Iowa Public Television


Turning Trash Into Treasure

posted on February 24, 2006

According to the EPA, U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions discard more than 230 million tons of municipal solid waste annually, or about 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day. Those numbers don't include recycling efforts which divert an additional 70 million tons from the waste stream. While recycling may be a relatively recent development in some urban areas, it's anything but new to those in rural America. In fact, finding value in what some consider "waste" has been a hallmark of agriculture for generations. An example can be found in the Land of Lincoln, where an Illinois State University program has helped nearly a dozen farmers develop business plans and purchase equipment to solve waste problems for rural communities, as well as local hog farms. Nancy Crowfoot explains how an Illinois farmer is turning one person's "trash" into another's "treasure."

Turning Trash  Into Treasure

It used to be that leaf burning was the premier "smell of autumn".

Hog odors on the farm were often referred to as the "smell of money".

But in today's world, neither hog waste nor burning brush are acceptable odors. Both are considered pollutants that can adversely affect human health and the environment.

But where there is controversy, there is opportunity -- at least for one north central Illinois farmer who raises no livestock of his own, but welcomes both hog manure and yard waste to his farm. He uses the waste streams to make compost.

Alan Dale, Walnut, Illinois: "I hate to see good organic product being consumed by fire. Second thing is,within my farming operation there are ten million gallons of liquid hog affluent within five miles of me. And so I thought perhaps there was a need for trying to find a way to address some of those issues."

With more than enough manure to apply directly onto their farmland, Dale thought livestock operators would gladly give him the waste.

With an Illinois state law banning yard waste disposal in landfills, and burn bans in place in many towns, he thought leaves would be easy to obtain. He was right on both counts.

Mike Rapczak, Kewanee: "It's great, it's worked out well for us."

Mike Rapczak is Operations Manager for the City of Kewanee & one of the two communities that collects yard waste for Dale's "Rare Earth" compost operation. Each year, the two towns deliver roughly 500 tons of leaves and brush to the farm.

Annually, Dale collects 350,000 gallons of liquid manure from surrounding hog confinement facilities. Until needed, it is stored 75-to 80,000 gallons at a time in an underground pit on his farm.

He follows specific recipes to make the compost, which includes using some of the crop residue from his own 2,000-acre farm as a primary carbon source. He tops that with yard waste, and then sprays on the manure as a nitrogen source. Water is applied on a regular basis. Eventually, clay and inoculants are added to capture, among other things, nitrogen.

Alan Dale, "Rare Earth" compost, Walnut, Illinois: "It takes me almost three weeks to get all the hog manure on there so that we bring the carbon, the nitrogen and the moisture to its optimum point all at once. And at that point we'll immediately shoot the temperature up to between 135 and 155 degrees to start the process."

In 10 weeks time, he says, he has a "stable compost"-- a finished product he sells for $59 a ton. In addition to income from sales, he collects a modest "tipping" -- or disposal -- fee from towns that deliver their yard waste.

The tipping fee of $3.75 a ton was more than five times cheaper than the city of Kewanee was paying to a neighboring county for disposal & so the decision to switch made economic sense. But Kewanee needed more than economics to enter into an agreement with a family farmer.

Michael Rapczak, Operations Manager, City of Kewanee, Illinois: "The City Manager directed me to go check out the operation and make sure that everything was on the up and up and that we weren't going to be taking it to a facility that would be in trouble with the EPA. But Mr. Dale has all the credentials and license and the permits from EPA and it has worked out really well for him from that point."

The permit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency may have helped legitimize the farmer's business in the eyes of Kewanee, but city officials still initially worried the use of hog waste would create odor problems.

But odor turned out to be a non-issue.

Mike Rapczak, Operations Manager, City of Kewanee, Illinois: "That is what really amazed us when we went to visit the site. He uses liquid hog manure from two local hog farms up the road from him.And first thing I thought, oh boy, this is really going to be bad. But when we got there, there was no smell whatsoever either in the process from the start to the finish there is no smell with any of the product."

Alan Dale,Walnut, Illinois: "One of the things we can do is we can reduce odors in 20 minutes. Now that may sound hard to believe. If it is an odor issue we might put some clay in. If it's gone anaerobic it is just a matter of we may need to turn it an extra time to introduce oxygen. It may need a little more water or a little less and those kind of things."

Dale has his operation refined to the point of wanting to expand from his current annual production of 1100 tons of compost. He says he plans to ask the Illinois EPA for a permit to increase his compost acreage from the current six acres to 8 1/2 or 9 acres. That would allow him to triple his production -- up to 33-hundred tons of compost a year.

And while he says he is using just a drop in the bucket of the amount of available hog waste in his area, he hopes he is helping to alleviate a part of the problem large livestock operations face for environmentally safe waste disposal.

Because if a solution isn't found, he fears for the future of the livestock industry, not just in central Illinois, but nationwide.

Alan Dale, Walnut, Illinois: "As it's grown up around me, as I've grown up amongst it, I think we have to find a way that urban and rural can work together and live together or our food is all going to be coming from South America. That is part of what motivates me."

For MTM, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.


Tags: agriculture animals compost farmers livestock news