Summary: Next Gen Compost project social research findings

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.

Among retailers and consumers, perceived barriers to compost-grown produce included:

  1. Lack of transparency around locally grown food: Retailers revealed that the supply chain for locally grown food is complex and opaque, making it difficult to promote compost-grown produce as ‘local’.
  2. Compost-grown produce not resonating with retailer values: Small-scale retailers driven by distinct value sets said they’d consider stocking compost-grown vegetables if these were consistent with their values. Larger retailers tend to focus on one or two main values, essentially, product criteria.
  3. Consumer confusion between ‘compost-grown’ and ‘organic’ vegies: Retailers expressed interest in selling compost-grown vegies but were divided on whether these could be marketed as a separate product line, presenting barriers to an expanded product range.
  4. Compost contamination concerns: Retailers also identified concerns that contamination of compost products could compromise produce quality and make 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.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGIES: RETAILERS & CONSUMERS

Both supermarkets interviewed expressed interest in selling vegetables grown with RO compost, and one 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, participation costs could deter some small-scale vegetable producers.

Consumers surveyed at farmers’ markets said their vegetable purchases were driven by a broad array of factors, principally quality and freshness but also environmental benefits and sustainability.

Support for local farmers; pesticide- and chemical-free produce; and in-season produce were other drivers. Once informed about recycled organics’ soil, plant and environmental benefits, 58 percent said they’d be ‘extremely’ or ‘very’ likely to purchase vegetables grown in RO compost.

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

PERCEIVED BARRIERS TO USING COMPOST: FARMERS & COMPOST SUPPLIERS

Costs: Farmers and supply-chain stakeholders (waste managers, compost producers, service providers and government) revealed that cost – and lack of demonstrated value – constrain demand. Only a few viewed compost use as economically viable – more farmers (15%) than non-farmers (5%).

Lack of demonstrated value: Other stakeholders commented that a larger problem than compost’s cost is the lack of demonstrated value in using it in commercial vegetable-growing – i.e. the cost of compost was not matched by adequate expectations of benefits or returns comparable to those offered by synthetic fertilisers.

Uncertainty about compost use and quality: The main perceived non-cost barriers included

  • farmers’ unfamiliarity with using compost;
  • the uncertain quality of compost;
  • insufficient quality assurance;
  • that compost is not suitable or ‘fit for purpose’ in farming systems; and
  • that compost use for farming systems has not been well disseminated.​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.

SURMOUNTING PERCEIVED BARRIERS TO COMPOST USE

Among vegetable growers and other supply-chain stakeholders, soil health and environmental benefits were the greatest perceived benefits of compost use.

The project team recommended that a better articulated value proposition for compost use be developed that includes communications to farmers that:

  • demonstrate the value of RO compost use;
  • provide solid evidence of its effectiveness; and “
  • explain compost’s value not just as a fertiliser replacement but as a soil conditioner with long-term benefits.

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

The ‘compost knowledge network’ identified through social network analysis showed that information flows from government, online sources and industry networks to farmers, who then share it with each other.

KEY BARRIERS TO DEMAND FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGETABLES

Drawing on the social research, the Next Gen Compost project identified four key constraints to adoption of RO compost use by growers, and to demand for 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.
  2. A product ‘identity crisis’: Compost-grown vegetable production systems draw on an array of organic/compost products, each with varying quality and sustainability attributes and carrying varying risks for farmers and consumers.
  3. Failure to meet all value requirements: 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.
  4. Price premiums ‘unjustified’ if produce isn’t certified organic: Compost-grown produce that’s not organic is 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.
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

GROWING THE MARKET FOR COMPOST-GROWN VEGIES: KEY ENABLERS

ISF’s social research showed some potential to establish a market for ‘compost-grown’, either as an additional attribute of organic or locally grown produce 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 and addressing identified challenges; they included:

  • reliability of supply;
  • demonstrated effectiveness (particularly to farmers);
  • compost quality;
  • trust;
  • transparency; and
  • consumer and retailer readiness.

DRIVING FUTURE DEMAND FOR COMPOST IN HORTICULTURE

It was difficult to engage farmers who were not using or considering using compost. 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.

The Next Gen Compost social research team recommends continuing to demonstrate the value and benefits of compost at 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.

Despite potential consumer and retailer demand for compost-grown-vegetables; the social research suggested they may be difficult to market as a standalone product. Further interviews with medium-to-large retailers would clarify the market potential of ‘compost-grown’.

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

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