Conventional farming relies heavily on mineral fertilizers for plant nutrients necessary for intensive production. Although the release of nutrients from mineral fertilizers is predictable, reliable, and can be balanced to meet crops’ needs, synthetic sources of nitrogen (fixed by the Haber–Bosch process) are energy intensive to produce, prohibited by agencies that certify organic practices, and do not provide a source of carbon to build soil OM (Crews and Peoples, 2004). The use of composts and manures as sources of nutrients for agriculture predates the use of synthetically fixed nitrogen, and more recently, novel types of organic wastes, from industrial and municipal sources, are being considered for their potential as fertilizer replacements (Parr and Hornick, 1992).
Organic wastes provide both plant nutrients and carbon to build soil OM, and many are locally available, reducing the expense and environmental impacts of transportation. Land application would prevent the need to landfill or incinerate wastes, recycle nutrients that would otherwise be lost, and potentially sequester carbon in the soil. Finally, unlike synthetic sources of nitrogen, these wastes have the potential to be approved for use in USDA-certified organic agriculture (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2015).
Many organic waste streams are underused despite the advantages of their use in agriculture. A total of 34.2 million tons of yard waste (leaves and grass) and 37.1 million tons of food scraps were generated in the United States in 2013, of which only 20.6 and 1.8 million tons, respectively, were recovered for beneficial use (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2015). With many states moving away from landfilling and incinerating yard waste and moving toward aerobic composting, the amount of yard waste compost available for land application is likely to increase (Arsova et al., 2008).
For farmers to effectively and sustainably incorporate organic wastes as sources of plant nutrients they need to know not only if the wastes are safe but also whether wastes can produce equivalent yields to mineral fertilizers and the application rates necessary to achieve these yields. Although there is a great deal of information on the safety and effects on soil fertility of some organic wastes, such as biosolids, more novel products, such as gelatin, paper, and dehydrated food waste, remain relatively unstudied (Elliot et al., 2005; Gilmour et al., 2003; Sidhu and Toze, 2009).
The results of previous studies of waste amendment application for crop production have shown variable effects on soil properties, fertility, and crop yield. Although studies of amendment with paper mill sludge have shown no significant increases in soil concentrations of heavy metals, a review of municipal solid waste (MSW) compost found that it increased soil heavy metals and EC and, in some cases, inhibited plant growth (Aitken et al., 1998; Douglas et al., 2003; Hargreaves et al., 2008). Soil amendment with paper mill sludge as well as repeated application of MSW compost and biosolids or BS have been shown to increase soil C and OM levels and lower bulk density (Douglas et al., 2003; Foley and Cooperband, 2002; Gagnon et al., 2001; Hargreaves et al., 2008; Ozores-Hampton et al., 2011; Zibilske et al., 2000).
Although some studies showed that the application of MSW compost increased soil N levels, others found it to be a less effective source of plant-available N than mineral fertilizers (Hargreaves et al., 2008). Chellemi and Rosskopf (2004) reported that incorporation of yard waste lowered soil nitrate-N, whereas Casado-Vela et al. (2007) found increasing soil levels of total Kjeldahl nitrogen and nitrate with increasing application rates of composted sewage sludge. Application of paper sludge has been associated with N immobilization in the soil (Aitken et al., 1998; Simard et al., 1998).
Reported waste amendment effects on vegetable yield and quality are variable. Maynard and Hill (2000) reported increased yield and decreased incidence of soft rot disease for onions (Allium cepa L.) grown with leaf compost. Ozores-Hampton and Peach (2002), in a review of studies of biosolids and biosolid cocomposts, found that whereas biosolids alone often increased vegetable yields, combining biosolids and mineral fertilizers was generally more effective than biosolids alone. Several studies of commercial cereal crops have reported negative or neutral yield responses to application of paper sludge (Aitken et al., 1998; Douglas et al., 2003; Simard et al., 1998). Although Foley and Cooperband (2002) reported no effect on potato yields after paper mill sludge application, yields of potatoes, sweet corn, and squash (Cucurbita maxima L.) were lower in soil treated with MSW compost compared with fertilizer-treated soils (Hargreaves et al., 2008).
The main goal of this study was to address some of the gaps in knowledge regarding the use of organic waste amendments to grow vegetables. Six types of waste amendments—BS, FW, MS, GW, PF, and YW—were applied to provide a consistent rate of C, and effects on soil properties and crop yield were compared with a mineral fertilizer control.
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