Compost farming in high demand amid drought

DIXON, Calif. (KTVU) - Years of drought may be making compost more popular than ever.

The day after Tuesday's storm, farmer Nigel Walker checked his crops. He and his wife grow everything from garlic to strawberries, peppers and cherries on their organic farm, Eatwell Farm, in Dixon.

He also checks his soil on a regular basis.

"Nice, crumbly soil," he said, scooping up a pile of dark, finely ground mulch-looking soil. "What we want is what some people describe as black cottage cheese."

Walker's farm got about an inch of rain, but there were no puddles in the soil, and no run-off. He pointed to a pile of compost sitting on his land as part of the reason why.

"It's like a sponge, and it soaks the rain up," Walker said of the thick, damp compost pile. "That's what I think is really going to help farmers in the drought."

Walker has used green waste compost on his farm for the past 12 years. He said not only are his crops healthier and tastier, he also doesn't have to water them as much.

"We've been irrigating for four to five days a week, and I'm hoping this summer, to cut that down to three days a week," Walker said.

The compost he uses comes from just a few miles away from his farm, at the Recology composting facility in Vacaville.

"We receive food scraps here and plant cuttings from cities like San Francisco," Recology spokesman, Robert Reed, said.

They're making more compost to meet the growing demand. They produce 280 tons of it a day, which is 17 percent more than their daily output last year. 280 tons is roughly the same weight of two Boeing 757s.

"We can't make enough compost to meet the need of all the farms that want it," Reed said.

Making green waste compost, that meets state regulations for commercial sale, is more complicated than just letting food scraps rot.

Reed said the 11-step process involves sorting, churning and waiting for nature to take its course. The gases that are out-gassed from the microbes in the decomposing organic material are captured in pipes, absorbed by porous tree mulch, and then composted again.

"Demand has increased significantly, particularly in the last three years," Reed said.

Three years of drought may be a big part of the reason why. Reed says according to their soil scientists, increasing compost by one percent on one acre of soil can save more than 16,500 gallons of water.

"Every farmer wants to save water, because we only have a finite amount of it. We've got to do things, we've got to experiment," Walker said.

For Walker, compost farming was an experiment he started on his farm more than a decade ago, and he continues to reap the benefits from it.