Circular economy: Compost critical to the future of soil health
Circular economy: Compost critical to the future of soil health
More and more of Northern Ireland’s ratepayers are heeding the pleas of their local councils to better utilise their kitchen food caddies and brown bins, with local authorities across the province starting to see significant benefits in terms of increased recycling percentages, reduced waste disposal costs and reductions in black bin waste going to landfill or incineration.
Natural World Products (NWP) has been at the heart of that movement, working with councils right across the province to promote more effective recycling of organic content like food and garden waste. Last year, CEO Colm Warren outlined some of the surprising places NWP’s recycled organic compost ends up (e.g. helping to get Royal Portrush ready for next year’s Open Championship) and this year NWP’s Head of Output and Quality, Celine Magill, tells agendaNi just how crucial an issue returning organic matter to Northern Ireland’s heavily farmed soils is going to be in the years ahead.
“Soil health and replenishment needs to be right at the top of local government’s agenda”, says Magill. “Due to the unusually intensive nature of farming in Northern Ireland historically when compared to the likes of Great Britain, for example, our soils have suffered higher levels of degradation and structural damage.
“It is vital that we work to restore and increase organic matter back to our soils if we are to sustain crop yields and a sustainable growing environment into the future. At NWP we want to highlight the importance of this often over-looked aspect of what we do. Not only are we helping local councils and businesses keep waste out of landfill, we believe that the high quality organic compost that we are producing from that recycling activity has an absolutely massive role to play in the future sustainability of Northern Ireland’s crucial agri-food and growing industries.”
Compost Steering Group
NWP believes this issue is so crucial that it has taken the lead in establishing a Compost Steering Group, with a view to educating local politicians, policy-makers and the general public around the benefits of organic compost and how more effective household recycling of food and garden wastes can ultimately help keep that food coming back to the kitchen table from local growers. Celine has an army of advocates behind her and agendaNi caught up with some of them.
Derek Erwin of Erwin Potatoes, on the Ards Peninsula, grows potatoes for Wilson Country, who supply into major retailer Tescos. “We’re in our second season of applying NWP’s organic compost as a soil conditioner and within that short period we’re already seeing better finishes on our potatoes’ skins. This is such a crucial factor to ensure premium returns in this sector, where the risk of poor finishes resulting in order rejections or downgrades is so significant. Integrating organic compost and all its benefits into our soils will help ensure consistency year on year for our entire crop.”
Ernie Rolleston of Glenbrook Agri Ltd has been working as an agronomist in the County Down area for over 15 years, with much of his business looking after cereal crops such as wheat and rye. “Over the past few years it has been apparent that customers have been applying more and more chemical fertilisers with their yield response limited. Through testing and analysis, we found this was due to a reduction in the soil’s biological activity and low organic matter content, which was curtailing the soil’s ability to hold on to nutrients.
“Now the vast majority of my customers are applying organic compost supplied by NWP and every one has reported significant improvements including more soil activity, increased earthworm numbers, greatly reduced composition, better workability of the soil with resultant reductions in fuel costs and wear and tear on farm machinery and, overall, healthier crops and yields. In one farm alone we have cut the fertiliser bill by £18,000 per annum. This is all so important as it means the next steps can be looking at reducing fertiliser application further and lowering pesticide input due to the plants being healthier with stronger immune systems.”
Compost builds fertility
Magill points out that organic matter in soils is not easily increased through livestock manures, which take time to decompose. “Basically, our compost helps give soils the solid foundations they need in order to grow and nurture arable crops sustainably for years to come.”
Tim McClelland, a well-known cereal farmer from Tandragee, is renowned as one of Northern Ireland agriculture’s most innovative and progressive minds. McClelland delivers nutrient management workshops to other farmers. “We grow winter wheat, barley, oats, oilseed rape and spring oats on a five-year rotation that begins and ends with oilseed rape. We literally stumbled upon NWP’s product having seen the results some of our neighbouring farms were achieving through its use. We now view it as an absolutely essential part of our soil health management.
“We’ve looked at alternatives over the years, for instance digestates and manures, but we always revert to compost as its slow-release gives root systems the steadier uptake of nutrients they need in order to build strong stems, which help support the leaves and grain for harvesting maximum yields. If the nutrient uptake is too high, as can be the case with some of the alternatives, the stem system cannot adequately support the resultant growth and it falls away meaning a loss of yield on harvesting.
“We’ve used NWP’s product since 2014 – we know it works. We soil tested over 113 hectares during August, September and October in 2018 and analysis suggests phosphate and potash indices have risen over the period. We see enhanced seedbeds with grain yields rising by 0.2 tonnes per acre per year. This year we expect a reduction in the application levels of phosphate and potash. Our aim here is building fertility and compost is a central component to that process.”
Compost keeps carbon in soils
Magill is excited about the future. “I love what we’re doing at NWP and it’s my job to start shouting about it more. It’s so crucial to such an important part of our local economy and is literally ‘the Circular Economy’ fully in action on people’s doorsteps, facilitated by their choice of how they discard their household food and garden waste.
“Just this week I was working with a brilliant horticulturalist in Bangor, David Love Cameron, who uses our product to grow organic vegetables and salad varieties for some of our most prestigious local restaurants: the likes of The Merchant, James Street South and The Boat House. He’s what’s known as a ‘no dig grower’ and loves the fact that our compost protects the micro-organisms living in the soil. He’s always telling me that he lets the worms do all the digging.
“The point is, from some of our largest to our smallest local growers, food does not need to travel half way around the planet to arrive on our dinner plates. Organic compost is more and more being seen as the way forward towards soil sustainability in Northern Ireland. Let’s lock the carbon up in the soil instead of sending it back into the atmosphere.”