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Composted urban waste fills gap in supply

Urban areas’ yard and food wastes are being processed into specialty composts for growers in Northwestern Washington. With a USDA grant, WSU Extension coordinates six research trials and up to 75 demonstration trials to develop the system.

STANWOOD, Wash. — In a way, the city is helping feed the farm.

Urban food and yard waste from Seattle and other communities in Northwestern Washington becomes compost at commercial processors, which in turn supply farmers, horticulturists, silviculturists and others wanting to increase yields and profits.

One of those processors, Lenz Enterprises near Stanwood, Wash., recently was awarded a contract with the City of Seattle to compost up to a third of the city’s curbside food and yard waste. In a project involving Lenz and other commercial composters, Washington State University Extension in Snohomish County aims to help farmers keep up with demand for local food while recovering a valuable resource from the urban waste stream.

A $200,000 USDA specialty crop block grant will support the three-year Snohomish County agricultural compost research and outreach project, to run 2014-16. It will include six research trials to evaluate yield, soil properties, water infiltration and other properties and up to 75 demonstration trials with farmers in Snohomish and northern King counties.

In 2008, as the economy slowed and construction and landscaping budgets shrank, compost producers found their product piling up, Andrew Corbin, who is on the agriculture and natural resources faculty at WSU Snohomish County Extension, said.

“(Commercial composter) Cedar Grove approached us in late 2010 to explore the possibility of selling surplus compost to agricultural markets. So we did some initial research trials on a shoestring budget,” he said.

The trials documented the effects of applying commercial compost in crop production on three farms. For two years in a row, pumpkin yield increased by 20 percent, and triticale showed a 100 percent increase.

“With the potential to increase production of some specialty crops by 20 percent, this could have a significant economic impact on Washington’s specialty crop industry,” he said.

With fewer local dairies to supply nutrient-rich manure, many specialty crop growers are interested in using compost. If they can’t produce enough of their own to meet the nutrition needs of their crops, they often must rely on soil inputs produced outside the region.

Corbin said he hopes his project will help close the gap between what farmers are willing to pay for compost and the price compost producers are asking.

“I think we’ll be able to find a middle ground on price,” Taylor Brown of Lenz Enterprises said. “That’s part of the reason we’re getting involved – to see what farmers are looking for and where we can meet them.”

Supply should be no problem. The site often has tens of thousands of cubic yards on hand, though “we have actually run out of compost due to high demand for the products,” Brown said. During its high season, spring, the site may recycle as much as 600 tons of incoming organic feedstocks daily.

As the business has grown, Lenz has developed satellite facilities and distribution partners to grow capacity.

“No research like this has ever been done in Western Washington,” Corbin said. “This is the largest single county project documented in the country.”

Farmers interested in participating in the 2014-15 compost trials can contact Hallie Harness at 425-357-6026. More information is also available on a pair of videos at http://snohomish.wsu.edu/compost/



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