Trash to cash: Could compost be California’s next gold rush?

Farmers could find a big payoff by using waste from cities.

Loading compost at the West Marin Compost facility in Nicasio, Calif. CREDIT: Robyn Purchia
Loading compost at the West Marin Compost facility in Nicasio, Calif. CREDIT: Robyn Purchia

As the sun rose over the soggy northern California town of Nicasio earlier this week, six trucks made their way along a muddy path. They were the first of a team selected to deliver compost to 15 ranches throughout California. A small group of onlookers — people who have seen compost’s impact on carbon levels and agricultural production and believe California is on the brink of a compost boom — were excited.

“It’s a $67,000 day for me,” John Wick of the California Carbon Project told ThinkProgress. Wick and his wife, writer, illustrator, and biotech heiress Peggy Rathmann, are paying for the compost out of their own pocket. While ranchers can typically find cheaper compost, the trucks were carrying specific compost for research purposes.

Over the next year, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will use the compost to conduct tests to determine whether compost improves soil health on California’s diverse rangelands. If it does, ranchers will be able to use federal Farm Bill funding to purchase compost, in addition to anticipated state funding provided through California’s new Healthy Soils Initiative.

Wick and Rathmann, compost advocates and concerned environmentalists, wanted to help NRCS conduct the tests quickly. Waiting for the federal government to fund research may have taken years — a long time given the urgency of climate change.

Experiments have already confirmed that applying a half-inch layer of compost to grazed ranchland helps plants suck carbon out of the air and store it in the ground. Compost over less than three acres offsets the equivalent of carbon emissions from four diesel truck trips from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. It also significantly increases production and soil water holding capacity.

If compost were applied to the millions of acres of rangeland in California, the beneficial effect on carbon levels in the atmosphere, agricultural production and water conservation would be monumental. These field trials are a step in that direction.

Pouring compost on Romm Ranch in Covelo, Calif. CREDIT: John Wick
Pouring compost on Romm Ranch in Covelo, Calif. CREDIT: John Wick

The importance of the federal research isn’t limited to future Farm Bill funding, however. The tests will also provide hard evidence ranchers and farmers need to decide whether switching from their current practices to compost is the better economic choice.

“People are very willing to change practices if it’s been shown to help them,” said Jeff Borum, project coordinator for the NRCS field trials. “They need observable data. They want to smell the soil. They want to see it on ranches of people they know.”

In other words, ranchers and farmers need proof compost will help them, not just the planet. Despite California’s reputation as a deep-blue state, there are a sizable number of California farmers and ranchers who view environmentalism as a four-letter word. But if compost measurably improves their bottom line, it’s worth the change.

In that sense, the NRCS field tests appeal to ranchers of all political persuasions. In Santa Barbara County, for example, a conservative and well-respected rancher agreed to these NRCS field tests on his 8,000-acre property to see if it will help production. Other ranchers and farmers in the community will see too because the tests are being conducted in a section of the ranch visible from the road.

“Hopefully, in May when everything starts to dry up, these squares will still be green,” Anne Coates, executive director of the local Resource Conservation District, said.

Steve Kohlmann pictured at Rush Ranch in Solano County, Calif. CREDIT: Robyn Purchia
Steve Kohlmann pictured at Rush Ranch in Solano County, Calif. CREDIT: Robyn Purchia

Further north, Steve Kohlmann, stewardship director of the Solano Land Trust, applied compost to the trust’s 2,070-acre ranch in 2015. Upon very close inspection, grass in the section with compost appeared taller than grass without compost. But a scale is better at measuring results than a yardstick. Kohlmann said production increased from an average of 4,000 pounds per acre to an average of 10,000 pounds per acre in one year.

“When you look at more than doubling the [production], that’s an economic benefit,” he said. “There’s also an opportunity to apply for carbon credits and sell them.”

In California, developers can mitigate their projects’ climate change impacts by buying carbon credits from ranchers and farmers who compost. It’s another way they can make long-term income from applying compost once on their land.

These carbon credits — along with likely Farm Bill funding, anticipated state Healthy Soils Initiative funding, and a proven increase in agricultural production — all add up. Simply put, compost makes as much economic sense as it does environmental, which is why many expect to see the market boom even under a Trump administration.

“I think we are beyond any single point of failure now,” Wick said. “Farmers support these programs.”

The biggest challenge California still faces is supplying the growing demand for compost, but even that is moving in the right direction.

In August, the Legislature agreed to regulate methane emissions from landfills for the first time. This will push California communities to reduce organic waste, which emits methane when it breaks down, by increasing composting. There are also whispers that the state will streamline the permitting process for new compost facilities.

“It’s going to take a while,” said Eric Potashner, senior director of strategic affairs for Recology, a company that provides composting services to communities. “We’re looking at 2022.”

It could move faster at the local level. Some counties have expressed interest in launching composting programs even sooner that will help them meet their climate goals.

Then there’s San Francisco, where residents and businesses have rolled out their green compost bins since 2009 for companies such as Recology. Recology composts food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic matter and then sells it.

“We built a market in California for San Francisco’s compost, and that market keeps growing,” said Robert Reed, a project manager for Recology. “Seven years ago, vineyards were our biggest customer, but during the drought orchards got hit, and we began selling to them, too.”

It’s this growing market that’s getting many Californians’ attention. Yes, there will always be environmentalists with big hearts and deep pockets like Wick and Rathmann who can fund new research and spread the word about compost. But it’s the economic benefits that will actually get compost spread on California’s rangelands, while encouraging state and local governments to increase supply.

Robyn Purchia is an attorney, environmental columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, founder of EdenKeeper.org, and contributor to CleanTechnica.com. Follow her on Twitter @robynpurchia