Lise LeBlanc holds up a pair of underwear used to conduct a test in various organic materials, such as compost. The test shows soil health - if there is a healthy microbial community in the soil, which is what is wanted in this case, the more of the underwear will be eaten. LeBlanc says microbes need the carbon in the underwear and this pair was put in the compost pile six weeks earlier. Not much left indicates lots of good microbes in the compost, which is very healthy for the soil. Submitted photo

KEMPTOWN – Agricultural specialist Lise LeBlanc has spent the last 12 years on a mission to turn waste into resource.

She’s been working with Canadian farmers for 30 years, helping them implement manure, lime, wood ash, and N-Viro plans. While her extensive agricultural research showed compost to be “the next logical step” in improving soil health, she couldn’t believe hardly any farmers were using it.

With funding from Divert NS’s Research & Development program, LeBlanc discovered that lab reports were incorrectly interpreted for the compost’s fertility value – based on its effectiveness as a soil material, not as an amendment when it’s applied to agricultural land.

She worked with Divert NS to take compost from nine different municipalities across Nova Scotia, and sent two samples of each to different labs. They labeled one sample “compost” and the other “manure,” and asked technicians to test each sample.

Sure enough, the compost sample was deemed only to be worth $15 per tonne compared to commercial fertilizer, and the identical “manure” sample – tested for its nutrients when applied to land – was worth a staggering $125 per tonne.

“It was a lack of understanding on the right test for the right market,” said LeBlanc. “The wrong test was making it seem like compost cost more to use – and wasn’t as effective – but now we know that’s not true. This project blew those myths out of the water.”

LeBlanc shared her findings in the eye-opening report, Creating an Agricultural Market for Nova Scotia Compost. She hopes her research encourages the two industries to learn more about each other and see how they can work together.

“Not only is compost a local, sustainable resource that can partially replace fossil fuel fertilizers made in Russia, Morocco or other countries – it will also do so much more for soil health,” said LeBlanc.

When food is harvested, it removes nutrients from the field and depletes soil health. LeBlanc says it makes perfect sense to put food waste back into the earth to improve the soil so we can grow more food. Healthy soil also supports biodiversity in the ecosystem, reduces greenhouse gases through carbon storage, and maintains environmental stability.

The ever-changing weather has meant drier summers for local farmers, but adding compost to the soil increases its ability to hold water. It helps address the dense layer of “hardpan” soil, and compost has also been proven to improve yield and quality, therefore increasing the farmer’s profit.

Mike Lishman of Arlington Farmers was part of an Ontario initiative to improve soil health by using compost, and he’s one of compost biggest supporters for nearly 14 years now.

He loves being able to use organic matter that’s balanced and high in calcium, which can correct a field’s pH balance. He’s been able to stop using micronutrients in his fertilizer blends entirely and may be able to cut back on nitrogen fertilizer soon.

Lishman travels across Canada speaking to other farmers about how compost can improve their soil health. For the beef farmers, he compares soil to a cow’s stomach, insisting “you have to feed it right.”

Wayne Wamboldt, director of Waste Management with Colchester Solid Waste, says their new facility is producing about 4,000 tonnes of high-quality compost annually. He agrees that compost is a farmer’s best option of replacing the organic material that’s lost during a harvest.

“A couple of farmers have come out to look at our compost, and they’re very excited about it,” said Wamboldt. “I certainly expect that in the years to come, we won’t be able to produce enough compost to meet the demand – and that will be a good thing.”

LeBlanc says the potential for contaminates in compost is certainly an issue, since not everyone is vigilant about keeping plastic, rubber, and metal out of their green bins.

She believes municipalities would have cleaner compost if more Nova Scotians stopped to think about the contents of their kitchen green bin being mixed into the soil that’s growing the fresh vegetables they’ll purchase months later.

“We want people to know they’re an important part of the chain,” LeBlanc said.

But it isn’t just homeowners who need to open their minds to the importance of compost. The plan is to get a trial group of farmers to start using compost in their fields, and then bring more farmers out for visits to see the improvement with their own eyes.

“Once you can see that compost works, you don’t need a program because it sells itself,” explained LeBlanc. “Being able to work with the compost industry is the next step in the future of agriculture.”