January 2012- The Farm Waste Stream

No doubt about it. Edgewater Farm  generates some refuse. And as the farm kept getting bigger over the years, the size of the dumpster and our waste stream kept getting bigger.  About 10 years ago it caught my attention enough to want to do something about it.

We have several different waste streams, and some have been trickier to solve than others.  There is the organic waste that is generated by the farm stand and greenhouses,  everything from  plant and flower trimmings to vegetable spoilage.  This particular waste stream has always been pretty easy to deal with,  because most of it is composted here and  broadcast back onto the fields as soil amendment. That waste stream has traditionally had value to us and we capture all of it.

Trash: The Necessary Evil?

The next problem we saw was the use of season-extending  agricultural plastics. The black plastic mulch that traditionally is used in the field for soil mulch is a petrochemically based product that had to be land-filled or incinerated. We were generating enough volume so that we were filling  our dumpster multiple times during the fall with just this product alone.  So when the Canadians started importing the cornstarch-based plastic mulch from Italy eight years ago, we made a journey north to get some to trial.  It turned  out to be as good as they claimed it to be. Every year since we have used this black cornstarch mulch and it holds up  for about 70 days before it starts to decompose. More farmers have come on board over the years so that I might  guess that  30-35% of the  farms in the northeast use it in their fields.  Oddly enough, the product is not certified by the feds for use by USDA  Certified organic farmers, a position that  I think is  counter-intuitive and perhaps political and therefore inexcusable. But we use it and find that the high up-front cost of the biodegradable mulch (about 3 times that of  non-biodegradable type) is offset by the reduction of labor at the end-of-season collection from the field. We just harrow it up or wait until spring to work the remains of it into the soil.  Conventional oil-based plastic has to be pulled up and landfilled.  Within a year of application there is no remaining shred of biodegradable  mulch in the soil.  The same can rarely be said abut the oil-based plastics, you find shreds of it for years in the fields after its use. Biodegradable mulch was a gamble we took on behalf of the environment that actually worked out well all the way around.

The next hurdle confronting us was the waste stream of pots, plastics and cardboard that is generated by greenhouse production. The  plastic pots and  baskets all come in carboard boxes. Seeds, hard goods, tools as well…..much comes in cardboard boxes. We break these boxes down to reduce volume but we still had truck loads of  random sized cardboard to deal with. Two years ago we bought an old trash compactor and baled our cardboard. That helped, but it still left us to move 250-pound bales of compressed cardboard. The plastic pots are recyclable,  but not easily reusable. This is because they have to be washed and sterilized and it is not cost-effective to do so. We have switched some of our pots to fiber so that they are  biodegradable, but they are not all that user friendly for the customers.

In 2011 (in between the spring floods and Hurricane Irene) our town switched to Zero-Sort trash collection and recycling.  I can’t begin to tell you how handy zero-sort recycling is.  The town of Plainfield had a recycling program before that recycled  glass, some different grades of plastic and paper and cans, but it all had to be pre-sorted into separate bins with some types of plastic not allowed. With Zero-Sort all types of plastic, all types of glass and all types of paper and cardboard can be mixed all together in one container. Suddenly we were able to participate effortlessly in community-wide recycling that reduced and diverted an additional 30  percent of our recyclable materials away from the landfill.  It  just became so much easier and it felt good for the environment. All that recycled plastic meant less fossil fuel to be used in plastic production. Just think, all those dirty plastic pots and bottles could be turned into another useful  product.

In 2012 another environmentally sound product became available to us. As we have started up a commercial kitchen as an adjunct to our farm stand,  we were in need of  packaging.  We were able to source food-grade biodegradable containers to  put our soups, salsas and  pestos in. Another product diverted from the landfill.

We still have some farm waste products that we have to figure out.  The greenhouse  plastic film coverings are not being  recycled at this time, but I have to follow up  on a lead or two  that may change that.  The plastic clamshells that we  package our  cherry and  grape tomatoes and  our blueberries for wholesale accounts  can be recycled, but I would feel much better if there was a biodegradable  solution for packaging those  as well, and will be keeping my eyes open for those this summer.

So if you are passionately  pro/anti-incineration  or pro/anti-landfilling of  garbage,  zero sort recycling is just a wonderful addition to the tools that deal with community waste streams. All in all,  2011 was a pretty good year for garbage at Edgewater Farm.  You can be sure that we will continue working on it.