Business & Investment

Compost case study

Cows in a field 

Perceptions of commercial compost – insights from Victorian dairy farmers on recycled organics compost products.

In an effort to develop agricultural markets for commercial compost products, Sustainability Victoria asked BehaviourWorks Australia to research dairy farmers’ attitudes towards using commercial compost products made from recycled organics inputs.

Background

Sustainability Victoria (SV) developed the Victorian Organics Resource Recovery Strategy to provide a 30-year vision for the best practice management of organic waste in Victoria and ensure organic wastes are treated as a valuable resource to be recovered and strategically managed. Organic wastes such as grass clippings, shrub prunings and food waste are used to make recycled organics (RO) compost products at a commercial scale. These products currently flow into the urban amenity market, and to a lesser extent, agriculture.

In order to explore the barriers to further develop agricultural markets for commercial RO compost products, beginning with the dairy market, SV engaged BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) to interview dairy farmers, agronomists and agricultural consultants across Victoria to discover the key motivational factors and barriers that may facilitate or impede farmers from using such products.

Recycled organics (RO) products are those made from ‘recycled’ organic waste such as grass clippings, shrub prunings and food waste. One such product on a commercial scale is RO compost, which is used in urban amenity projects, in home gardens and in agriculture.

Snapshot

Organisation

Sustainability Victoria in consultation with BehaviourWorks Australia.

Project

Knowledge, experiences and expectations of commercial compost products: Perceptions from dairy farmers and their advisors.

Objectives

To establish baseline data on the knowledge, understanding and engagement with commercial RO compost products, investigate quality assurance issues and concerns and gain insight into factors that may assist in further developing agricultural markets for commercial RO compost products.

Outcomes

For non-users; trial-based evidence from a reliable, independent, and trustworthy source that fulfils their information and technical requirements, especially when it comes to  introducing potential contaminants on their farms.

For users; assurance that RO compost products are safe, cost‑effective and compatible with existing on‑farm composting practices.

Challenges

  • Fears of contamination
  • Prices too high for the benefits
  • Dairy farmers already making their own compost
  • Perceptions that compost is too slow or ineffective

Next steps

  • Promotion of long term and independent trials that demonstrate the benefits of commercial RO compost products on farms 
  • Quality Assurance scheme for manufacture and use of commercial RO compost products in agriculture
  • Improved value proposition of these products.

 

Approach 

BWA researchers conducted phone interviews with dairy farmers, agronomists and agricultural consultants across the three main dairy regions of Victoria: Gippsland, South West Victoria and Northern Victoria. Both users and non-users of commercial RO compost products were interviewed.

Feedback

For non-users, plastics and chemicals in commercial RO compost products were the main concerns for those interviewed. Margins are so tight in the dairy industry that the risk of a biosecurity scare connected to a commercial RO compost product could negatively affect the larger dairy market.

As one farmer pointed out, if grass cuttings or shrub prunings in the commercial RO compost product have been sprayed with chemicals, that could potentially show up in the milk chemical analysis.

Furthermore, many of those interviewed had different and/or unrealistic expectations about RO compost products and how it works. Comparisons to synthetic fertiliser are unfair, for instance, as RO compost products are slower acting than synthetic fertiliser and works in different ways and provide different benefits. These ‘hidden benefits’ of RO compost products – that it restores nutrients and organic carbon to the soil and improves water retention and weed suppression – were regarded as being of little value due to comparisons to synthetic fertiliser.

On the other hand, users of commercial RO compost products reported a positive effect on soil biology and soil structure, improved water retention and weed suppression.

Many dairy farmers were making their own RO compost products on farm using their own organic waste materials, occasionally in combination with commercial RO compost products, and saw this as a positive way to reduce waste and provide a closed loop to deliver nutrients back to the soil, as well as providing a cost-effective means for conditioning the soil.

Results

The results are clear; when it comes to commercial RO compost products, the majority of the dairy industry feels the risk and cost is high and for non-users, the expectations about what these products can deliver is low. In order for attitudes to change, there needs to be more rigorous quality assurances and promotion of trial-based evidence of clear benefits.

Recycling is about changing habits, and in order to change the way farmers and their advisors think and use commercial RO compost products, they need to trust these products are safe to use and have access to reliable information from an independent and trusted source. Furthermore, safe, fit-for-purpose commercial RO compost products need to be in consistent supply and priced to compete with other alternatives.

Rising to these challenges won’t be easy, but then that’s what sustainability is all about – evidence-based change.

“We wanted to use 100% of our organic waste, not just throw it out, so composting is the best method to do it. There are more nutrients in our organic waste than we were ever led to believe”
Farmer, South West dairy region

 

Lessons learned - market opportunities

  • A broad scale information campaign on commercial RO compost products is needed to address low levels of knowledge of these products and their benefits.
  • A clear articulation of the benefits and improved value proposition of commercial RO compost products, including when used in combination with on-farm composting practices.
  • Long term field trials need to consider soil conditions in order to demonstrate impact, as different products will be best suited to certain soil types.

Next steps – assuring quality

  • SV will continue to develop a Quality Assurance scheme for manufacture and use of commercial RO compost products in agriculture.
  • This scheme will be based on evidence from independent sources.

Further reading

Past field trial collation and analysis

SV commissioned research in 2013 to evaluate all available RO field trials in Victoria to build an evidence base and identify gaps for potential future work.

The Review  of  the  past  recycled  organic field trials in Victoria (1995-2013) found that past trials demonstrated higher crop yields or better quality or both. Several researchers identified improvements to soil structure, chemistry and/or biology.

Guide to conducting compost demonstration field trials

SV identified a need for a standard approach to the design, implementation, measurement and reporting of RO field trials. The resulting Guide - Conducting compost demonstration trials in agriculture/horticulture provides compost producers, sellers and end-users with considerations when developing on-farm demonstration trials in agriculture/ horticulture for compost products.

Both of these documents are available to download from Sustainability Victoria.

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Farmers compost case study