More Composting Options for All Illinois Farmers

Thriving and successful community gardens, rural farms, school gardens and urban farms are all united by one foundational requirement—healthy soil.

From Wes King at Illinois Stewardship Alliance – Thriving and successful community gardens, rural farms, school gardens and urban farms are all united by one foundational requirement—healthy soil. Whether you are a gardener or a farmer, healthy soil rich in nutrients and organic matter is where it all begins. But for those who are farming or gardening in an urban setting access to healthy soil can be a challenge, due to legacy pollution—heavy metals and petroleum break down products—many urban soils are unfit for growing food.  For rural organic farmers, whether USDA certified or not, access to high quality soil amendments that are not synthetic is extremely important. Composting of landscape materials like leaves and grass clippings; agricultural landscape materials like crop residue and corn silage; and food scraps like expired food from groceries stores or pulp from juice bars is an excellent way to address the soil needs of gardeners and farmers alike.

As interest in local food, community gardening, urban farming and organic agriculture continues to explode, the importance of composting is growing as well. Unfortunately, current environmental laws that regulate composting in Illinois are antiquated and by in large designed for large scale landfill size commercial composting operations with little thought for the needs or realities associated with rural farms, community gardens or what not so long ago was unheard of urban farms. Luckily, things are about to change!

Two bills, HB2335 and HB3319, passed the Illinois General Assembly this spring nearly unanimously, and are now on their way to Governor Quinn’s desk. Both bills will make some important common sense changes that will go a long way in making it easier for community gardens, rural farms, school gard ens and urban farms to make their own high quality compost to use on their gardens and farms. As one of the co-organizers of the Central Illinois Composting Symposium and a grassroots local food and sustainable agriculture organization, Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA) has known for a number of years about the need to reform Illinois’ composting laws. Thanks in no small part to the help and leadership of the Illinois Environmental Council, change is coming. The passage of these two pieces of legislation are major steps in the direction of creating risk and scale appropriate laws and regulations for composting; once again showing that Illinois can be a leader when it comes to local food system development and environmental sustainability.

Community garden provisions in HB2335 will allow ISA member organizations like DeKalb County Community Gardens and Buy Fresh Buy Local – Central Illinois (a project of ISA) member Decatur is Growing Gardeners to bring from off-site up to 25 cubic yards of compostable materials to compost and use on site. Urban agriculture provisions in HB2335 also extend an existing but limited IEPA on-farm composting exemption for rural areas to urban areas by allowing local governments to set their own set-backs standards that are less than the state minimum, provided they register with the IEPA and adhere to some minimum siting requirements. Those urban agriculture provisions will allow ISA members like The Urban Canopy, a rooftop farm located on top of The Plant and The Chicago Botanic Garden urban agriculture program to create innovative partnerships with the surrounding community to collect compostable landscape materials and food scraps to compost on-site to use in their farming operations. An additional provision within HB2335 that removes the prohibitive set-back requirement for commercial composting in the City of Chicago will pave the way for Growing Power – Chicago to not only compost for use on-site but also engage in some commercial sales of the their compost.

HB3319 amends and already existing IEPA rural on-farm composting limited permit exemption by expanding the list of materials farms are allowed to bring from off-site to compost for use on farm (provided they register with IEPA and follow a set of basic siting restrictions). Surprisingly, the IEPA’s existing on-farm composting exemption only allowed farms to bring landscape materials from off-site. HB 3319 expands the list of allowable materials to include crop residue, other agricultural plant residue, animal bedding and up to 10% additives which can include food scraps and manure. The changes HB3319 creates will expand composting options for all farmers across Illinois both organic and conventional. The changes in HB3319 will also help protect small farms like Oakland Farms in Ashmore, IL that have been cited by the IEPA for illegal composting because they were composting off-site materials that were not in the list of allowed materials.

There is of course more work that needs to be done to encourage and promote the diversion of compost able materials from landfills and to promote local food and sustainable agriculture, especially in the world of Food-Scrap composting; however HB2335 and HB3319 both represent significant steps forward. Changes that are significant enough that it has garnered Illinois Stewardship Alliance and the Illinois Environmental Council some national attention as other related organizations have sought advice as they seek to implement similar changes in their own communities.

Wes King is the Interim Executive Director for Illinois Stewardship Alliance, a state-wide non-profit organization dedicated to promoting local food and sustainable agriculture through advocacy and education. Illinois Stewardship Alliance is a membership based organization and is currently in the middle of their 2nd Annual Membership Drive. For more information visit www.ilstewards.org

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