With Earth Week upon us, the University Farm wishes to offer ways in which Sewanee students and people across the community can contribute to environmental sustainability. We’d like to share methods the farm and campus use to contribute to sustainability. One technique is composting, which has had a tremendous impact since the farm adopted this method roughly six years ago.
One great thing about composting, similar to many features of sustainability, is how it benefits places and spaces away from the place where it occurs. For example, when we take food waste from McClurg Dining Hall and compost at the farm, we divert 10 tons of food annually from taking up space in landfills.
“It is a shame to put something useful in a landfill,” said Carolyn Hoagland, the University Farm manager. Carolyn’s statement inspires us to learn more about a subject that has such obvious rewards. If more people realize the benefits and accessibility of composting, landfill waste will reduce while society reaps other advantages from composting.
Composting also serves the community and the environment by recycling nutrients, saving money, and enhancing long-term soil utility. An interesting part of the process is how each of these things build off the other. That is to say, nutrient recycling leads to money conservation which presents more opportunities to focus on long term preservation. The connected and abundant benefits to composting offer compelling motivation to take up the practice.
Ultimately, the most significant benefit to composting is obtaining crop nutrients that are otherwise unavailable. Using compost as fertilizer creates a domino effect to other benefits. If this key action didn’t occur, many benefits that stem from this component would not be accessible. Obtaining natural nutrients, like those found in compost, builds the foundation for long-term soil fertility. Putting plant debris back into the soil is vital to achieving long-term soil fertility. This phenomenon occurs all the time in nature. Consider how forests fertilize their soil with leaf compost every year.
Synthetic fertilizers support plant growth, but they fail to support the microbial community in the soil which underpins fertility. For example, some farmers commonly fertilize their soil with synthetic nitrogen. This action immediately increases the amount of nitrogen in the soil; however, it also decreases the substances that naturally produce nitrogen in the soil. Therefore, while synthetic fertilization is initially cheaper and has more short-term benefits, it depreciates the long-term utility of the soil.
Not only do synthetic fertilizers harm long-term soil sustainability, but (as their title suggests) they are made in factories. Factory fertilizer synthesization reaps the same consequences as other factory production. Composting not only bypasses synthetic fertilization to increase the quality of the soil, but it bypasses consequences such as pollution that have other great consequences on our environment.
The University Farm has been trying various compost schemes for the past five to six years. Right now, McClurg Dining Hall serves as the source of the farm’s compost. The farm only composts pre-consumer fruits and vegetables. This means that the food composted at the farm has never touched a plate or been eaten from; the uneaten food comes directly from the kitchen or cafeteria lines.
The farm uses pre-consumer food because it’s safe and does not require with-holding time, which is the required time span for potential pathogen-containing soil to set before crops can be harvested from this soil. In order to increase the amount of compost the farm can process by safely composting post-consumer food, staff member and Bonner Leader student Chris Hornsby, C’18, is currently conducting a research project to incorporate black soldier fly larvae into the compost process.
Sustainability is a long-term investment and production. Just as the mushroom inoculation workshop taught us, farming is also a long-term gain. Composting simply makes sense in the world of sustainability and farming. While cheaper and easier solutions may often be at hand, the more sustainable track provides benefits including money conservation, human health, and environmental preservation (just to name a few) and continues to prove the better option.
Are you interested in composting at home? Find out how from the Cumberland Teaching Garden’s workshop material here. Check out CTG’s Facebook while you’re at it and get involved with a teaching garden to keep the benefits growing!