Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Composting in Boston should include access to off-site materials

The other big problem so far at these hearings on urban agriculture zoning is the city's current stance on composting. Apparently in response to some public outcry last year during the initial planning phase, the BRA's proposed zoning amendment for the Pilot lots and the Preliminary Recommendations for Boston restrict composting inputs to “using only organic matter generated on-site.” As the Keynote presentation from Will Allen (Growing Power http://www.growingpower.org/) so eloquently demonstrated, to have adequate amounts of compost and soil in urban areas available for farming, it is necessary to allow urban farmers access to off-site waste materials from coffee shops, arborists, grocery stores, restaurants, leaf pick-up, etc. Thus, the on-site restriction is misguided and will ultimately severely restrict the ability of urban farming to flourish. The diversion of materials from landfill is an added benefit.

It comes down to this: does the City want to promote urban agriculture or merely permit a few isolated instances as show-pieces? If the former, then composting inputs necessarily include access to off-site materials from city businesses. For similar reasons, as demonstrated by the Growing Power example, Businesses or non-profits creating compost from city business’ waste materials should be allowed and encouraged within the city and its environs.

At the March meeting, more information came out about this: the BRA officials are concerned about the scale of the composting operations - they don't want a lot of activity from trucks and other large machinery in residential areas. Rather, they argue, commercial districts could hold the composting businesses [and presumably sell compost to urban farmers in residential areas]. Fair enough. Yet, I don't think that these planners understand how much compost is needed on depleted soils, or if the system of agriculture is biointensive - getting a large yield out of a small area through intensive composting. By making these small farmers purchase compost, they are driving up the operating costs. Presumably, a truck would come periodically and drop off the compost - so they must be contemplating some truck activity. To keep costs down, and to honor the worry about scale of composting onsite, the better method would be to remove the restriction on on-site inputs and rather limit composting to a portion of the area of the site -- say 1/4. I would need to do some calculations here to come up with a realistic number for each of the types of farming. Small Plot Intensive farming is being used more and more in small city plots -- it creates 3-4 consecutive harvests of high-value crops from the same rows in one season. Each time a new crop is planted, at least 2 inches of compost is reapplied.

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