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    A Big Pile of.....Compost.

    I recently tweeted about a Blog Entry from another site that discussed organic food production in the context of Global Warming. If you don't like that term, use Climate Change.

    The entry provides a data based position vs. emotional. I am all for that. My signature on personal emails ends with this quote by Roger Brenner (economist), The sum of anecdotes is not data. Here, here Mr. Brenner.

    A twitter friend of mine, Joya (@kubileya) read that entry and replied back as follows:

    @natejtaylor Of course you like the article. Seems flawed to me. Proper aerobic composting does not produce methane, tmk. Anaerobic does. ??
    @natejtaylor Ah, I see. IPCC study cited by Savage looks @ swine&dairy CAFO manure emissions. That, my friend, is *conventional* ag problem
    @kubileya why would you say" of course you like the article?" Why do you think I like it?
    @natejtaylor B/c you like to be contrary and argumentative. And you like to poke ProFood. :-)
    @natejtaylor It bothers me that his data for assessing organic emissions is founded on a study on CAFO manure systems. That aint sustainable
    @natejtaylor And it aint true organic- not one ProFood advocate I know wd consider that acceptable, no matter what USDuh regs say
    @natejtaylor Seems he's setting up a straw man argument. Do you have data on methane from aerobic v. anaerobic composting?

    I place the above interaction (yes I am aware of the redundancy, but just in case non-twitter users read this...wait is there such a thing?..I digress). in this post for 3 reasons:

    1.) To say thanks to Joya for taking the time to not only read the blog, but actually provide some feedback. I truly appreciate that. We must continue our interactions.
    2.) So the readers will have a little background
    3.) To acknowledge Joys'a point about poking Profood. I may be a tad guilty of that. But hey, it gets us talking about agriculture!

    Now, as for the IPCC study. I read through it also and it actually breaks out the classes of livestock by region. Almost all regions had grazing with North America having more livestock finished in a feedlot. And certainly CAFO's were included in the study.

    What I would like is to open this up to a discussion, specifically around composting and fertilization of cropland.

    Let's talk a little bit about composting; I say little because I am a neophyte when it comes to the chemistry and science involved. There are two types of compost as mentioned in the above tweets, aerobic and anaerobic. Each has positives and negatives.


    Aerobic compost creatures gets its name for the Greek word for air, meaning these little creatures need air to carry on their work. While they are busy working, heat is generated. This heat is what kills off the weed seeds and germs in the pile. Since they need air, the compost pile requires a great deal of work to keep the process moving. This means that it is labor intensive. Depending on how quickly the compost is needed will determine how many times you have to turn the pile over, re-wet it, and cover it up again for decomposition to continue. You will know when the compost can be left to mature when after returning the pile little heat is generated. This means the carbon has been converted to CO2 and the nitrogen into nitrates and ammonia. One of the biggest benefits to this type of composting method is that no methane is produced, IF handled "properly". As we all know, this is beneficial to the environment as methane is a GHG.


    Anaerobic compost creatures do not like air. Once you wet the pile and cover it, you just let it sit. At first the aerobic organisms will go to town; however, once they use all the available air, they die and the anaerobic organisms are formed and begin their work. This type is less labor intensive. Anaerobic composting takes a bit longer to "mature" before it can be used as a fertilizer so this usually requires more space as the piles need to sit longer. This type of compost will usually have an overabundance of Nitrogen, thus causing that awesome smell we all know and love. A big drawback to this type of composting is the methane gas that is created. Consequently, this impacts the climate negatively as methane is a GHG.

    As the author of the blog post stated, methane gas was created with all composting methods. The data he provided was based on composting with 8 "turns" in a 99 day composting period. Does this mean that "proper" aerobic composting procedures were not followed? If so, what should be done?

    Joya made a good point in terms of CAFO's. Not all are sustainable when the practices are BAD. My counterparts in the #ag industry will not stand for such practices. It gives us all a bad rap and further works to alienate consumers and producers.

    Crop production needs fertilizer, and the data shows that compost alone does not provide the amount needed, thus crop rotation with Legumes or other Nitrogen producing crops. Do we forgo any synthetic fertilizer or just create more compost? Can the issue be solved with better crop rotation? How about a bio-dynamic system?

    So where does this leave us? I don't rightly know actually. If #organic food production, as one of my other twitter friends stated, "requires allot of shit", where are we going to get it from? Fish? Cows? Chickens? Do we have enough land/pasture to "house" all these animals to create enough manure? How about the infrastructure? And is it truly sustainable in the context of climate change to transport all this compost? Maybe we need more commercial composting businesses opening up and creating a regional based supply chain? I would be in favor of that.

    In the mean time, "conventional" agriculture is going to continue to progress. Science, technology, and advanced communications are going to leveraged to the hilt to further reduce the dependence and usage of  fossil fuel based inputs. If you think agriculture has changed over the last 20 years, you ain't seen nothing yet!

    I open the floor to ideas, points/counterpoints about composting, anything really. There is no 1 right answer. So let me know and stay tuned for a deeper dive into manure handling and management.


    1. Although I still take issue with Mr. Savage's article and the study it is based on, I'll dig into the composting bit a little. Handled properly, an aerobic composting process will not produce methane since, as you have pointed out, the microorganisms that produce the gas can not survive or thrive in an oxygenated environment. Keeping the pile in proper balance requires an excellent understanding of the biology behind the process and careful monitoring of moisture, a balance of carboniferous materials and proper aeration. Methane production can only occur in an otherwise aerobically handled compost pile if it is not properly managed. It is obvious that the Canadian company had just such a problem.

      Which brings up a good point. As in most things, there are good practices and bad. Certainly, methane production from improperly composted materials should be addressed when it occurs and composting should be treated as the biological science that it is, not as some haphazard voodoo mumbo-jumbo. But, it is falacy to apply the practices of one company in Canada to all composting operations and assume that compost is going to drive us deeper into climate change (what is it y'all always say about a 'broad brush?'). We should seek to make sure that all composting operations are using the best possible practices, but we certainly should not abandon it or abandon organic agriculture as Mr. Savage seems to suggest.

      To put compost methane emissions into perspective, here's the EPA's take on the largest anthropomorphic producers

      You'll notice that composting is quite far down the list. Manure management is pretty high up there, and this is another issue I took with Mr. Savage's article-- he included manure storage before composting as part of his calculation of methane emissions from organic agriculture. The lagoons and where this CAFO manure is stored is *not* a problem associated with organic agriculture. It is a direct result of the industrialization of animal production and would simply not exist or proponents of organic agriculture had their way.

    1. Joya,

      As always, good stuff...

      I totally agree - Agriculture is a science and composting certainly fits into that category.

      I have been to large composting facilities in CA. If we are to take what almost anyone states about composting and methane production, then those HUGE piles would need to be turned, allot. I am trying to find a document (had to stop looking today as work got busy) that states how often and what effect takes place based on the turning interval.

      This is probably no small feat to maintain a proper "pile turning ratio". Is there any commercial compost gurus out there? I would like to hear from you.

      I do agree that manure storage is not on the feet of organic agriculture, unless livestock is involved; however, where do you think we are going to get the manure from? I am not defending a CAFO if it has bad practices, not by any stretch; however, would we not have the same manure management issues regardless of where the crap comes from?

      Thanks again Joya. I hope your day working outside was fruitful, especially if it was in a storm.


    1. Great question, Nate. To answer, the system needs to be addressed holistically, not piecemeal as most arguments tend to do. Most comparisons of conventional and organic ag attempt a one to one comparison as if a change to organic would be based on the same model, same crops, same methods-- only without chemical pesticides or fertilizer. But that's just not the vision most sustainable/organic food advocates have in mind.

      So, where would the manure come from? First, in an ideal vision, livestock would be pasture based, grazing on well-managed perennial polyculture pastures. Their manure serves to fertilize their food source. When compared to the current, nitrogen-intensive corn based diet of almost all livestock, total fertilizer needs plummet because the fertilizer needed to grow that grain (more than half of US production) is eliminated.

      Of course, fertilizer for row crops will be needed (albeit in smaller amounts than needed today). One interesting model to look at is Argentina's 8-yr livestock-crop rotation in which five years of cattle and polyculture pasture provide enough fertility to the soil for 3 years of row crops (detailed under Soil Fertility here: )Another model is the collection of municipal waste for composting (aerobic, of course ;-) ) which not only serves the purpose of providing fertilizer, but also helps limit methane emissions from landfills (where organic waste decomposes anaerobically). Yet another model is the smallholder (like myself) using a closed-loop farming system where the crop and livestock balance on-farm negates the need for external inputs (this seems to be a model that would also scale up well). This is an issue where creativity and ingenuity need to be applied.

      Now I know your next question is how do we raise the billions of animals we currently do on pasture alone. And the answer is: we don't. I have a link to a study somewhere that just came out in the last few days (need to search for it) that finds pasture-based livestock systems can support us through the coming population boom- but only if meat consumption is reduced to 3x/week. I know that will ruffle a lot of feathers in the "freedom of choice" camp but I don't care. The health and well-being of not just one society, but the world at large trumps the American attitude of entitlement toward their Quarter Pounders and Big Macs.

      So, that's my rant in a nutshell, so I'll step off the soapbox now. :-)

    1. Here is a link to the US composting council's resources page. They have a primer on greenhouse gases for producers.

    1. Great conversation you guys! For anyone interested in the sort of wholistic thinking that is involved I reccommend not only reading sustainable ag people - but Paul Hawken on Natural Capitalism, Janine Benyus on Biomimicry and William McDonough's GREAT design book- Cradle to Cradle.

      EVERY industry is going through this process and these are the best thinkers out there on the topic. The companies ( and family farms) that get it, will survive. The rest will fall away under the unsustainable burden of the cost of the inputs they now rely on being cheap and plentiful.

      It is so frustrating that people act as if they are being attacked. I was thinking about it today and would like to reframe the discussion. It's as if we are watching a beloved family member run towards a cliff. There is no indication that they see the cliff, that they are slowing down or adjusting their behavior - they just keep heading toward the cliff... We yell stop! There's a cliff!"

      They scream back - "Why are you attacking ME!!?"

      It's a nonsensical response.

      Is it an attack to try to stop a beloved from running off a cliff? Does it indicate that I feel anything but concern?

    1. Greetings Duane,

      Many thanks for the link. I will be reading much more about this. I made a similar statement about GHG's that the Council did; GHG's are generated with composting; however, with good practices, they are presumably reduced.

      In the last statement of the pdf on GHG and composting it states: "The actual benefits of a specific facility or system will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis."

      This is a good, constructive discussion. Thanks for taking part and providing information.

    1. Joya,

      My apologies it has taken a few days to respond to your post.

      I agree with a total system approach when looking at solutions. You state that

      " if a change to organic would be based on the same model, same crops, same methods--only without chemical pesticides or fertilizer."

      I have been trying to make this same point in the ag debates I have been involved in. It is my view that many of the positions held that believe conventional ag is unsustainable, assume that ag, as an industry, is static and that conventional farmers do not want to change. That just isn't true. I am fully aware of the issues we face, which is why I support agriculture (conventional, organic, CSA, local/regional food based ag/economies, bio-dynamic, polyculture, etc..) as a whole, as there just isn't one approach that serves as a magic silver bullet.

      I also believe that there are technological advancements (besides GMO) that haven't been realized yet that can be real game changers. Naturally, these advancement can be used by any farmer, whether organic or conventional.

      You also mention the small-holder closed loop and that is should scale up well. My answer to that is maybe. Once you start thinking about scaling, the discussion becomes "how to we economically grow the business?" At what point will mechanization get introduced to manage the scaling up? Or do you propose we scale it out only to a certain point to support a region of a certain size? This is where the complexity really starts kicking in for me.

      I would really like to read that study on meat if you don't mind sharing.

      Thanks again for reading and responding. Good discussion.


    1. Interesting debates. One thing I would like to comment on is something I have heard before, that there isn't enough land to raise only grass fed beef. With a lot of family ranches being sold and taken out of production, this is beginning to be true, but not because there isn't enough land. A lot of these new ranch owners believe that grazing is bad. The misconception is that people see only overgrazing and no grazing. In between there is a happy medium. Grazing in a holistic way is the best thing we can do as land stewards. Grass evolved under grazing pressure and will die if not cut. The key is to not let it be bit off repeatedly. That also kills it. The livestock need to be moved regularly to let the grazed areas recover, like the huge migrating herds that roamed this continent before white people and fences. There were far more buffalo then there are cattle now.

      Another thing, there seemed to be no overload of CO2 back then. At least I have never heard of buffalo trying to figure out what to do with all their poop to keep the environment healthy. Plants need CO2 to grow. Greenhouse growers actually enrich these artificial environments with CO2!?? Being a heavier gas, meaning it stays lower to the ground instead of going directly to the atmosphere, it seems to me it should be helping re-green the planet as opposed to contributing to desertification as chemical fertilizers are doing.
      Isn't the definition of pollution large concentrations of a substance that then begins to act as a poison, as in feedlots ? Get the manure back out onto the soil so it can fertilize as it was intended.
      When I look at all the misinformation, the only conclusion I can reach is that CO2 is being used as another tactic to keep people divided. Is there really a problem?

    1. very nice dear, keep it up :)

    1. What about the fact that agriculture only accounts for 12-16% of total green house gas emissions? Seems to me like we are fighting over percentages of a penny when we talk about methane production of a compost pile.

      Many of the industrial sectors have been asked to cut emissions, but this is not even close to being half the battle. How much mandated reduction is the commercial sector facing? I don't see starbucks rolling out its plan to reduce GHG emissions to 1990 levels. Oh yeah, what about cuts to the residential - how come people who commute 1+ hours dont pay more than the guy who commutes 10 minutes (Besides in fuel consumption)? A longer commute means more GHG.

      I find the current policy very anti-farmer. I am sure one day a farmer with enough money and courage will take it to the supreme court under the grounds of discrimination. Until then, we will continue to see fewer and fewer farmers - if 2% is not low enough.

      Anybody pro-farming would realize the ludicrous requirements that agriculture will be required to meet. Agriculture is a primary industry, it is a necessary industry. I rather see people drive 15% less (which will reduce total GHG emissions about the same amount as all of these policies combined) than see another farmer put his land up on the auction block.

      Remember "sustainable" agriculture also means being able to make a healthy living when operating a farm...

    1. Hi, I'm Steve Savage, the agricultural scientist mentioned in the blog. This was an interesting discussion. I refrained from commenting early to see what issues would be raised. Basically, nitrogen fertilization is a MAJOR sustainability challenge for agriculture no matter how you do it. The GHG emissions from composting are quite real, but as small as Organic is (and how small it is likely to remain) this issue is only a reason to look for other solutions for the other 99% of farming.

      There are a number of things that can be done depending on the crop and the specific situation (soil type, crop, weather, irrigation/rain fed). Too much to go into here, but described in some of my blogs.

      My only point in raising this whole issue was to point out that a naive, "just grow everything Organically" approach is not "the answer." We need the "answer" and I'm happy to say that there are a lot of folks who have been working on it for a long time.

    1. Steve,

      Many thanks for reading and responding to this post. I appreciate it.

      I could not agree more in regards to just grow organic and the problems we face will be solved.

      Let's hope that one day we all realize that it isn't a duel between conventional, organic, permaculture, biodynamic, etc, but rather a community effort.

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    Agriculture passionado! I lead GeoVantage's Sales, Marketing, and Business Development activities. If you haven't explored the benefit of remote sensing for production agriculture, now is the time! Not one to rest, I am also a part of the Memes Associates team where we focus on assisting large companies in the agriculture space to "re-discover their inner entrepreneur" through the introduction of market disrupting technology(s) and services.  

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