Co-Op Compost Production

Natural growing is the method of choice for a co-operative farm.  Rather than rail on about the problems of synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, persistent herbicides and genetically modified organisms (GMO)s, I'll refer to them all as The Devil and move on.  A cooperative farm would have young people working in the gardens and fields and we don't need all that crap around our kids.  

Natural growing depends on natural inputs, the chief of which is compost.  We'll need it and in no small amount.  A standard garden bed would need to be amended with an inch of compost with each rotation.  An acre will fit 100 of these beds, more with close spacing.  The co-op would do well to establish at least 4 acres of beds, so we're talking about 400 beds needing 1/2 cubic yards of compost with each planting.  Down here in growing zone 8b, I can grow crops all year, rotating those beds 4 times.  That's 2 cubic yards per bed, 200 cubic yards per acre each year.  A 4 acre plot can use upwards of 800 cubic yards of compost each year.

A cubic yard of compost will weigh about 1000 pounds, half a ton.  Because of the variability of ingredients and moisture levels, nailing down an exact figure is not practical.  1000 pounds/cubic yard is close enough.  Those 800 cubic yards would have a mass of 800,000 pounds.  If it was all brought in at once and dumped on the ground it would be a heap 8 feet wide at the base, 6 feet high at the top, and 675 feet long.  

Compost is available on the market.  You may have seen it bagged in the big box stores for a few bucks a bag.  We would need 50 bags weighing 40 pounds each to equal one cubic yard.  For 800 cubic yards we would need 40,000 bags. Compost is availale in bulk.  I've had it dropped off by a dump truck.  When I buy a 15 cubic yard load, the guy delivers it for free.  It's only a few miles.  The price around here for bulk compost is $33/cuyd.  This works out to 3¢/pound.  Buying 800,000 pounds of compost would come with a pricetag of $26,400.  I've purchased it cheaper in other areas.  The cheapest of all is the compost I generate myself.

For a new farm just getting started, this is a major expense.  Even if spread out over the course of a year it's still a couple thousand dollars each month.  The figures I've come up with suggest we need $5000/month to cover operating expenses.  This does not include compost.  Why pay for it when we can make it ourselves for free?  It takes time to make compost.  It may be necessary to buy some at the start so we have some available while we wait for our own production to come online.  

Compost is made with waste materials.  Leaves, grass clippings, coffee grounds, old hay, sawdust, potato peels, kitchen scraps, yard debris...the kind of materials folks have in abundance.  It's waste, and each pound saves us 3¢.  Bring it in.  Rather than fill trash bags to put by the side of the road and clog up the local landfill we can make use of all this material.  Making compost is about as easy as it gets: pile ip up, let nature do the rest.  

To come up with the volume we need, the number of people involved works to our advantage.  200 families generate a great deal of waste material over the course of a year.  For 800,000 pounds, if everyone brought in 80 pounds of material each week, we would not need to purchase compost.  A 5 gallon bucket, available at any of the big box hardware stores, will hold 20-30 pounds of material, fits in the trunk of a car, and can be sealed with a lid.  When you come in to purchase goods or help out, bring your buckets with you.  

When you mow the yard, gather up those clippings.  We can use them to make our own fertilizer.  Leaves are abundant.  When your neighbor rakes his lawn, bags his leaves, and puts them by the side of the road, he's tossing a valuable resource.  GET IT.  He's already done the hard work and leaves can be used to produce leaf mold, a different form of compost essential to conditioning the soil and adding minerals.  If you find a pile of leaves and can't get them, call it in.  We'll send someone with the truck and trailer.  That's a ton of material sitting there.  It's worth 30 bucks.  

There is material in large amounts that can be had for free.  Spoiled hay bales on farms, manure from rabbits and livestock, sawdust and woodchips from woodshops, woodchips from the power line crews, restaurant waste, much it would astound you.  Bringing in your materials from home is just a start.  Actively searching for material can bring such volume that we can service a much larger area than a few acres.  If we can develop 10 acres in beds, the income potential starts to compete with full time employment.  We need all that material.  We would do well to set up a plan specifically for gathering compostables.

Most towns have a yard debris collection program in place.  Trucks go around gathering leaves in the fall.  I did some checking.  I grew up in Bangor, Maine.  The population is 35,000 people.  It's a typical New England town, houses with porches, tidy yards and tree lined streets.  Every fall the leaves drop, the good people rake up their tidy yards and the city collects them.  The city collects over 5 million pounds of leaves each year.  There are tens of thousands of cities and towns that collect leaves.  Checking with the nearby towns can find a truly massive amount of material that can be had for the asking.

Restaurants generate waste copiously and continually.  I've worked in restaurants for years.  I've seen pig farmers take advantage of this waste stream.  The farmer provides clean barrels when taking away the full barrels each evening.  The staff sorts the food from the napkins and swizzel sticks.  The restaurant needs a smaller dumpster, the food does not sit in the dumpster for a week stinking up the place, and the farmer gets free food for the pigs.  This is a win-win.  The restaurant wants the material picked up every day.  For a small farm, the staffing demands make it difficult to be on time every time.  A group of 200 people could make it work.  These food scraps are high in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.  As an ingredient for compost, the value of the material is considerably higher than the 3¢ per pound because of the nutrient density.  Used as livestock feed, it replaces commercial feed costing 20¢/pound.  A small restaurant can produce a couple of barrels each day.  A busy restaurant can fill a cargo trailer with barrels.  It would not take long to establish a daily route for collection.  The combination of leaves and food waste is an ideal blend for compost production.

Let's not leave out the manure.  Animal manure brings an abundance of nitrogen to the recipe.  All those confined animal farms have a problem with getting rid of it.  We have a need for it.  Seems to me a hummus farm is the solution to a problem.  With our own flock of chickens, we'd be able to generate a constant supply.  Feeding that flock would be greatly enhanced with restaurant waste.  NOTE: feeding restaurant waste to livestock requires pasteurization.  We could use a solar cooker for this step, eliminating fuel in the process.  Allowing access to the compost heap, even without the restaurant waste, by the chickens is a means of generating feed in the form of bugs and worms.  In return for the free food, the chickens add their manure directly to the heap and churn the pile, keeping it mixed and aerated.  All we do is pile up the materials.  Waste + chickens = compost and eggs.  Egg production on top of compost production adds another level of efficiency to the enterprise.  Income rises while expenses drop.  This is a formula that works to our advantage.

We've got the people.  We've got the tools.  There is demand for yard cleaning, raking, mowing, and landscaping.  Why not get paid to gather compostables?  We send a crew to rake a yard, charge the property owner for time, haul away the leaves, make compost.  If that same homeowner would like some compost spread to grow a greener lawn, we'll gladly sell it right back to him along with more labor charges.

In order to produce our own compost  we need material, time, and the space to do it.  There is some labor involved in gathering materials and piling it up.   Looking at ways of gathering materials in volume, in good quality, nutrient dense, and equipment to reduce the labor will all be part of a compost operation.  With so much material available, it is conceivable that we may be able to produce a surplus.  Having a surplus for market gives us one more product to contribute to the overall enterprise. 



Cooperative Enterprise, Plan Outline