What if the world’s soil runs out?  Time/World explored this question in a “what if” interview about soil quality.

The subject? Seismic implications of soil erosion and degradation.  The focus? The quality of soil related to water conservation, food production, and other degradation impacts.

But a referenced study was even more thought-provoking.  It said between 1961 and 2003, 42% of observed sea-level rise could be linked to groundwater extraction.  Water from irrigation and other groundwater uses eventually flows to the rivers and streams.  These waterways feed the oceans.

Runoff is an indicator of depleted soil.

Rebuilding soil organic matter reduces water consumption,  stormwater runoff, and pollutant loads.  It cuts the use of agricultural chemicals, too.

Even issues not normally linked to compost use, like energy consumption, can improve.


art-pencil-apple-dividerWhen it comes to diverting food waste , there’s still a long row to hoe.

North Carolina released a 2012 study revealing an annual food waste generation rate of over a million tons in the state.  The volume represented at least 12 percent of NC’s municipal solid waste stream. It was slightly lower than the U.S. as a whole, which was around 14 percent in 2010.

As a nation, we’ve made solid progress in recycling some materials.  But food waste isn’t one of them.  The national food waste recovery/recycling rate is only around 3 percent.  What remains — 33 million tons — goes to landfills and incinerators.   North Carolina is doing a bit better than that.  It diverts about 60,000 of those 1 million-plus tons generated or about 6 percent.  But that still puts 94 percent into the disposal stream.

Scott Mouw, North Carolina’s recycling program director, calls food waste “the next frontier for reducing landfill dependence.”  We say it’s that and more.  Food waste, when composted and used as a soil amendment, is a key to reducing stormwater volumes and related pollution.  Its use cuts dependence on chemicals and foreign oil, saves water, and so much more.

Landfills and WTE — diverting food waste?

Burning and burying resources are wasteful and environmentally-unfriendly practices.  Plus, these types of disposal can be more expensive than recycling systems with composting as the core technology.

It’s time to abandon the exuberantly wasteful practices and technologies of the old century and get on with the new.  Building a modern waste management infrastructure is both environmentally and economically responsible.

Gary's lawn grows greener with compost

Gary’s lawn grows greener with compost

It has been seven years since we built our new home here in North Carolina, arriving from Maryland excited about the opportunity to create a beautiful lawn to complement our beautiful home.

Well, after our initial year of very hot weather, which caused the wonderful lush sod the contractor had installed to become dry and sparse, I found out how challenging it is to maintain a lawn of cool season grass in the south.

I asked  the contractor why my lawn had so many bare spots.  He said fescue does not spread to fill in bare spots and it requires a lot of water to establish roots.

So after three summers of extreme heat and drought wreaking havoc on my lawn, I began with the “tried and true” method of applying fertilizer, lime, and various other chemicals in an attempt to rejuvenate the fescue.  Four years later, I was still filling in spots that did not want to grow grass in an effort to develop that nice, lush lawn all “do-it-yourselfers” strive for.

It became apparent that applying various fertilizers and way more water — which cost more than I ever imagined — was not providing the results I wanted.

After joining the McGill team last year, I attended seminars about the use of compost on turfgrass to build the organic matter in soils, helping turfgrass establish deep root systems with limited or no chemicals.  I became excited when speaking with our many customers and hearing their success stories, with one landscaper stating: “McGill SoilBuilder compost grows grass on concrete.”  Now,  I didn’t believe our product was that impressive, but I couldn’t wait to find out for myself.

Getting the lawn of our dreams

After convincing my wife that I had not given up turning our lawn into the green gem of our dreams, I ordered a load of our compost and, with her help, spent an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in early March spreading the compost with nothing but a shovel, wheelbarrow, and rake.

I had rented a lawn plug aerator the weekend before to prep the yard by opening small plug holes that would be filled with the compost.  After we spread our wonderfully screened and easy-to-handle compost, I over-seeded the following day and watered in, as directed.

We have obtained the results that I have been striving for the past seven years — without the use of harmful chemicals.  I had great germination results with the seeding and the turfgrass has greened up amazingly, but the main thing I have been working to achieve — to establish a thick root system — is now reality.

I am looking forward to the water savings that compost has been shown to provide (25-50 percent less water use, according to the research).  I feel much more comfortable not having to add various chemicals, because compost provides slow release of nutrients for years of benefit.  And if we ever build another home, I now know that applying a thin layer of topsoil does nothing to prepare the soil for growing a good stand of turfgrass.  Instead, to get the beautiful lawn we want, we’ll add a couple inches of compost BEFORE we lay sod or seed to add organic matter and build healthier soil.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  When he’s not concentrating on his lawn, Gary works as McGill’s compost sales and marketing manager for its U.S. operations.

Manure vs. compost — which is the better choice?   Here are a couple of clues:

  1. The best thing about raw manure or poultry litter? It’s free.
  2. The best thing about compost? It works.

Here’s why:

  • Organic material (OM) is added to soils through manure decomposition.  But the amount is about equal to the amount of organic matter lost through natural processes. That’s why you may see no rise in field OM even after years of manure applications.  Compost adds stable organic matter.
  • Compost is a concentrate.  The amount of compost required is much less than the amount of manure required.  This helps to cut total number of trips over the field.
  • Compost keeps water and fertilizers at the root zone, mitigating fertilizer leaching, erosion and topsoil loss.
  • The natural microbial activity of compost does lots of good things for soil which, in turn, does good things for plants. Researchers report improved nutrient uptake and resistance to pests and diseases.
  • Compost is best for pasture and hay fields where raw manure applications can reinfect livestock with internal parasites, bacteria and viruses. Compost may be more palatable to grazing horses than untreated manure.

In the compost vs. manure debate, compost is the clear winner.

Learn how quality compost is manufactured

Wow.  It’s been 20 years.

When Jim McGill decided he was ready to give up his environmental consulting business and go build a composting business, I was the lucky guy he invited along on the trip without a roadmap.  My background in agricultural science gave me an appreciation for the power of microbes, but converting that first batch of poultry litter into a product converted me into a believer in the power of composting.

As the business has grown, I have been replaced in every position by someone who is better at the job than me.  Now I find myself in the position of president — the only position left — and there is nowhere I would rather be.  Today, I have the pleasure of working with a wonderful team of people doing something we all know makes a difference.  While there is the occasional problem which requires my attention, my energies are now overwhelmingly focused on opportunities for improvement and growth.

If there is one thing that occupies my focus, it is the tantalizing opportunity for compost to solve real and present environmental problems.  Of all the great benefits of compost,  its potential to replenish soil organic matter is what it’s all about.  Without topsoil, we have no future.  Taking all the world’s biodegradable materials, composting them and returning the organic matter to the soil is not the best option – it is the only option.  How to achieve that goal is what I think about most days.

At McGill, I have the pleasure of leading a team that creates opportunities for everyone to contribute to the restoration of the earth’s topsoil.  We work with Fortune 500 companies, farmers, major municipalities and small towns, landscape architects, engineers, construction companies, the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation and erosion control companies, to name but a few.  Though each may have different immediate objectives, they all – through composting – contribute to a more sustainable future, both economically and environmentally.

Section 2(d) of Executive Order 13514 establishes a 20 percent water reduction goal for federal agencies by fiscal year (FY) 2020 relative to baseline use (FY2010).

A reported 87 percent of all water consumed in the U.S. is utilized for irrigation, with “consumed” meaning no longer available for other purposes. An estimated 80 percent of consumptive use is by agriculture, as much as 90 percent in the western states.

Whether at home, in the landscape or on-farm, more efficient irrigation systems, moisture monitoring and other best management practices (BMPs) for water management are certainly important conservation tools. But compost use has been proven to reduce water consumption by 30 to 50 percent, because as organic matter (OM) content of soil goes up, water use goes down.  Optimum recommended OM content is 5 percent.

Compost is 40-50 percent organic matter and a better choice than either raw manure or peat moss to replenish and maintain OM at ideal levels.

For the typical 5,000 sq. ft. lawn, bringing soil OM content up 5 percent saves about 9,400 gallons of water a year. In the U.S., a national policy supporting a 5 percent increase in organic matter content just for single family detached homes (91+ million) would save about 855 billion gallons a year.

That’s the approximate volume the Mississippi River dumps into the Gulf of Mexico every three days and would be enough to water all the golf courses in Florida for the next four or five years or provide water for the City of Raleigh, NC, for the next 50.

There are more than 61.1 million irrigated acres in the U.S. – about six times the surface area of all suburban lawns. Six times 855 billion gallons saved is more than 5 trillon gallons every year.

If everyone (federal government included) with an irrigation system would raise the organic matter content of those irrigated landscapes and cropland to 5 percent and keep it there, the impact on water use would be staggering.

The simultaneous impact on stormwater runoff is also an eye-opener, but we’ll save those mind-boggling numbers for another day.

Resources for this post: consumptive water useU.S. irrigated acreage

Evidence that compost really works

See the difference compost makes?

No sleight of hand. No magic. No PhotoShop tricks.  Just a customer’s snapshot of organic matter and soil microbes at work.

Left field amended with McGill SportsTurf. Right field — NOT.

Seeing is believing.  Compost really works.  Visit our products website at for more information about compost and its uses.

Seeing is believing.  Try it yourself.

Try a side-by-side test on your lawn.  See the difference?  Post your photos to our Facebook page.