Compost regulation in California

Posted below is a really excellent paper that James O’Claire did for the Environmental Studies class at UCLA in Winter 2013. James is a 2013 Asian Languages and Cultures grad currently living in Beijing. The paper captures what a class on experiential learning should be all about: toggling between “fieldwork”–in this case literally building and maintaining a garden–as well as research resources available through the course, and allied resources at UCLA, both textual and human.

Here is James’ basic research question and recommendation. You can download and read the paper below (scroll to the bottom of this post). He finds that, “The most striking aspect of the California compost regulations is that they are solely focused on keeping contaminants out and make no effort to regulate beneficial nutrients.” And he goes on to compare California’s state regulations to two other models, Minnesota and Oregon, and finds that these models both have strengths, including lists of specific definitions for the surprisingly ethereal stuff of compost.

If you find the research useful, it would be great if you could leave a note in the contact form below. It would help us demonstrate the real-world effect this course has, and help establish it permanently on the books. (At present it is a “topics” class, which means it has to be specially approved each year.) Please note that the paper is posted and shared under specific Creative Commons guidelines.

By examining other states’ requirements for composting I seek to understand how the California model compares and what possible ways it could be improved.  Currently, the standards which have been set have no legal consequences for those whose compost is mislabeled which misleads consumers on the quality and nutritional makeup of the composted soil.  California could most benefit from minimum nutrient requirements as well as a more specific ingredients list that includes percentages.



Last day of garden lab

Here are a couple of pictures I took to document the new projects we started yesterday–building a picnic table, designing and building a pea-scaffold, shaping an abstract sculpture of long tines of wood into a trellis that will also coax the peas skyward, mulching to protect from the heat, and putting in some new plantings.

A tower of peas poised to grow.

A tower of peas poised to grow.

Tines of re-purposed wood provide a pitchfork-like frame for peas to grow.

Tines of re-purposed wood provide a pitchfork-like frame for peas to grow.

Here is a snap of the some of the yukkier denizens of our new ecosystem, aphids that have infested the cabbage.

Aphids preying on the bolting cabbage.

Aphids preying on the bolting cabbage.

The UC ag resources website has this to say about them. They are indeed specialists, and called cabbage aphids~


Cabbage aphids are green gray with a white, waxy coating. They commonly occur in dense colonies, often covered with waxy droplets. They prefer to feed on the youngest leaves and flowering parts and are often found deep within the heads of cabbages or Brussels sprouts. The aphid has a simple life cycle with adult females giving birth to live offspring throughout the year in most parts of California. Both winged and wingless adults occur; the winged adults have a black thorax and lack the waxy coating. The aphid does not infest noncruciferous crops but can survive on related weed species when cole crops are not in the field.

No doubt we will see more similar “pests,” as we continue to grow things. I think the cabbages were a bit vulnerable because they were stuck in their pots so long before they initially got planted and they got kind of weak overall. Also, since we are just starting to build up our soil and its microbial worlds with new compost, the soil is also kind of “new,” and probably not as hardy a nutrient as it will be even in a few weeks.

And lastly, a group-ish picture as things wind down for the day.

Relaxing around the new picnic table that you guys just built!

Relaxing around the new picnic table that you guys just built!

Farm to college to table

A worker handles frozen high-end "wagyū" beef, sold through Washington State University. Source: NY Times.

A worker handles frozen high-end “wagyū” beef, sold through Washington State University. Source: NY Times.

Today’s New York Times had an interesting piece, “A University Steak to Go With That Sweatshirt?,” which explored the branding of colleges, and how it is inching into the realm of urban ag.While some colleges and universities have long had CSAs and worked farmers’ markets, there are some new gambits in branding.

…in recent years, food researchers said, a number of trends have coalesced, changing the stakes, and the possibilities, for what a college food brand might be…

The movement for locally sourced food has fueled a growth in student-led agriculture with new or expanded farm-to-table product lines in places like the urban gardens at George Washington University and the Sustainable Student Farm at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Student-run farms supplying dining halls and farmers’ markets have started or expanded at many institutions, including the University of California’s campuses in Davis and Chico. At the same time, the commercial branding of commodities has become an industry norm, from Washington State apples to California avocados.

“Schools are looking for new ways to generate revenue, but there is more entrepreneurial thinking in colleges and universities than ever before, too,” said Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell and the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Professor Wansink has studied what he calls “food halos.” That is the aura or glow that a compelling story or some connotation of health, social consciousness or environmentalism can bestow on a product. Colleges, he said, with nostalgic allegiances going back generations and educational missions that go beyond the profit motive, can often grab halos while only half trying.

“Anything like a university brand meat has an incredible halo,” he said.

Chickens in LA

We don’t work a lot with animals, beyond insects, in this class. Yet one of the most interesting movements on the urban ag radar in the LA area is the “urban chicken” movement. According to a piece in today’s San Gabriel Tribune, even San Marino, noted for its large lawns and private park-like spaces, has just lifted its chicken ban.

Source: San Gabriel Tribune.

Source: San Gabriel Tribune.

People see chickens as different than pets, and enjoy eating fresh eggs available just outside their door. A whole cottage industry (coop industry?) has emerged to design and build spaces for chickens into urban residences in the LA area.

[Mike] Scott, who quit his corporate job two years ago to start his backyard farm business, said he has seen a similar boom in business since he started his company. He has built chicken coops, “edible gardens” and bee hives for residents throughout the region and most recently constructed one for the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

“It’s basically sustainable living, and chicken coops are a big part of that,” he said. “You’re basically creating a mini ecosystem.”

Young Folks Urban Farmers

A bunch of young 2o-something people based in Lincoln Heights, working with even younger people–kids. They started a summer camp, and farm on this hilly space, a landscape that they describe as their biggest challenge.

You can see a KCET spot on them here.

Barry Estabrook’s original article

You might not first think of looking to Gourmet magazine for muckraking journalism. But that is where writer Barry Estabrook first published his essay on the quest for the perfectly formed tomato, and the workers who pick them. You can read it on line here.

Stephen Colbert on tomatoes and labor

Colbert went to Washington back in 2010 to give testimony to a Congressional sub-committee. This is based, partly, on his stint in the field picking himself, as 1 of 16 people to take on the UFW’s [United Farm Workers’] “Take Our Jobs” campaign.