Compost’s Role in a Changing Agricultural Landscape


Compost is organic matter that has been broken down through the action of aerobic microbes and the heat they produce then subsequently built up into humus. The art and science of making compost for use as fertilizer has been around for centuries. Midwest Bio-Systems has combined this art with today’s science, specialized equipment, and a proprietary methodology that together produce compost that can help solve many of the world’s agricultural and waste management problems.

In most of the world, composting disappeared in the twentieth century as the use of chemical fertilizers increased, particularly following World War II. The application of chemical technology to increasing agricultural productivity was assumed to be a better solution.

Composting began a comeback toward the end of the last century with interest surging in recent years as economic and environmental factors have begun to change the way the world looks at crop production, the environmental concerns chemical agriculture raises, and the waste society generates.

In the United States and Europe, governments have growing concerns about the speed with which available landfills are becoming full. Policies have been put in place to prohibit yard waste from entering landfills and to recycle glass, metal, plastic, and paper items. In the US yard waste is increasingly ground and composted either by the municipality itself or by a contractor that is typically paid to take the yard waste and compost it. In the developing world, progress toward doing anything other than piling waste in landfills has been slow to develop while the environmental and health concerns associated with the rotting piles of garbage have increased. Composting is an effective way to reduce the volume of material entering the world’s landfills.

Aeromaster PT-170 Compost Windrow TurnerThe use of chemical fertilizers has increased yields in many crops but their intense use creates crops that are less able to defend themselves against insects, microbial pathogens, and intrusive weeds. To combat these problems, agriculture has increasingly developed and used insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides. While initially protecting the crop, the use of these toxic chemicals sets off a cycle of developing resistance to the chemical followed by increased applications of more powerful chemicals. The environmental impact from the use of chemicals in agriculture is an increasing world concern. Compost is an alternative to the agricultural chemicals and fertilizers currently in use.

In Europe and the US, the demand for organically grown food is increasing rapidly. Food grown without the use of synthetic chemicals is the fastest growing segment of the food industry. To provide fresh produce on a year-round basis, fruit and vegetable production is spread across different latitudes around the world so that there is always a crop of each item ready for harvest. Much of this production takes place in developing world countries. Compost is arguably the best fertilizer for growing organic crops. The increasing demand for organic food will drive an increasing demand for compost fertilizer.

Most synthetic fertilizer is hydrocarbon based. As the price of oil and natural gas has increased, the price of chemical fertilizer has correspondingly increased. This increase in cost is most profoundly felt in developing world countries where cost of food production increases and the importation of the higher cost fertilizer negatively impacts their balance of payments. Large sectors of agriculture, specifically the palm oil industry, have determined that the current cost of imported fertilizer makes composting their processing waste, to be used in place of a portion of their chemical fertilizer requirements, economic. This industry expects a 30-50% reduction in chemical fertilizer requirements over time from the use of compost.

Crop production requires water that can be supplied by nature in the form of rain or artificially through irrigation. The humus portion of compost hold four times its weight in water making compost effective at maximizing the benefit a crop gets from a given amount of rain or irrigation water. In arid growing conditions compost usage can reduce irrigation requirements by as much as 30% or it can increase crop yield from a finite amount of rain. This characteristic of compost will become increasingly valuable as the climate changes brought on by global warming impacts crop production.

Compost is a substance that can reduce in the volume of chemicals and water needed for crop production and can be produced from the waste society generates.

Contrary to the U.S. where household food waste is processed through a garbage disposal and removed through the sanitary sewer system, most developing world food waste becomes part of the municipal waste stream. The food and yard waste can be separated from the waste stream, ground to a consistent size, formed into windrows and processed into compost fertilizer. As the world, and particular the developing world, struggles to increase the food supply to feed a growing population, looks for ways to slow the environmental damage caused by the use of chemicals in agriculture, and searches for ways to slow the accumulation of municipal waste from their cities, composting becomes a more and more attractive alternative. Several countries have put in place policies or programs to encourage composting of the organic matter portion of municipal waste into agricultural fertilizer as a means of reducing the volume of material entering their landfills as well as to reduce their imports of hydrocarbon based fertilizer, specifically Pakistan, Nigeria, and Sri Lanka. Many other countries are actively looking into the possibility. Composting the organic matter portion of municipal solid waste can reduce the material entering landfills by 20-35%.

The Compost Solution

High quality compost offers a solution to many of the world’s agricultural, environmental, and waste management challenges. A major problem in making compost a universal solution, however, is the wide variety of materials called “compost” and the wide range of results produced by the materials called “compost”. Some processes produce “compost” that provides significant benefit while other processes produce “compost” that provides relatively little. The concept of turning municipal and agricultural organic waste into fertilizer only works if the compost fertilizer produced, in turn, produces more benefit that its cost. Using an inexpensive approach to produce compost that does not produce beneficial agricultural results is a poor investment.

An example of the results that can be achieved by using high quality humified compost in agriculture is the use of 1,000 lb. of humified compost per year for five years in no-till corn production in central Illinois in the U.S. Over these five years the farmer was able to eliminate his potassium and phosphorus fertilizer applications and reduce his application of nitrogen to one-half what is typical for conventional Illinois corn farmers. Over the same five years, his yields increased 10% making them comparable to the yields achieved by his high tillage, high synthetic fertilizer usage neighbors. The economic benefit this farmer received from compost usage — decreased input costs plus increased yields – exceeds $130 per acre, valuing the compost used at $75 USD per U.S. ton. Looked at another way, the value he received from using one ton of humified compost exceeded $300 USD, based on December 2007 U.S. crop and fertilizer prices.

Midwest Bio-Systems USA (MBS) has correlated the chemical, microbiological, and physical characteristics of soil that produce the best crop results with the characteristics of compost that produces those soil characteristics. Over 14 years, MBS has developed a system which is a combination of specialized compost production equipment, testing procedures, and a very specific production methodology. The MBS aerobic windrow composting system produces compost that produces results in the soil.

Introducing the MBS system into the world agricultural community is a matter of financing the initial investment in land, equipment, and training in both the production of humified compost itself as well as how it is used in the growing process. The economic benefits from increased yields and the ability to sell organically grown products to U.S. and Europe markets, will amortize the investment in a short period of time.