Waste not … (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture.)
I’m writing this article on Earth Day, April 22, and it got me thinking how agriculture is related to building climate resilience, and here are a few perspectives.
Not long ago, the average citizen gave little thought to the subject of solid waste. With the exception of some anti-littering commercials, this country seemed to have no urgency regarding how its waste products were being handled.
Landfills were regularly built and expanded and the unneeded or spent products were and still are pushed into a heap and covered until the pile reaches some factored point and becomes a “capped cell” to be retired and left to decompose, over hundreds if not thousands of years.
This routine is repeated across the country for business and consumer trash and garbage and refuse, including farms, homes, businesses, and industry.
Years ago, when I was director of a county commission (then called a freeholder board) I asked why it was that we couldn’t do something more organic and beneficial with yard waste, like grass-clippings and leaves.
Couldn’t we turn it into a compost tea around the county, rather than truck it to the landfill to just be buried?
The answer at that time was that those items constituted a big revenue generator for the facility and the loss of the “tipping fees” from this inbound tonnage would negatively affect the bottom line of the operation, and thus its ability to provide service.
Today, that logic would be unacceptable, as we have come to realize in this field that all components of the waste stream should be examined and looked at for solutions and possibilities, not only for better disposal, but also for their potential re-use.
Waste is now examined for its potential positive uses, such as creating energy. One big example of this is the Landis Sewerage Authority in Vineland, where they use anaerobic digesters to generate gas that is then directed into a “co-gen” burner unit to provide a significant amount of the operation’s energy.
In recent years, the Department of Agriculture helped the Authority expand its digester capacity by 37 percent through an innovative project that turned a $475,750 federal grant into approximately $3 million worth of additional digester capacity. The authority now accepts additional liquefied wastes from nearby food processors, along with associated tipping fees, adding both more revenue and more homegrown energy to the facility, thus reducing in the long term, the overall release of carbon.
Recently, I read in the New Jersey League of Municipalities’ December 2020 magazine about Middletown, Monmouth County, N.J., announcing a “groundbreaking partnership” with High Time Farm in Somerset County to conduct testing on compost created through leaf collection as a viable organic soil amendment.
This is the first such pilot program in the state, and interestingly spans two counties. What will happen is that the farm is going to use the materials and hopefully show that they can be viable replacements for some chemical fertilizers in limited situations and that it can be cost-effective.
Why do I mention all this in a farm journal? Because farm production naturally produces waste and not all farms may be disposing of it or even using it effectively to be repurposed.
Examples include greenhouse plastic, plant liners, row covers, Styrofoam packaging, plastic packaging, and on and on. There are, unfortunately, some farmers who receive waste and are absolutely not helping but are rather degrading the land they farm, and the waters that course through them or in the reservoirs and aquifers below.
The subject of solid waste is everyone’s problem now. Statistics like the following tell a story we cannot run away from.
The world produces 300 million tons of just plastic each year, of which half is discarded after one use. These “single-use” plastics constitute a large portion of more than five trillion pieces of plastic floating about in the oceans. More than 110,00 tons of microplastics wash over agricultural land in North America and Europe each year.
Farmers also can be a huge part of the solution to the problem of petroleum-based plastics, which can take hundreds to thousands of years to decompose, even when they make their way into the oceans. This leads to a vast majority of marine life tested in studies having some level of petroleum-based plastics in their digestive systems, and ultimately ours.
What can farmers do? Well, in New Jersey, at the Department of Agriculture, we are pursuing a path of having farmers grow hemp, which can be turned into polymers that can then be turned into packaging to replace petro-plastics. The benefit of such packaging is that it biodegrades in 88 to 95 days, compared to the centuries needed to break down petro-plastics.
If we can establish these replacement products for use by consumers, the beneficial impact to the environment, especially the oceans, will be enormous.
Another area where farmers can make a big difference is in adopting practices that reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. To be sure, carbon will always be part of life. In fact, all living things on Earth are known as “carbon-based life forms” because without this essential element, life as we know it would not exist.
Carbon is the fourth-most abundant chemical element in the observed universe, after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. Scientists have detected carbon in abundance in our sun, in stars, and in comets and other planets’ atmospheres. It is, quite simply, ubiquitous.
The key comes in how much carbon we, through human activities on this planet, release into the atmosphere through carbon dioxide, instead of having it remain “sequestered” within the life forms here on the ground.
When carbon is released in large amounts into the atmosphere, it creates the “greenhouse gasses” that trap heat from the sun within the closest parts of our atmosphere, increasing the average temperature of the planet and affecting all life forms.
Increased heat in northern parts of our country can lead to increased problems from mosquitoes and the diseases they carry that are already seen in more tropical areas. Certain sea creatures that rely upon colder water temperatures to grow to massive size — giant crabs, for example — will, in the best-case scenario, grow smaller if the water temperatures warm (colder water carries more oxygen, more oxygen creates larger growth). In the worst-case scenario, those sea creatures could go extinct if they can’t adapt.
Farmers can help reduce carbon released into the atmosphere through methods like no- or low-tillage cultivation, using more renewable energy for farm operations instead of fossil fuels, and the re-use (like the High Time Farm project) of natural forms of fertilizer.
While helping to clean the environment should be the primary concern, farmers should recognize the marketing value of adopting such practices into their operations. The current generation making up the bulk of consumers and all the generations coming after them rightfully care deeply about the environment and largely base their purchasing decisions on wanting to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Highlighting a farm’s efforts to aid the survival of the planet will make that farm a more attractive purchasing choice to these consumers.
Everyone — farmers and consumers alike — can do something to improve the environment, and thus the Earth’s future. And if it makes great business sense, well, that’s a huge bonus.