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Ron Hamilton checks his composter on his organic farm, Sunworks, near Hay Lakes, Alta. (Ian Jackson/Ian Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
Ron Hamilton checks his composter on his organic farm, Sunworks, near Hay Lakes, Alta. (Ian Jackson/Ian Jackson for The Globe and Mail)

Farmers find opportunity in their waste Add to ...

When Ron and Sheila Hamilton look at a pile of animal dung, they don't hold their noses in disgust − they see opportunity. "From our point of view, waste is a great product," Mr. Hamilton says, laughing.

In 1992, the Hamiltons left their urban lives in Edmonton to start Sunworks Farms, where they've since built a business around coming up with innovative ways to use waste produced by the poultry, cattle, lambs, pigs and bison they raise. They decided to become farmers in part to take direct control over the food they ate because their family suffered from a host of allergies and other health problems, so going as green as possible was a no brainer.

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But the soil at the farm they bought near Armena, Alta., was terrible. "Our land is the worst land in the whole area. It's just brutal," Mr. Hamilton says. He remembers how rain water would run off the ground in miniature rivers because the topsoil was so eroded. The solution? Dung.

Each day during the warm months, a large moveable chicken coop is positioned on a new area of pasture where chickens do the work of maintaining the land by eating the grass, aerating the soil by searching for bugs, and fertilizing with their droppings. Cattle get moved once or twice a day to a new, relatively small area of pasture in order to eat, trample, and defecate on the grass. The result is an organic mush that is slowly turning into the topsoil the Hamiltons so desperately need. They also add compost from their onsite Biovator, a composter designed to break down animal waste from slaughtering and butchering as an alternative to an offsite rendering plant.

"We've improved our land dramatically," says Mr. Hamilton, describing how the grass now grows more than seven feet tall. "We've realized that waste is not a bad thing. If you manage it well, waste will actually make you money."

While farmers like the Hamiltons are investing time and money into minimizing and reusing their waste, the reality is that most farming produces not only food, but excess plastic, pesticides, manure, and more. However, the agriculture industry is coming up with innovative ways to manage its waste.

Taking the 'pest' out of pesticides

While producers of pesticides, fertilizers and other agriculture products aren't usually associated with environmentalism, their industry trade association, CropLife Canada, has one of the most successful agricultural stewardship programs in the country.

"All manufacturers want their product properly stewarded at the end of its life," says Barry Friesen, general manager of CleanFarms. "The motivation is to be good stewards of the environment, of course. The other motivation is that if [manufacturers]wait until they are regulated, the regulation may be so onerous that it causes a lot of problems."

CleanFarms offers three services to farmers, free of charge. It collects and recycles empty pesticide containers, which are then made into farm drainage tiles. Dry, granular products typically are packaged in bags, which CleanFarms collects and processes in a facility that produces electricity by burning waste facility. CleanFarms also tours the country collecting and safely disposing of obsolete pesticides. Many of these products have been stored on farms for years in unsafe containers simply because farmers had no way to dispose of them.

Mr. Friesen, a self-professed lover of agricultural waste, says that there are no longer any technological barriers to recycling all agricultural waste. "In the future, all of these products that aren't being managed will be. There's no reason in the world why we can't do it."

A good night's sleep for cows

Dairy farmer Gerard Baars's foremost concern was the comfort of his cows when he began looking into a better material to use for bedding. Bacteria can grow in wood shavings, which his family was using in their barns at Baarsview Farms, and could lead to cattle contracting illnesses. Plus the bedding needed to be replenished every time the barns were cleaned.

Mr. Baars then discovered the One Shot, a new technology that processes manure from barns using sand as bedding. The machine, which was the first installed in Canada, separates and cleans the sand from manure, and produces water that can then be used for cleaning the barn. "We are now totally self-sustaining when it comes to bedding," he says. "The advantage to sand is huge. It greatly lowers the chance of cows getting sick." The Baarses use some manure for fertilizing the corn and grass they grow to feed their cattle. They plan to soon start selling the excess as compost.

But for Mr. Baars, purchasing the One Shot was not only about reducing waste. "Cost wise, a good comfortable barn for cows is one of the best investments you can make," he says. "If you treat your cows well, they will produce well."

A second chance for plastic grain bags

It all started when farmers began asking: "What are we going to do with all of this twine?" There was nowhere to dispose of the plastic twine used to tie bales, other than at the landfill, and some of the larger farms could fill the box of a half-ton truck every day with twine. With few options, it was often burned. "In Alberta, sometimes people say that you can tell where the intensive livestock operations are by the black smoke coming up from the burning of all the twine," quips Tammy Myers, coordinator of the Moose Jaw River Watershed Stewards.

With many cattle ranches in the Moose Jaw River watershed, Ms. Myers's organization started investigating options for recycling agricultural plastics. They discovered an even larger problem; in the past five years, grain bags have become a popular alternative to transporting grain to store offsite. But the bags, which are some 75 meters long and weigh 150 kilograms, could only be used once. Between grain bags and twine, there is as much as 2,500 tons of plastic sold annually to farmers in Saskatchewan alone.

At Ms. Myers's and her colleagues' urging, the federal and Saskatchewan agriculture ministers launched a recycling pilot program with the ambitious mandate to recycle 2,000 tons of agricultural plastic into garbage bags.

Ms. Myers is pleased that the ministries of agriculture stepped up rather than leaving the issue to the ministry of the environment. "They acknowledged that this is an agriculture issue and didn't just wait until the plastic hit the landfill and became an environmental issue," she says. "It warms my heart that they see agriculture as a holistic cycle. That is what stewardship is all about."

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