In Prince George’s County, food scraps from local cafeterias bypass the landfill and end up next door in the Yard Waste Facility where they are combined with other materials like grass clippings and leaves and turned into compost. The compost is used for things like growing fruits and vegetables on the University of Maryland’s Terp farm.
Heaps of black compost sitting like sandcastle rows as I pulled up to the yard waste facility. When I stepped out of the car, I was surprised that the facility (52 open acres) smelled anything like it did. The sweet smell of fermenting fruits hit my nose, and for a moment, I wondered could they also be making mead at this facility too!
Maryland has owned and run the Prince George’s County Organics Composting, Yard Waste Facility, off 301 in Upper Marlboro for years. The county has an inter-government agreement with the Maryland Environmental Services to process yard waste into a sellable product most of us are familiar with, LeafGro. They started a pilot program to incorporate food scraps in the mix, adding a new product line they’re calling LeafGro Gold. This was where the sweet smell was coming from, piles of food from leftover from cafeterias and local homes, turning itself back into soil, where it once came from.
I was meeting with Steven Birchfield, site operations supervisor of food composting. Steven defined the food scraps for me (I had pondered about how inefficient must be to sort out each banana peel and corn husk)– but indeed this system goes a step further– handling meat bones, sour milk, coffee grounds, egg shells, greasy pizza boxes, and more (see a full list of acceptable materials here). The system is called, Sustainable Generation LLC SG Mini system utilizing GORE covers (read more about system specs in the link in the picture below).
Use On Farms
LeafGro takes about 8 months to process, but with the new system and the addition of food scraps that make the LeafGro Gold, there is an 8 week turnaround (including lab tests), and a reduced footprint. Steven commented that LeafGro Gold holds the soil together better and shows higher levels of Nitrogen. LeafGro Gold can be applied to vegetable and fruit fields. Read the lab analysis, listing the ph, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and more, here.
There’s gold in them thar hills
University of Maryland’s Terp Farm uses LeafGro Gold and, farmer, Guy Kilpatric, says its proven to be a superior compost for agricultural use. “The quality of the material is superb—it is super stable and has a great consistency as a soil amendment. It would be difficult for me to say exactly how much it benefits as a fertility amendment, but the contribution it provides in aiding the development of soil structure probably has a significant impact on the capacity of the soil to retain nutrients for a longer period of time, meaning we can rely less on fertilizer inputs.We use it every time we turn the beds over for the next crop. Initial soil test results showed a baseline of 2.1% organic matter, which now currently exceeds 5% in only 1.5 years. There are also indications of much higher populations of soil organisms, especially earthworms and fungi. LeafGro Gold is definitely an improvement over the regular LeafGro, and certainly has at least some increased nutritional benefits. Our high tunnel produces crops from virtually every major vegetable crop plant family and the performance has been positive across the board,” noted Guy.
“I know the product is topnotch and with a farm just up the road (Terp Farm) it’s easy for me as the composter to both see the product at work, and understand what farmers need out of the compost,” said Steven.
Once the compost is applied and crops are harvested, they find a home right back in the cafeteria where it all started. “We are closing the loop,” Allison Lily, sustainability coordinator at the University of Maryland mentioned over a phone conversation.
The group is still in the pilot phase, so they don’t produce a large volume of compost like the LeafGro side of the operation (most of the site and personnel is dedicated to LeafGro). Steven is currently the only personnel onsite dedicated to producing the Gold version. Organizations who have food scraps in plentiful supply are knocking at the door, but due to limited staffing and space, they’re on a long waiting list. Just imagine how much more food waste could be processed into healthy compost with a full facility, or unify several satellites in other counties around the state. Hopefully the conversation will continue around food waste in Maryland and addressing models like this for farmers to make use of too.
Steven mentioned that they have a wait list of buyers. See this link for a list of current retailers that regularly buy LeafGro, and sometimes receive the Gold. In closing, Steven noted, “a composters dream– a large market and a constant short supply!”