Turning and adding water to the compost heap located at the City of Yellowknife landfill ensures that high quality compost is created. It is managed by Ecology North. Photo by Contributed
Egg producer Choice North Farms generates almost 3,850 tons of poultry manure annually that it landfills on a designated leased site. The owners wondered if there was a better use for this byproduct and the idea of composting came to mind. If successful, this could help boost farm production in northern Canada by providing a much-needed building block for developing productive soils.
The farm houses about 117,000 laying hens producing about 37 million eggs per year near Hay River in the Northwest Territories (NWT). It is working with an organization called Ecology North, the NWT government, the Canadian government, the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) and Town of Hay River on its composting venture. The plan is to start with a 210 cubic yard pilot scale site involving the use of about 10 tons of manure this summer to test various mixing methods and outcomes, with the goal of developing a full scale site consisting of an area of about 23,500 cubic yards as a commercial composting operation, hopefully by next summer.
Choice North Farms is owned and managed by Glen Wallington and his son, Michael. They own part of the operation and manage another part for a separate egg producer, all under one roof. They started producing eggs under the Choice North Farms label about three years ago and are among the largest egg producers in NWT as well as being a supporter of the Polar Egg initiative. Since 2012, the Polar Egg Company has been certified to grade eggs locally so that not all eggs are shipped to southern markets but also supplied for human consumption in retail stores in the North.
At present, their raw manure is collected on plastic conveyor belts and removed from the barns daily, representing about one dump truck load per day that is transported to a designated landfill area 14 miles from the barns.
The objective of the composting project is to mix raw poultry manure with waste paper and wood. The paper and wood are necessary as part of the conversion process to produce compost. Because of that, Choice North Farms sales and marketing representative, Kevin Wallington, says they are in discussions with governments such as the City of Yellowknife and Town of Hay River, as well as industries dealing with waste paper, such as paper shredding companies and the Yellowknife newspaper, to discuss possible alliances in the composting venture. Kevin is also Glen’s son, as well as sales and marketing director for Polar Egg.
“The composting venture was initiated by us,” says Kevin. “In past years, there had been studies done on old poultry sites to see if there was any feasibility in it. But I don’t think there was really a will on the industry side. It really has to be championed by industry to participate in a venture like this.”
The concept is to establish an open-turned windrow system where the manure, paper and wood are piled into 16 feet wide by 10 feet tall windrows. At full-scale operation, 3,770 tons of poultry manure generated by the egg farm will be combined with 3,080 tons of paper and 550 tons of wood to produce about 4,450 cubic yards of compost annually. One of the benefits of composting is that through biological activity, it reduces the volume of the raw materials, and produces a marketable, pathogen and weed-free compost that can be used as a soil amendment in a variety of growing environments.
Either a wheel loader or pile turner could be used to turn the piles as needed to improve airflow and encourage the conversion process. Not only does Choice North Farms want to convert their current production of manure, but also to use the thousands of tonnes of poultry manure that they have accumulated in their nearby landfill over the past 15 years.
“This project is a benefit to us because if we didn’t compost, then effectively the landfill becomes a liability for us,” says Kevin. “Some of those pits are fairly deep and I don’t think you’d have to dig too low below the surface to find that it is fairly fresh after it’s been there for some time.”
He adds there are no issues with the landfill currently, “but I know that the government is excited about our project because the North is full of stories where people just walked away from things.”
This is one reason why Ecology North became interested in partnering with the egg producer on this project. Kim Rapati, former Ecology North Hay River regional officer and currently operations manager of NFTI, says they were interested in kickstarting a composting initiative in one of the NWT’s larger communities as a way to demonstrate how waste can be diverted from landfills. They decided to partner with Choice North Farms to build a composting operation similar to one they helped to establish and continue to manage in Yellowknife.
Wallington says the egg producer had no experience with composting and that is a major benefit that Ecology North has brought to the partnership, providing the technical know-how needed to launch a composting venture.
Ecology North has been around since 1971 and describes itself as a charitable, non-profit organization headquartered in Yellowknife to support sound environmental decisions made on an individual, community or regional level. Its program focus on three priority areas: public education and awareness; climate change; and, sustainable living.
Last year, the organization presented the finding of its study called, Feasibility of Centralized Composting in Hay River, to Choice North Farms, the Town of Hay River, the Territorial Farmers Association, and Environment Canada. The study conducted by Rapati concluded the poultry composting concept was feasible.
Savings in diverting paper waste from the Hay River landfill to the poultry farm composting site was estimated at almost 18,300 cubic yards of space, a savings of just over $2 million per year. The project costs of establishing the site were estimated at about $350,000, with additional capital costs of $459,000 and annual operating costs of nearly $136,000. To recover those costs, the study estimated that there was the potential to generate just over $235,000 per year in compost sales, with the sales and marketing handled by Choice North Farms.
The egg producer has been speaking to the NWT government for a couple of years about acquiring a fresh parcel of land for the composting site, separate from its existing manure management landfill. It is located about 330 yards from the stockpiled manure in the landfill for easy access.
“The culture of the North for a long time has been dumping,” says Wallington. “Management doesn’t really come into play because we have a lot of space. Unfortunately, a lot of times what that means is that if you don’t have any major issues, you can just continue as you always have.”
However, the agriculture industry is starting to grow in NWT, and he believes that this composting initiative demonstrates leadership on a part of a current northern industry participant that can help set a higher standard for newcomers to this sector.
Rapati agrees that interest in agriculture is definitely growing in the North and that will be a big part of the mandate of NFTI as it develops the 260 farm acres near Hay River under its management. She says that compost is a highly valued commodity in the North because there is so little arable land available in the region to pursue farming ventures in or near the region’s many small communities. However, interest in agricultural practices is very high. Addition of compost to what she described as ‘young soils’ will provide community members with the opportunity to establish and develop their farming skills. Many are expected to obtain those skills through their participation in NFTI programming.
From a technical standpoint, poultry manure is high in nitrogen and phosphorus and requires the addition of carbon for the overall composting process to work. Choice North Farms is relying on the mentorship and experience provided by Ecology North and is also working with a laboratory in Yellowknife to establish the proper mix to produce high quality compost as an end product. Rapati says that despite the sub-arctic temperatures in northern Canada, it is possible to produce high quality compost, but it takes longer because the air temperature do not stay warm for as long as areas further south. The temperature in the windrows is required to achieve at least 131 F for 15 days and turned five times to ensure that the conversion is complete. Producing compost is more of a time management process in the North adapted to suit local conditions. For example, it has been Ecology North’s practice to produce compost over two seasons in Yellowknife – one season to complete the active conversion process and then a second season to let the compost stabilize to its final form, although in reality, Rapati says the conversion to marketable compost could probably be managed in one season. The frequency of turning and adding moisture to the piles depends on air temperature, airflow and moisture content readings to encourage uniform conversion are taking place within the piles. One advantage of composting in the North is that it has the space to conduct open-windrow composting and because of its sparse population, there are few if any odor complaints.
Kevin says Choice North Farms is excited about the opportunity and eager to get started.
“This is going to be business-driven, probably supported by various organizations, including the government,” says Kevin. “At the end of the day, we would like to have a product that we can sell and use in the North.”