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City of Great Bend cooking up great soil for local gardeners
new vlc compost facility
Great Bends compost facility can be seen just north of the Arkansas River walking path on the south end of the city. Each year, the city keeps 9,000 yards of yard waste out of the county landfill and provides 3,000 yards of finished compost to taxpayers, free for the taking. - photo by VERONICA COONS Great Bend Tribune

Gardeners may finally catch a break after unexpectedly cool weather last week.  It’s finally time to start digging and planting, and that means its the perfect time to think about soil health.  For gardeners in Great Bend, the city provides plenty of rich dark compost free for the taking.
Mike Crawford, the city’s street supervisor, also manages operations at the compost facility located at 97 SW 5th Ave.  There, city residents are encouraged to drop off their grass, leaves, brush and tree limbs any time of day or night, seven days a week.  They may also load up as much compost as they can carry home.
“We were told when we started this back in 2000 that it could take years to educate the public on what is how this all works,” Crawford said.  No construction debris of any kind is allowed.  That includes lumber, shingles, metal, paper products, or any other trash.  In the beginning, the crew would find appliances and car parts among the discarded items.  “It did take years, but now people have it figured out, and it’s been much better.”
The city created the compost facility when the Barton County landfill would no longer accept yard waste.  It was filling up the landfill too fast.  The solution is working out well, Crawford said.  Each year, the city diverts 9,000 cubic yards of debris from the landfill.  It takes about eight to 10 weeks to finish a batch of compost, which then measures one third its original mass.  This has added many years to the landfill, he said.
People walking or riding bikes along the Arkansas River path can see several rows of compost in various stages of completion.  Each row is 400 feet long, 15 feet wide and up to five feet high.  Each week, city workers turn the compost at least once.  It takes a pretty big machine to churn that much compost.  As the driver travels down the row, along side a box with a grinder pushes all the debris forward while it turns it, and a tank of water injects additional moisture into the mass.  By adding oxygen and water to the mix, the microorganisms that break down the organic material can thrive.
“If the grass gets smelly, it means there isn’t enough oxygen in there,” Crawford said.  “When you fluff it up and get more air in it, the smells go away.”
Not only does the city’s compost add nutrients to the soil, it also helps to lighten compacted clay soils and helps sandy soils hold more water.  Crawford said he uses the product on his own ground, and can see a visible difference in areas where compost has been added compared to where it has not.
While the compost is cooking, Crawford said the natural process raises the temperature to 150 degrees.  That’s enough to kill most weed seeds and break down any garden chemicals.  The primary difference, he said, between what the city produces and what a commercial composter produces, is the city’s main goal is to finish the product and get it out to the public as quickly as possible.  A commercial producer is in it to make money, and will do more screening and packaging.
Crawford turns the corner around some massive piles of branches and limbs and to reveal the screening plant the facility uses to remove most of the larger sticks and branches from its compost.  A front end loader carries the product to a conveyor belt which travels to the screen which vibrates, sending finished compost through to the dump truck below.  From there, it goes to a large pile of finished compost.
Each week, Crawford said the city puts out anywhere from five to 10 yards of compost which goes to the gardens and yards throughout the community.  Last year, for the first time, the Barton County Landfill actually came to him, needing cover for parts of the landfill.  They took nearly 1600 yards of unscreened compost.  That was good, because drought conditions last year made it hard to keep the compost wet, and that slowed the cooking time.  If the landfill hadn’t taken what it had, Crawford would be left starting yet another row of the black gold.
“There’s plenty and there’s always more where that came from,” he said.  That’s good news for anyone who’s been waiting for the return of the coveted homegrown tomato.
Web resources:
KSU Extension composting publication:
Build a tumbling composter:
How to build a rain barrel: