Still wooing only low-end compost markets?

Years ago, when composting as a service was still in its infancy, “compost markets” could be summed up by one word – agriculture.  It seemed the logical market for a product that, admittedly, was not always top quality and needed to be used far away from sensitive noses.

Farmers appreciated this free or low-priced amendment that boosted yields, lowered input costs, and increased profits.

Fortunately, the composting industry has matured.  Many facilities are now turning out high quality product.  But there may still be too much marketing (and public policymaking) energy devoted to agriculture when much more lucrative sales opportunities are ignored.  Yet these soil-centric markets are in dire need of compost, too.

It’s not just for farmers anymore

Despite industry efforts to spread the word about compost use beyond the farm, there still seem to be too many people in high places (a.k.a. senior managers and other decision-makers) who don’t understand what compost can do for urban and suburban soils.

And if the composter doesn’t keep hacking through the jungle of the Compost Clueless, no one else is going to grasp the wide range of applications for this product, either.

In the US, there are about 250 million crop acres.  But the number one irrigated “crop” is not corn or wheat.  In fact, it’s not even farm grown or included in that acreage number.

Across America spread 40 million acres of watered grass covering suburban lawns, golf courses, parks, and other greenspaces.

That’s approximately 2% of the continental land mass and an area about the size of the state of Florida.

Each of those acres would require far fewer irrigation gallons each season if there were some compost under foot.

But wait, there’s more

And let’s not forget the millions of non-irrigated acres of –

  • Roadsides – over 4 million miles of public highways in the US.  If we calculate just a minimum 10 feet x two shoulders for each of those miles, we arrive at 9.7 million acres.  That number certainly represents a conservative estimate since it does not take into account the wider greenspaces along interstates and other main thoroughfares, rest areas, vegetated medians, etc.
  • Lawns – about 10 million acres of them in the US (includes irrigated acres).
  • Parks – 84 million acres of national parks, 14 million acres of state parks,  11.5 million acres in city parks.  Rough estimate: 110 million acres.  We couldn’t find an average acreage number for county parks, but there must be a lot of them.  Admittedly, some parkland is water or rock, not trees, turfgrass, planting beds, or other candidates for compost application.
  • Athletic fields – 700,000 averaging roughly 1.4 acres per playing surface for an additional 980,000 acres.

By the time we add in other unknown green acres like churches, hospitals, schools, and business park campuses, the potential of these markets promises to rival or surpass agriculture in both total acreage and revenue potential.

These are all markets that take pride in the quality of their respective green spaces.  They value and are willing to pay for products that deliver results.  And every square foot and acre under management will look and perform better when that soil is amended with compost.

Time for a broader focus for compost markets

By taking in the big picture, it becomes clear that at least some of the organic waste stream should stay where it was generated – in the urban area. 

When 80 percent of the population is urban, and both the number of farms and farm acreage shrinks a little more each year, does it really make sense to expect agriculture to manage and absorb what could become billions of tons of compostable waste from cities?

Managing the bulk of organic waste where it is generated would not deprive agriculture of composting feedstocks.  In fact, some agricultural regions are already dealing with more farm generated organic waste than they can successfully handle without raising environmental red flags.

Manure and effluent, bedding, spoiled feed and hay, harvest waste – it’s all compostable.

Currently, most livestock mortality is incinerated, buried, or rendered.  Couldn’t some of that waste be diverted to composting, too?  

Urban compost markets are the future

By throwing emerging compost markets like urban gardens, rain gardens, green roofs, and vertical farms into the greenspace mix, compost manufacturers have ample opportunity to expand distribution channels.  They can do it without schlepping feedstocks out to remote farming communities for composting and then trucking it all back to town for end use. 

The positive impact on transportation costs and greenhouse gas generation cannot be ignored, either.

But fair warning:  Close-to-the-city composting for high volumes of food waste and other challenging streams does require thoughtful siting, secure processing environments, and active process management.  

Top dollar sales depend on high product quality and sophisticated marketing efforts.  Low quality product, a stack of flyers, and a sign on the gate just aren’t going to cut it when you’re trying to slice yourself a piece of a multi-billion dollar pie.

Compost has many uses.  Agriculture is certainly one of them.  But so is stormwater management and turfgrass management and long-term carbon storage.

Farmers will continue to be important customers for compost products.  But they needn’t be your one and only.

Don’t put an artificial cap on revenue potential by restricting your operation to the production and sale of agricultural products.