Linda F. Benedict, Carney, Jr., William A.
Disposal of solid waste is a growing concern to municipal officials and corporate managers, and in some sections of the country, critical. As the population grows and industrial production increases, so does waste. At the same time, disposal costs have increased, often dramatically, because of increased regulation and centralization of waste disposal sites.
Taking materials from urban and rural sources, such as sewage sludge, yard waste, the organic part of municipal solid waste, the byproducts of agricultural and seafood processing waste, and adding them to the soil makes good economic and environmental sense. These solid wastes often require treatment or processing, such as composting, to make them safe before use.
Because of this concern, the LSU Agricultural Center’s Organic Recycling Facility was established and the Compost Facility Operator Training course was begun in 1994. This semiannual course has become the foremost school of its type in the country. The school has attracted students from 29 states and foreign countries. Having a facility has enabled the LSU Ag Center to conduct research and training programs in such areas as the composting of seafood wastes and cotton gin trash; bioremediation of contaminated soils; use of shredded rubber tires in ornamental horticulture; compost use on sugarcane, ornamentals, strawberries and tomatoes; biological suppression of plant disease; and production of pathogen-free sewage sludge compost for use in wetlands restoration.
Compost is a humus material created when waste products, such as tree limbs and leaves, grass clippings, sugarcane bagasse, rice hulls, cotton gin trash, sewage sludge and fish and animal wastes, break down or decompose.
The Compost Facility Operator Training course, which lasts for four and a half days, includes field demonstrations, compost biology, microorganisms of composting, compostable materials, systems, mixing and recipes, material preparation and handling, facility safety, managing the process, quality and standards, marketing and economics, lab operations, regulations, odor control, sampling and testing techniques. Instructors include personnel with the LSU Ag Center’s educational and research branches, the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service and the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station, and compost industry professionals.
The original intent of the course was to help compost facility operators become certified, a requirement for all facility operators in Louisiana since 1997. But the course now also attracts students interested in learning compost facility operation, whether they seek certification or not. About150 have taken the course, and demand for instruction is greater than can be accommodated. In addition, the LSU Ag Center compost facility is being considered for pilot testing of national compost standards. The training facility is being expanded to a new 8-acre site near the present facility.
Perry Davies, an environmental management consultant from Karmei Yossef, Israel, and alumnus of the course, learned about it through the Internet. Several companies in Israel areinterested in compost facility operation. He said the course made his trip to the United States worthwhile.
“If you’re in a real-life situation and you’re managing a (compost) facility, you’re doing things intuitively a lot of the time,” Davies said. “This course offers a rigid and clear-cut procedure and good reasoning for why you’re doing things. It helps you achieve the goals and aims you want to achieve.”
Students learn about the science of composting, sampling, testing, facility operation, regulations and, now, marketing. Theda Kittrell took the course to learn more about producing compost as a commercial opportunity. She and her husband are beef cattle producers in Madisonville, La.
“In terms of operations, I’ve learned the really critical process variables that have to be managed,” she said. “In terms of money, I’ve learned important rules of thumb and little tips on how to set up the operation so that I don’t lose money.”
Kittrell said one of the first things she would do when she returned home was to write a business plan for a commercial compost facility. She considered the cost of the course an investment in a business opportunity.
“If you’re going to do this, you need to be here, because they teach you so many things in a concentrated week that you could spend months and months and months trying to get on your own,” Kittrell said.
Using products traditionally considered as waste to create useful compost has created a bright future for this new industry, said Anita Peterson of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality’s Solid Waste Division in Baton Rouge. Peterson took the course and learned more about the chemistry involved in creating compost. She says creating compost from waste has advantages.
“It keeps things out of the landfill,” Peterson said. “As everyone knows, we’re running out of landfill space.” The product that is created through composting is helpful to farmers and home gardeners, she added.
One of the instructors is Phil Leege, a retired senior engineer in composting for the Procter & Gamble Co. Leege also is chair of the Standards and Practices Committee of the U.S. Composting Council. There are some 3,500 composting facilities in the United States, and many are not able to produce a quality product. They can learn how to do that at the LSU Agricultural Center, Leege said. The addition of a course component on market development and compost uses is new and helpful, he said.
“We’ve been concentrating on producing compost,” Leege said. “Now we need to understand the users of it so that we understand their needs and are able to focus our production based on specific customer needs.”
What makes the LSU Ag Center’s course strong is the classroom instruction combined with field applications, Leege said. He called it “one of the strongest programs around.”
(This article was published in the spring 1999 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
Bill Carney, Extension Associate, Environmental Programs, LSU Agricultural Center, Baton Rouge, La.