When your compost ingredients come from somewhere else, know what’s in the truck
Garbage in, garbage out – no matter how well you manage it.

By Jeff Moyer, The Rodale Institute® Farm Manager

Jeff Moyer is the farm manager at the 333-acre Rodale Institute research farm, and has been here for over 26 years, refining the farm's cover cropping and crop rotation systems. The farm has over 1,000 organic apple trees, a 3-acre CSA, 270 acres in a rotation of corn, small grains, hay, and edible soy beans for a Japanese market, and 25 acres of experimental research plots that have been used to test and compare the yield, soil health and environmental impact of organic and conventional systems for the last 22 years.

"It's been extremely rewarding to work at The Rodale Institute," says Jeff. "Working on projects and with people who are having a positive impact on family farm practices, economics, and environmental stewardship is very fulfilling. The positive changes I've seen on our own farm over the years—and farms around the world— convinces me that we're on the right road."

How to contact Jeff

Click here

611 Siegfriedale Rd.
Kutztown, PA 19530


February 16, 2006: Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers that says, “Compost Happens”?

Well there is some truth in that. If you have a good carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio in the material and moisture in the pile with enough critical mass and oxygen, compost does happen. You don’t really need to do a whole lot. Sure, there are actions you can take that will speed things up or slow them down. But the fact is compost is a natural, biological process that will happen on its own in some form or another.

While “compost happens,” a good compost operation producing consistently high-quality compost doesn’t. It doesn’t just happen on its own, that is. It takes a fair amount of planning and, like any enterprise, good management. The good part is a well-run operation can be financially rewarding as well as a source of a valuable soil-building amendment.

Dick Yule in Millville, Pennsylvania is a prime example of doing your homework, planning out your enterprise and most importantly—generating a top-quality product. No amount of marketing can overcome a poor product. Dick says,”If I had one word of advice for someone starting out in a compost enterprise, it’s to create a well-aged and cured finished product. You’ll get and keep customers.”

Before you begin any compost operation, you should research location criteria. By that I mean write down a list of location characteristics. You’ll want a location that is level or can be leveled. It should be located at least 100 feet from any open body of water, be away from wetland soils and have easy access for trucks and your own equipment. In some areas, your compost site may even be need to be fenced and gated. Be sure to check with your local municipality or state authority before spending too much time and money developing a site. Some areas even require a concrete pad and runoff containment pond.

While there is a lot to learn about making high-quality compost, one of the first steps is figuring out what raw ingredients you’ll be using and where they’ll come from. These materials might be generated on your own farm or, as in my case, trucked in from off-site. If you are using your own manure and crop residues, you have total control over what you use, how you use it, when to use it, etc. However, when you’re trucking in materials, you have a whole new set of issues to deal with.

To start with, you need to locate or source out the materials you want to compost. In our operation, that is municipal leaves, grass clippings, broiler-house litter and horse manure. Other operations I’m aware of use pre-consumer food waste, dairy manure, fish-house waste, sawdust and many other compostable materials.

You need to build a strong relationship with your suppliers. They really need to understand what you need. You may want a written contract or, like with our operation, use verbal contracts to define what you will accept, when you’ll accept it and in what condition. For us, dealing with municipalities is easy. We try to keep things simple and straightforward. I don’t charge a tipping fee, and they don’t charge for the materials. Simple. No paperwork. The same system works for our manure haulers. They need a place to go with their loads, and we want the material. It’s a win-win situation.

In our operation, we don’t accept raw materials from individuals. We tried that and found it unmanageable. We only deal with contract haulers or municipalities. By doing that, we have total control over when materials are delivered (almost always during normal business hours) and what is being delivered. If there is a problem with a load, we know who brought it. If we get trash or unwanted items, we know right where to go to fix the problem. With private individuals, we had no control. Commercial and municipal haulers also generally carry insurance in case there are issues with property damage or anything else.

Once you get a recipe that gives you a C: N ratio of about 30:1 (so the rows will heat up nicely and not give off odors), have all your materials lined up and have an approved location, you’re off and running. We’ve grown our operation to the point where we now use a custom-built compost turner. (We fabricated it with the expert help from our neighbor John Brubaker.) But that’s a whole other story.

Like Dick Yule, we make a premium product: rich, black and well-cured. We don’t screen and bag ours like Dick does for his garden-center customers, but then that’s not our main business. Our fields don’t care if we have a few lumps here and there.

However you compost, don’t overlook the need to build relationships with anyone who supplies materials to you. Clear communication, a watchful eye and an appreciation by suppliers for what it takes to make good compost will benefit you in producing a high-quality product and in growing your enterprise.

From One Farm to Another