got overzealous about what they could “divert” and overwhelmed farmers with stuff that was to the farmer “just trash.” In my experience, including farmers early in the process and doing a lot of slow steady testing with them before adding new items to your compost program will yield a much more successful and sustainable composting program long-term. And sometimes during these trials, the contaminants that are the biggest issue with surprise you. With one farmer I worked with, he was far less concerned about some of the bigger items that I assumed would be a problem, because he could readily screen those out of the finished compost. His biggest issue was the butter pats and plastic coffee stirrers because they would fall through the holes of his trammel screen and as a result, he couldn’t screen them out the way he could the big stuff. And because of the size and quantity, it was a big problem for him to have to hand-pick them all out of the finished compost. As such, those items became far more of a priority for our waste reduction efforts than they would have otherwise been. As we come off the turmoil in our recycling programs and face harsh market realities after decades of wish-cycling, isn’t it time to learn from that mistake? Or are we doomed to repeat it as we over-zealously wish-compost?
On the other side of the production cycle, farmers also have tremendous potential to help us reduce food waste. They understand first-hand the market forces that can lead to over-production of food, over-production that too often just ends up being wasted. They can help us to identify places in which preparing and packaging foods at the farm or at a nearby processor may help reduce spoilage and/or increase composting. And as grocers and foodservice operations develop plans to do more with non-prime or “ugly” produce, farmers may offer valuable insight. After all, for generations, farm families have often saved their most marketable produce for market and lived on the second-tier crops they produce. If anyone knows about cooking with less-than-perfect produce, it is them.
So I urge you, if you want to tackle the issue of composting or food waste, reach out to farmers and include them in your discussions. You might be amazed at how much more successful your efforts are.