Key findings: Next Gen Compost project social science research

SUBSCRIBE to our fortnightly e-newsletter to receive more stories like this. Vegetables on sale: the social research component of the Next Gen Compost project explored supply and demand-side drivers of compost use in commercial vegetable growers across NSW.
Vegetables on sale: the social research component of the Next Gen Compost project explored supply and demand-side drivers of compost use in commercial vegetable growers across NSW
Erfan A Setiawan, Flickr CC

Creating Demand for Recycled Organic Compost, also known as the ‘Next Gen Compost’ project, a collaboration between NSW FarmersGreater Sydney Local Land Services (LLS) and the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology Sydney (UTS), sought to investigate current and potential demand for recycled organics across New South Wales.

The project, funded under the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s Organics Market Development Grants Program, part of the EPA’s ‘Waste Less, Recycle More’ initiative, used multiple on-farm trials to demonstrate sustainable soil use and productivity benefits in capsicum and corn crops.

Concurrently, the Institute for Sustainable Futures (ISF) conducted surveys, interviews and other social analyses with stakeholders along the supply chain – growers, supply-chain participants and consumers – to identify barriers to compost use by vegetable growers and opportunities to drive demand for it.

SURVEYING THE TARGET MARKETS

ISF conducted a mix of surveys and one-on-one interviews with:

  • farmers and non-farmer stakeholders, to identify barriers and opportunities to using compost; and
  • consumers and retailers (including owners, managers and other staff of food cooperatives, social enterprises, a wholesaler and a supermarket), to:
    - ascertain levels of recycled organics compost awareness and interest;
    - understand what drives people to buy produce grown with RO composts;
    - evaluate demand for such produce; and
    - determine if a niche market could be developed for vegetables produced with RO composts.

PERCEIVED BARRIERS TO COMPOST-GROWN PRODUCE: RETAILERS & CONSUMERS

  • Lack of transparency around locally grown food
    SFI’s interviews with food retailers revealed that the supply chain for locally grown food is complex and opaque, making it difficult to promote compost-grown produce on these grounds.

  • Compost-grown produce not resonating with retailer values:
    Small-scale retailers driven by distinct value sets would consider stocking compost-grown vegetables consistent with their values. In contrast, larger retailers tend to focus on one or two main values (essentially, product criteria).
     
  • Consumer confusion between ‘compost-grown’ and ‘organic’ vegies
    Retailers surveyed expressed interest in selling vegetables grown with compost but lacked consensus on whether these could be marketed as a separate product line (rather than as an additional attribute to organic produce), presenting barriers to an expanded product range.
     
  • Compost contamination concerns
    Retailers also identified concerns about contamination of compost products compromising resulting produce quality, making it difficult to incorporate compost into organic growers’ production systems.
Organic vegetables in Melbourne's Fruits of Life: research identified some consumer confusion about how compost-grown vegetables differ from 'certified organic' ones.
Organic vegetables in Melbourne's Fruits of Life: research identified some consumer confusion about how compost-grown vegetables differ from 'certified organic' ones.
Shawn Smith, Flickr CC

OPPORTUNITIES FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGIES: RETAILERS & CONSUMERS

Retailers: Potential to promote sustainable ‘plate-to-paddock-to-plate’ produce

Both supermarkets interviewed expressed interest in selling vegetables grown with RO compost, but greater interest in reducing their own food waste. One supermarket saw potential consumer interest in a new type of sustainable produce that includes growing with compost, if an industry-wide ‘standardised sustainability metric’ and accreditation system was put in place; however, the cost of participating in such a scheme could deter some small-scale vegetable producers.

Consumers: Social and environmental motivations

The consumers ISF surveyed were motivated to shop for vegetables at farmers’ markets by a broad array of drivers, predominantly quality and freshness. Environmental benefits and sustainability were also important drivers.

Various social and environmental motivations were identified as key drivers of intention to buy; those mentioned most commonly included:

  • support for local farmers;
  • pesticide-free and chemical-free produce; and
  • in-season produce.

More than half (58%) the respondents, once informed about recycled organics’ soil, plant and environmental benefits, said they’d be either ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ likely to purchase vegetables grown in RO compost.

This finding shows that there is a potential market for compost-grown vegetables within this consumer group if it can be demonstrated that the product is consistent with their values.

PERCEIVED BARRIERS TO USING COMPOST: FARMERS & COMPOST SUPPLIERS

  1. Costs

Interviews and surveys with farmers and other supply-chain stakeholders (waste managers, compost producers, service providers and government) revealed that cost – and lack of demonstrated value – continue to constrain demand. The principal perceived barrier to compost use was the cost – that of transporting and spreading compost, and of the product itself. Only a small number of respondents viewed compost use in commercial vegetable-growing as economically viable – more farmers (15%) than non-farmers (5%).

  1. Lack of demonstrated value

Other stakeholders commented that the problem was not so much the cost of compost as the lack of demonstrated value in using it within commercial vegetable-growing operations.

They noted that the cost of compost, as perceived by farmers, was not matched by an adequate perception of benefit or return, especially as compost is competing with synthetic fertilisers.

  1. Uncertainty about compost use and quality

The main perceived non-cost barriers identified in the social research included:

  • farmers’ unfamiliarity with using compost;
  • the uncertain quality of compost; and
  • the lack of sufficient quality assurance with regard to the product.

Some interviewees also expressed perceptions that compost was not suitable or ‘fit for purpose’ in farming systems; and that the benefits of compost use for farming systems had not been well disseminated.

Next Gen Compost project participant and commercial vegetable grower Jeff McSpedden with Greater Sydney LLS's Matt Plunkett and University of Queensland's Dr Jitka Kochanek at McSpedden's farm near Bathurst, NSW.
Next Gen Compost project participant and commercial vegetable grower Jeff McSpedden with Greater Sydney LLS's Matt Plunkett and University of Queensland's Dr Jitka Kochanek at McSpedden's farm near Bathurst, NSW.
University of Queensland (UQ)

OPPORTUNITIES FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGIES: FARMERS & COMPOST SUPPLIERS

Surveys and interviews with vegetable growers and other stakeholders showed that the greatest perceived benefits of compost use among members of these target groups were:

  • soil health; and
  • environmental benefits.

SURMOUNTING BARRIERS TO DEMAND: A BETTER ARTICULATED VALUE PROPOSITION FOR COMPOST USE

The project team recommended that to overcome these barriers, a better articulated value proposition for compost use is required.

This could include communications to farmers focused on demonstrating the value of RO compost use by providing solid evidence of its effectiveness and clarity around compost product identity.

Such communications need to explain the role of compost not as a direct replacement for fertiliser, but as a soil conditioner that has long-term benefits for soil health and thus productivity over time.

concerns about compost contamination could be addressed by developing and implementing a quality-assured or certified compost product for commercial growers with standardised attributes. 

SOCIAL NETWORK ANALYSIS

A social network analysis of farmers and other allowed for better understanding of how stakeholders source and share information on compost.

The ‘compost knowledge network’ identified showed a clear flow of information from reputable sources (government, online sources and industry networks) to farmers, who then shared information with each other.

Minister Niall Blair, inspecting vegetables grown using recycled organic compost as part of the Next Gen Compost trials at Greater Sydney LLS Demonstration Farm near Richmond, north-west of Sydney.
Minister Niall Blair, inspecting vegetables grown using recycled organic compost as part of the Next Gen Compost trials at Greater Sydney LLS Demonstration Farm near Richmond, north-west of Sydney.
NSW Farmers

KEY BARRIERS TO DEMAND FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGETABLES

Drawing on the social research, the Next Gen Compost project identified four key constraints to widespread adoption of RO compost use by growers, and of compost-grown vegetables by retailers and consumers:

  1. Regulation, compliance and assurance concerns

As yet, compost-grown vegetables lack the ‘certified trust’ that people associate with organic produce.

  1. A product ‘identity crisis’

Compost-grown vegetable production systems draw on an array of sources and formulations of organic/compost products, each with different quality and sustainability attributes, and carrying different risks for farmers and consumers.

  1. Failure to meet all value requirements

In terms of the ‘value requirements’ of consumers and retailers, compost-grown vegetables fall between organic and conventional produce. While compost-grown vegetables are significantly more sustainable than vegies grown using conventional methods, they fail to satisfy all values espoused by consumers of organic produce, particularly regarding perceived health benefits.

  1. Price premiums ‘unjustified’ if produce isn’t certified organic

As compost-grown produce is not organic, the social research indicated that it would be unlikely to gain acceptance solely on the basis of potentially improved sustainability. And without the promise of premium pricing, market pull-through for compost-grown vegetables is difficult to promote to farmers.

Food waste being transported to a composting facility:AORA estimates that an additional 13m tonnes of organic waste could be diverted from landfill annually and productively recycled.
Food waste being transported to a composting facility:AORA estimates that an additional 13m tonnes of organic waste could be diverted from landfill annually and productively recycled.
Letitia Baker, Flickr CC
GROWING THE MARKET FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGIES: KEY ENABLERS

ISF’s social research showed some potential to establish a market for compost-grown vegetables, either as an additional attribute of organic or locally grown products targeting ‘green-leaning’ consumers; or as a new ‘sustainable’ product line targeting conventional consumers.

The research identified a number of key enablers for expanding the market for compost-grown vegetables and addressing the key challenges identified. These enablers included:

  • reliability of supply;
  • demonstrated effectiveness (particularly to farmers);
  • compost quality;
  • trust;
  • transparency; and
  • consumer and retailer readiness.
Shopping for fruit and veg, Sydney: the social research identified some potential drivers of demand for compost-grown vegetables among value-driven consumers.
Shopping for fruit and veg, Sydney: the social research identified some potential drivers of demand for compost-grown vegetables among value-driven consumers.
Niklas Morberg, Flickr CC

DRIVING FUTURE DEMAND FOR COMPOST IN HORTICULTURE

Farmers and other stakeholder canvassed by ISF’s social research team were self-selected, and had higher awareness of compost than growers generally. It was difficult to engage farmers who were not already knowledgeable about or interested in using compost to get a broader picture of perceptions about and barriers to compost use. For this group, awareness-raising is the first step towards engagement.

Information on the AgInnovators web portal can contribute to this goal, as can peer-to-peer learning among farmers, a common and effective pathway to shared understanding of compost use. Continuing to engage with ‘early adopters’ via extension activities is an important part of awareness-raising among growers.

The Next Gen Compost social research team recommends continuing to demonstrate the value and benefits of compost at practical workshops, information sessions and field days as a way of drawing vegetable farmers into the ‘compost knowledge network’, allowing the network to extend and strengthen organically.

The research indicated potential consumer and retailer demand for compost grown-vegetables; however, it also suggested that they may be difficult to market as a standalone product as ‘compost-grown’ falls into an ambiguous zone between ‘certified organic’ and ‘conventionally grown’ produce.

Most respondents recognised the environmental benefits of using compost but were less certain about whether an additional labelling scheme promoting compost-grown vegetables would be an advantage in the current market. 

Further interviews with medium-to-large retailers (particularly supermarket chains) would clarify the market potential of ‘compost-grown’.

Due to the varying definitions of ‘compost’, careful marketing and messaging when promoting compost-grown vegetables in the marketplace will be imperative. '

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