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A New California Law Will Create a Lot More Compost—but Will it Make it to Farmland?

Since January, new regulations in California now require all residents and businesses across the state to separate food and other organic materials from the rest of their garbage in an effort to reduce organic waste in landfills. The new law is seen as groundbreaking, a significant step in combating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, producing fuel, and creating compost that can help sequester carbon in soils.

But compost advocates say the law could make it difficult for farmers to access the so-called “brown gold” at scale, thwarting efforts to increase adoption of climate-friendly agriculture. The regulations don’t require that the newly generated compost be used on farmland, include funding for costly transportation to farms, or mandate that compost be of a quality that would make it appealing to farmers and ranchers. And because each municipality must decide how to implement the rules, there is no uniform approach that could lead to an increase in on-farm compost applications.

“Everyone is looking at California as a hopeful example. It’s a huge win to get the food scraps and green waste out of the landfills,” said Anthony Myint, executive director of Zero Foodprint, a nonprofit that distributes grants for sustainable agricultural practices. “But the regulation could also create a challenge for farmers.”

Undervalued ‘Brown Gold’ Can Increase Carbon Capture

California generates 23 million tons of organic waste every year, including 5 to 6 million tons of food waste, according to CalRecycle, the state agency overseeing the new regulations. As it decomposes in landfills, organic waste emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas with a 25 times greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. Organic waste is the third-largest source of methane emissions in the U.S.

Senate Bill 1383, which was signed into law in 2016, aimed to reduce the level of organic waste sent to landfills by 50 percent by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025—though the state has acknowledged it failed to meet the 2020 target. The newly diverted organic waste will be transformed into compost, mulch, and energy via the burning of biomass. But the state says compost will make up the bulk of the new material given that California produces limited amounts of biogas and compressed recycled natural gas (RNG).

“It’s a huge win to get the food scraps and green waste out of the landfills. But the regulation could also create a challenge for farmers.”

Compost, long used by organic growers and backyard gardeners, has in recent years become popular among mainstream farmers interested in regenerative agriculture. Several studies have shown that spreading a layer of compost on farmland and ranchland can lead to increased carbon storage, especially if the compost is coupled with cover crops. Compost also increases the water holding capacity of soils. And while compost use on urban landscapes, including in parks and school grounds, may improve soil health, applying compost to farmland has multiple co-benefits, experts say, including boosting food’s nutrient content, increasing crop yields, helping soil absorb and retain more water (which cuts irrigation costs), and reducing the need for expensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

CalRecycle estimates that about 5.5 million more tons of compost should be produced in California by 2025—enough to apply to an extra 27 million acres or up to 4 percent of the total cropland in the state. Ramping up compost production through organic waste diversion dovetails with California’s efforts to sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including improving soil health through “carbon farming.” Nearly three quarters of the agricultural projects that received grants from the state’s signature Healthy Soils Incentives Program include compost applications. But the number of funded projects—around 600 so far— is small relative to the enormous number of farms in California. Experts say expanding access to compost could help more farmers reduce emissions and put them on track to adopt other sustainable practices.

A Norcal Waste Systems truck drops a load of compostable material at a transfer station in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We have an impetus to try to build bridges between compost producers, generators, and farmers. Getting compost to agricultural land is a critical part of closing the loop,” said Neil Edgar, executive director of the California Compost Coalition, a statewide lobbying group.

Some cities in Northern California, such as San Francisco, have run food waste diversion programs for years and already have robust compost markets and relationships with local composting companies. But many other cities and counties—particularly in the southern part of the state, where most residents live—are scrambling to accommodate the new law. While some existing waste-processing facilities will expand, several dozen facilities still need to be permitted and built around the state. Meanwhile, fines for failing to separate out food and other organic waste from garbage bound for the landfill are set to go into effect in 2024.

The new regulations also require that cities and counties purchase a certain amount of compost and other products made from recycled organic waste every year—based on the jurisdiction’s population size—and either use it or give it away to residents for free. Localities can procure and distribute the products anywhere in the state. But the regulations do not specify who should receive the compost, where, or how to pay for the transport and spreading costs.

Will Farmers Get More Compost?

About half of what California composters currently produce is compost, and they sell 65 percent of their compost to the agriculture industry, according to a report commissioned by CalRecycle. The market is tight, with agriculture-quality compost in very high demand, especially in areas with access to composting facilities, transportation, and spreading services, said Cole Smith, a staff research associate with the University of California.

Still, for many other farmers, the cost of compost—and that of transporting and spreading it, which often double the price for farmers—is prohibitive, Smith said. While some small and medium farms do use it, their budgets don’t allow them to do so every year, the interval that would be optimal for their soil and for the environment. When money gets tight, Smith said, compost applications are among the first practices to go. Growers of high-value fruit, vegetables, and cannabis tend to rely more on compost, Smith said, because they can afford it.

“Yes, we want to bring organic waste out of landfill and reduce landfill emissions. But growers . . . think you want to use their fields as a disposal [site].”

But by far the biggest challenges are contamination and convincing farmers to use compost in the first place, Smith said. Many will use it from agricultural, on-farm waste but avoid urban-generated compost. The distrust is partly linked to California’s history of direct farmland applications of green waste without composting, said Smith. Similarly, it echoes a decade-old controversy over a San Francisco program that aimed to transform human waste into backyard compost. The distrust is also a direct result of farmers receiving badly contaminated compost batches.

“Yes, we want to bring organic waste out of landfill and reduce landfill emissions. But when growers hear that, they think it has hit the plate, then the trash, and now you want to use their fields as a disposal [site],” said Smith.

Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, a 400-acre diversified operation in northern California, said he stopped using urban compost several years ago.

“The compost we were getting had a good deal of foreign material in it . . . there was glass, plastic, forks, and bits of non-carbon material that we ended up spreading on our fields,” Muller said. “We were concerned about microplastics and also about handling safety for our crew if small bits of glass were spread around.”

Muller also said since compost quality is poorly defined in the state, the material was often “pretty raw,” meaning it had to break down in the fields.

Trucks deliver fresh compost from food waste to Tresch Family Farms in California. (Photo courtesy of Zero Foodprint)

Trucks deliver fresh compost from food waste to Tresch Family Farms in California. (Photo courtesy of Zero Foodprint)

Smith has been working to build trust and communication between compost facilities and growers. Part of that work is teaching farmers how to assess compost for quality before it’s delivered or spread on the fields. Smith is also working with Edgar of the California Compost Coalition to run workshops for farmers on how compost can improve soil, boost productivity, and help fulfill the state’s climate goals. The two hope for more funding to continue similar outreach to farmers across the state. But all of those efforts, Smith said, are dependent on local governments teaching their residents how to effectively sort their trash.

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