Residents throughout the Northwest Territories (NWT) are flocking to the Northern Farm Training Institute (NFTI) in Hay River to learn how to grow crops. The challenge is finding enough productive land in their communities to pursue agricultural endeavors.
That’s where Hay River-based egg producer, Choice North Farms, and its plan to convert its poultry manure into compost could play a vital role to help develop productive soils in many northern communities.
Kim Rapati, NFTI Operations Manager and former Hay River Regional Manager for an environmental advocacy group called Ecology North 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. Addition of compost to what she described as ‘young soils’ will provide community members with the opportunity to establish and develop their farming skills.
“The composting venture was initiated by us,” says Kevin Wallington, Choice North Farms sales and marketing representative. “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
The farm houses about 117,000 laying hens producing about 37 million eggs and 3500 tonnes of manure per year near Hay River. It is working with Ecology North, the NWT government, federal government, NFTI and Town of Hay River on its composting venture. The plan is to start with a 160 cubic metre pilot scale site involving the use of about nine tonnes 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 18,000 cubic metres 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, but 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. Kevin Wallington is also Glen’s son, as well as sales and marketing director for Polar Egg.
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 22 kilometers 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, Kevin 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.
The concept is to establish an open-turned windrow system where the manure, paper and wood are piled into five metre wide by three metre tall windrows. At full scale operation, 3420 tonnes of poultry manure generated by the egg farm will be combined with 2800 tonnes of paper and 500 tonnes of wood to produce about 3400 cubic metres 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 air flow 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 that 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
Wallington says that 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.
Savings in diverting paper waste from the Hay River landfill to the poultry farm composting site is estimated at almost 14,000 cubic metres of space, and at $150 per cubic metre, that is 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, it is estimated that there is the potential to generate just over $235,000 per year in compost sales at $70 per tonne, 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 300 metres from the stockpiled manure in the landfill for easy access.
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 does not stay warm for as long as areas further south. The temperature in the windrows is required to achieve at least 55 degrees Celsius 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. 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 is 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 for everything ranging from expansion of agriculture to reclamation and for municipal uses as well.”