Compost Training for Ag Professionals

Compost Training for Ag Professionals

Compost Training for Ag Professionals

Hunter Francis and his colleagues at the Center for Sustainability in the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences (CAFES) at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, CA strive to promote an understanding of ecosystem services that agriculturalists can provide to society that go beyond the production of food and fiber. Composting is an example of one such service, and one that has potential to serve a variety of needs, including: waste reduction and diversion, soil enhancement, renewable sources of organic fertility, water conservation and carbon sequestration. In spite of interest in composting over the past decade, the Center for Sustainability saw significant untapped promise for agriculture to play a role in appropriate conversion of organic matter. Furthermore, questions remain. These include questions on: 1) processes involved in the composting method, including technical and engineering aspects; 2) the microbiology involved in composting, including the role compost can play in soil and plant health; 3) analysis and evaluation of compost, including testing for pathogens; and 4) the economics of composting, including the successful marketing of end-product.

In 2011, Francis and the Center for Sustainability received funding from Western SARE to establish the Cal Poly Compost Project and to conduct a comprehensive professional training in large-scale composting together with the Maine Compost School. With this funding, the Center for Sustainability developed a successful training program integrating the award-winning Maine curriculum with Cal Poly’s range of expertise and resources and established a number of collaborative partnerships that has resulted in research and educational programs within the Cal Poly Compost Project that surpass the scope of the grant.

The purpose of the week-long Compost Training was to help producers in California find answers to the above questions, help them assess whether composting (or use of compost) is right for them, and if so, help them incorporate composting (or use of compost) into their overall business model.

The project team’s secondary objective was to improve the coordination of scholarly and research activities on campus which relate to composting. They formed a compost consortium comprised of faculty and staff with expertise in soil science, waste management, agricultural engineering, resources management and farm operations to develop teaching modules for the Compost Training and to form the Cal Poly Compost Project. The Cal Poly Compost Project has facilitated a number of collaborations and partnerships that have galvanized the initiation of compost-related projects at Cal Poly.

The five-day Compost Training was held at the Cal Poly campus from April 23 - 27, 2012 for twenty-seven registrants, plus participating faculty and staff. Three Maine Compost School instructors presented their curriculum with a combination of classroom instruction, laboratory experience and hands-on project exercises utilizing the Cal Poly Compost Unit for many of their demonstrations. Topics covered during their classroom instruction included: the biology of compost, feedstocks, site selection and management, composting equipment, compost utilization and marketing strategies. Indoor and outdoor exercises focused on site development, pile management, troubleshooting, recipe development, and testing for quality, maturity and stability. The compost consortium assisted with development of supplemental presentations and tour agenda.

A day-long south coast field trip took place on April 25. The tour highlighted four local businesses incorporating innovative composting and waste management strategies into their business model.

Each workshop attendee received a binder including the course syllabus and all presentation slides and worksheets. All 27 participants also completed the final certification exam and received a ‘Certificate of Technical Ability.’

The Compost Training received exceptional reviews from its participants, mainly due to its in-depth and hands-on treatment of the practical considerations associated with large-scale composting operations. Attendees of the training gained a thorough understanding of the composting process from start to finish, from feedstock and site selection to utilization and marketing. The south coast tour exposed participants to how existing local enterprises are incorporating composting into their business model and running a profitable and sustainable business.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) EW11-029, Cal Poly Professional Development Compost Training and Establishment of the Cal Poly Compost Project .

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From the Field