Cautions on Soil Additives/Compost Starter

The Question of "Organic" in Commercial Agriculture Products

     One of our customers asked a question about a Lilly Valley brand compost starter (compost activator) which he purchased believing it was safe for his organic growing. After purchasing the product, he realized that, although there is an "organic" label on the packaging, there is also a separate warning: cadmium, cobalt, chromium and other contents of the compost starter are believed by the State of California to be cancer-causing. Confused by the labeling, our customer chose not to use the product.

This raises the question of how commercial soil additives can be sold as organic when they may have ingredients that compromise the quality of the soil. We researched to determine the details of the actual organic national standards, beginning with the knowledge that farmers cannot use the word "organic" in any of their sales materials, nor can they use organic practices if they are not officially certified under federal standards. So why would a commercial product be allowed to market as "organic" when the ingredients are not organic?

Labeling "organic" and the organic standard: 

When shopping for commercial products, know that labels such as "organic" only, "100% Natural and Organic," and the very misleading "organic materials" have no official or legal meaning among commercially produced and packaged items. These labels do not mean that the product contains materials from certified organic sources. Some commercially manufactured products are regulated and do carry the official USDA Organic label, if product standards are met, however, compost and compost-related commercially manufactured products are not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Commercially packaged composts are a "buyer beware" market:

The USDA certifies producers/ranchers of food and seed crops and the processors and handlers of organic products under their National Organic Program (NOP). (source: USDA website). However, the USDA does not regulate agricultural composts or compost products under its official standards. It is thus not a violation of federal rules for the term "organic" to appear on a compost label, even if the product may be purchased as a soil additive in an organic garden. (source: Dept. of Crop and Soil Sciences, Cornell University) Several separate state government agencies in the U.S. do work to regulate composts, but sometimes more strictly for immediate human health concerns rather than for the long-term contaminant dangers. For example, state governments guard against the use of sewage sludge in compost. Also, certain states regulate fertilizers, but not all their rules are suited to regulate composts. More information from the extension.org website suggests that the hesitancy of regulators to define organic compost or "organic input" may continue. There may be a hold-out on strict certification because the sources of compost products are many and the testing of such a variety of ingredients to determine possible contaminants is more complex.

Certification organizations for compost

When it is not possible to make your own compost, look for compost products that have been reviewed and certified organic by independent groups. A few agencies do deal with compost, so when buying commercial compost, look for reviewer seals on the package. Here are a few labels you may find on packages:

• The U.S. Composting Council (USCC) offers a "seal of testing assurance"; USCC provides testing and information disclosure on ingredients to consumers for product suppliers who participate in this program; USCC does not guarantee compliance with USDA organic but does test for metals under EPA standards for sludge composts

• The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI); a nonprofit organization that reviews and tests products to the USDA-certified organic standard; they require third-party testing for pathogens, pesticides, and heavy metals; the commercial products that OMRI has reviewed as safe are added to their list.

• The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) also reviews products according to the NOP and publishes a list of brand name products

• The Rodale Organic Gardening Seal of Approval Program, in partnership with Woods End Research Lab, focuses exclusively on composts. They test using parameters established under their program for specific end uses and then provide ratings of suitability for each of those uses.

Find out more through your own research

For our customers, we recommend educating yourselves as much as possible on the factors of organic growing, whether choosing produce being sold or choosing products to use in your own growing. Taking a careful, informed look at commercial labels is a must, but it is important to build your own knowledge of organic concerns. Consult with local farmers when possible in order to benefit from the community of practical knowledge within your local area. Farmers have experienced many of the issues of inaccurate labeling and questionable soil additives. Your local farmers who apply organic practices also have a high concern in soil-building methods. Also, keep in mind, commercial compost products may pass independent reviews for organic standards, but may not be truly good quality compost that builds the soil.

Since choosing a product may be difficult in light of what we've found here, can a commercial compost starter be avoided? Compost activators help break down materials high in carbon but low in nitrogen, like the large amounts of fallen leaves collected in the autumn. Garden catalogs may recommend using compost activator when starting a new compost pile, however, advisors at Alabama Cooperative Extension Service and Cornell Waste Management Institute say that your compost does not need a commercial starter or activator. High carbon materials like your collected tree leaves will be naturally supplemented by "green" ingredients like food scraps and grass clippings, supplying adequate nitrogen for microbes to thrive.

At Whirlwind Farms, instead of composting, we add to our soil by applying carbon leaf mulch and growing cover crop, which adds the "green stuff" to build the soil. To work within the NOP standards that dictate the timing of manure application, we have several cautions about manure use also. If using manures in your soil, keep in mind that possible chemicals and even medicines that may have been given to the livestock source of the manure can affect your soil and even poison your crop. If we truly feel we have a "clean" manure, we may apply it when we sow our winter or summer cover crop, well ahead of food planting and harvest dates. We believe our well-composted leaf mulch is the best route to avoid soil contamination and gray areas in the NOP rules.