The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

November 3, 2013

Turning over a new leaf

Compost benefits soil, farmers, consumers

By Joe Wiercinski
Herald Staff Writer

MERCER COUNTY — Leaves and grass clippings in your backyard may seem unconnected to steak served in New York City and Boston.

Unsold fruits and vegetables might not get you thinking about strip mining for coal.

But thanks to stores, trash haulers and farmers in our region, those seemingly unrelated things are all tied together in a local network assembled by Pittsburgh-based Pennsylvania Resources Council. The nonprofit environmental group’s aim is to make better use of materials that all too often wind up buried in landfills.

Chuck Moose and Parker Maynard are part of the network to turn those materials into compost for their farms, as are Tri-County Industries and Walmart stores in eastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania.

You are part of the network, too, if the Pine Township-based trash hauler picks up your autumn leaves and yard waste in Sharon, Farrell and Wheatland.

Nick Shorr, who works for Pennsylvania Resources Council, put the arrangement together last spring by linking Walmart - through its contractor Organix Recycling - with farmers who mix loads of food waste with leaves to turn it into compost.

Food waste provides the nitrogen that creates heat  as those “green” materials, mixed with air and water, break down the “brown” carbon from leaves and wood chips. The biological process of composting -- much as nature does it -- turns waste into a natural product that can rebuild soil and boost its fertility, Shorr said.

“The critical thing in aerobic composting is that you need a blend of materials that doesn’t stink, attract flies or rodents as it breaks down,” he said.

There’s plenty of material to work with when you look at the big picture.

The state Department of Environmental Protection says leaves and yard waste add up to more than 2 million tons in Pennsylvania alone.

As for food waste, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pegs discarded food nationwide at 34 million tons a year, only 1 million tons of which gets composted.

Shorr says municipalities, haulers and businesses are working on ways to compost those materials and put them to good use instead of burying them.

Moose, of Wilmington Township, and Maynard, of Plain Grove Township, Lawrence County, are trying to do their part on a scale much larger than you might think.

They are among a group of three farmers who take turns receiving Walmart produce and other food waste too old to sell in the retailer’s regional stores.

During the rotation, each farm gets up to eight Organix tractor-trailer loads of food waste over two weeks.

“I mix it with leaves from New Wilmington and wood chips from tree services, and sometimes I use manure to get the pile cooking faster,” said Moose, a former dairy farmer who now produces grass-fed beef on 400 acres that he either owns or leases.

“You need a lot of material to get started, but it really reduces down as you turn it,” he added. “The temperature gets above 130 degrees, and that kills all the bad stuff.”

Moose spreads compost on pastures where his cattle graze or on fields where he raises the hay he feeds them instead of corn.

He searched online for options of marketing his grass-fed beef which has been growing in popularity in recent years. Consumers are becoming more interested in buying foods produced with less reliance on chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Moose and Maynard say they don’t use those materials in their farming operations.

Moose sells finished cattle to Massachusetts-based Hardwick Beef. Its restaurant customers in the New York City and Boston areas have helped to develop a thriving market for meat that Hardwick advertises as  “tasty and tender, healthful and sustainable” because it is produced carefully on family farm’s like Moose’s.

Eventually, he would like to produce 100 beef cattle a year, Moose said, noting that it takes two years to raise a calf to market size in the farm he runs with the help of one long-time employee.

Having a low-cost source of soil-building compost may help him reach that goal.

“The more I can get the pastures and fields built up, the more cattle I can run and the less hay I will have to buy,” he said, adding with a chuckle, “maybe I can make a living at this.”

Maynard first learned about organic farming practice while he was a student and worked at Slippery Rock University’s Center for Sustainable Research.

He faces a different farming challenge on his 15 acres near Volant that had been strip-mined for coal about 20 years ago.

Maynard, a bricklayer who earns his income from construction, is applying research and methods developed by Slippery Rock and Penn State universities to make the depleted subsoil left behind by coal mining productive once again.

Compost he makes with leaves collected in the Shenango Valley is a key ingredient in his soil reclamation effort.

A fenced paddock formerly used for horses will be fertilized with compost and planted with grasses and other plants to support sheep, chickens for eggs and broilers, and eventually cattle in a grazing rotation.

Other acreage will be seeded with native plants to produce nectar for bees and other pollinating insects. And some will be developed as a mixed orchard to produce berries and tree fruit.

Crops can be sold through “community supported agriculture,” an increasingly popular network that links consumers and food-producing farmers in a relationship that benefits both sides of the arrangement.

In addition to agriculture and food production, Maynard said compost will be increasingly useful in the future as Marcellus and Utica shale oil and gas production pick up speed in Pennsylvania.

Soil disturbances related either to oil country construction or accidents can be addressed with compost just as he has been using it to reclaim soil on his strip-mined land, he said.