It is like turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Participants in the LSU Agricultural Center’s semiannual compost facility operator training school learn to transform garbage into something valued by society.
“By using compost on some drought-prone cotton fields in northeast Louisiana, we nearly doubled yields,” said Gary Breitenbeck, agronomist and one of the school’s teachers, citing one example of the beneficial effects of compost.
The week-long school, which includes classroom instruction and hands-on compost creating, can handle about 25 students.
“We get students from all over,” said Bill Carney, environmental education specialist and coordinator of the course, which began in 1994. “We had people come from Israel a couple of years ago.”
The course includes intensive training in the chemistry and biology of making compost. Students learn by donning hard hats and safety goggles and digging into compost piles at the LSU Ag Center’s composting facility.
“The school is definitely hands on,” Breitenbeck said. Under a tent at the facility, he sets up a mini chemistry lab and teaches the students to use various instruments and measure oxygen, moisture content and other important compost features.
He divides the group into teams that must compete to see who can build the best compost pile and correctly find different characteristics in the compost piles already there. For example, they need to find the pile with three times more carbon dioxide than oxygen and the pile with the highest acidic content.
“This helps them learn and makes the school worthwhile,” he said. Rhonda Sherman-Huntoon, an extension specialist from North Carolina State University in Raleigh and one of the students, agrees. She helps teach a similar course there, though not as intensive.
“I came here to learn because of the reputation of the school,” she said. “This school has more field work than others.” The city of Lafayette, La., has sent representatives to six of the schools, which are now held both spring and fall.
“That city is very progressive with its waste management program,” Carney said. “We’ve trained everybody on the staff. Their compost facility has saved the city about $2.5 million so far.”
Military units and prisons send employees to the school on a regular basis, too. “Army posts and prisons are like communities,” Carney said. “They have to learn how to deal with their waste.”
Employees at an Air Force base in Alabama reported back to Carney that they had won that state’s best compost facility award for 1995. They had attended the school the year before.