With local authorities looking to divert more organic waste from landfill, and inorganic fertiliser prices rising, there has never been a better time for growers to diversify into quality compost production.
Redundant farm buildings and land can make excellent compost production facilities for the large quantities of garden and food waste being recycled.
In fact, the Association for Organics Recycling (formerly the Composting Association) says that on-farm sites represent 29 per cent of composting sites across the UK.
In addition to receiving a gate fee from councils for processing the material, growers can capitalise on the rise in agricultural demand for the end product, which is being driven by high inorganic fertiliser costs. They can also save money by using the compost on their own land.
As fertiliser costs continue to rise, one of the key benefits of compost is its fertiliser replacement value. One tonne of compost made from garden waste is worth about 34p in nitrogen, £3.60 in phosphate, £3.69 in potash, 39p in sulphur and 71p in magnesium - giving a total of about £8.73/tonne for major nutrients. When applied at 30 tonnes/ha (the nitrate vulnerable zone maximum rate) the total fertiliser replacement value of compost is £261.90/ha.
Furthermore, scientific trials show that compost has various benefits, including its ability to improve soil structure and fertility, increase drainage and reduce the need for non-organic fertilisers.
To set up a production facility, growers need to apply for local authority planning permission and an Environment Agency waste-management licence. If they are a small site and want to use the compost solely for their own land, they can apply for a Paragraph 12 exemption from the waste-management licence. This allows them to carry out the composting activity on site within certain constraints. But if they want to sell or use the compost elsewhere, or produce it in larger amounts, they must apply for a full waste-management licence.
Further considerations also apply to anyone thinking about recycling food waste, whether this is via in-vessel composting or anaerobic digestion. Both are subject to the Animal By-Products Regulations, which detail stringent treatment standards for meat-included food waste.
Achieving certification to BSI PAS 100 for their compost - the national specification for the production of quality compost - is a sound business move for growers because it gives customers peace of mind about the quality of the product. The scheme is supported by a Quality Protocol, which provides a clear framework for the production and supply of compost.
One husband-and-wife team reaping the rewards of diversifying into compost production is William and Lynda Mackintosh from Doncaster. Not only are they saving £120/ha on cereal production and £280/ha growing sugar beet by using the compost on their own land, they are also finding that demand from growers for the excess compost produced is outstripping supply this year.
The couple, who run a 174ha arable farm, moved into compost production after they were hit by the pig-farming crisis in the 1990s and needed to find an additional revenue stream to support their arable business.
It was William Mackintosh's long-standing interest in the re-use of biodegradable waste for agricultural land that led to the idea of establishing a green-waste compost production site, which saw the former pig-finishing site transformed into a successful "green" business.
In 1999 the couple contacted the Environment Agency to register an exemption from Waste Management Licensing Regulations for composting operations. They applied to the local authority for planning permission. Registering as an exempt site allowed set-up costs to be kept to a minimum and enabled the couple to utilise some existing buildings and farm equipment.
But it meant that they were restricted in terms of the amount of compost they could produce (they could only compost up to 1,000cu m at any one time) and were unable to sell it for use on any land that they did not control.
The Mackintoshes spent months slowly building up their customer base of waste management companies, landscapers and local authorities, and getting the business off the ground.
After several years, it became clear that if they were to make a go of the business they needed to apply for a full waste-management licence which would enable them to increase production, market the compost and produce a wider range of products. They formed Brier Hills Recycling to run alongside their farming operation at Huggin Farm, Hatfield Woodhouse, where they grow potatoes, wheat, barley, sugar beet and coppice willow.
Following receipt of their full waste- management licence, the site can receive up to 45,000 tonnes of organic biodegradable waste. The waste comprises mainly kerbside-collected green waste along with green waste from local civic amenity sites and comes primarily from waste-management companies and local authorities within a 56km radius of the site. The business is now working towards BSI PAS 100 certification and has signed up to the compost quality protocol.
Having used the compost they produced on their own land for several years, the Mackintoshes are well-versed in its benefits. They have been inundated with requests from growers wanting to buy the product and are also targeting other sectors, such as landscaping.
Lynda Mackintosh says: "We had to diversify because we could not achieve a satisfactory return from purely arable farming. Moving into compost production has been hard work, particularly because of all the regulations involved, which are constantly changing. However, the diversification has complemented our farming operations and enabled us to continue farming.
"With inorganic fertiliser prices on the increase, we are now saving a lot of money by using the compost on our own land and we are delighted with the way that the agricultural market is opening up, giving us plenty of scope to sell the product."
Langmead Farms, which has 750ha of organic farmland and more than 3,000ha of conventionally farmed land, has also diversified into compost production. It makes compost from the 10,000 tonnes of waste generated every year from its salad factory and farm. This material is mixed with garden waste from local civic amenity sites.
Most of the compost is used as a soil improver on the farm, which grows a mixture of conventional and organic crops. But Langmead - along with its sister company, Brinkmans Nurseries - has since found further outlets for the BSI PAS 100-certified product, which is being blended with other ingredients to produce a branded, organic, peat-free compost for Tesco.
The multi-purpose compost for amateur gardeners is sold in Tesco supermarkets under the Tesco Organic brand. Available in 20-litre bags, it suits potting, hanging baskets and planting.
The compost comprises 100 per cent independently certified organic materials which are green compost, composted bark and organic fertiliser.
The supply of the composted bark (Growbark), blending of the constituents and bagging of the finished product are carried out by Gloucestershire-based bark specialist Melcourt Industries.
Launched in selected Tesco stores during spring 2007, the product performed well against peat-based alternatives when tested by Stockbridge Technology Centre, of North Yorkshire.
Retail sales reached £600,000 in its first season and demand was so high that the product sold out. Brinkmans hopes to capitalise on this success when the compost returns to Tesco's shelves after summer for the autumn season and anticipates that sales will increase "exponentially" over the next three years.
Langmead Farms technical and agronomy director Scott Phillips said: "We are proud to be the first farm in the UK to use our surplus leaves to produce a multi-purpose compost especially for Tesco customers who want to grow organically and responsibly.
"Not only has it created an additional revenue stream, it is also in line with our commitment to improving the environment and ensuring that our factory waste is kept to a minimum."
Tesco category director Peter Groves said: "This is the first time that we have worked with one of our suppliers in this way and it has certainly proved to be a great success so far.
"It is helping us to close the recycling loop and is enabling us to support the Government's bid to achieve its 90 per cent peat reduction target by 2010, and to meet customer demand for more environmentally friendly products."
As these case studies show, organics recycling is a fast-growing industry that offers potentially profitable opportunities for growers who have the right facilities and can invest the time, energy and resources to make it work for them.
- For further information about composting, the Quality Protocol and the benefits of compost please visit www.wrap.org.uk/composting.
- Solene Le Doze is project officer for the Waste & Resources Action Programme's organics programme.