On-farm compost production and Right to Farm

nderstanding the role of Right to Farm when composting activities occur on a farming operation.

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A handful of compost being examined for completion. Photo by Eliza Hensel, Michigan State University Extension.

The controlled biological decomposition of organic matter results in compost. By definition, manure that is not managed by generally accepted compost production standards cannot be called compost. At best it is decomposing manure. As an agricultural producer it is important to understand what your rights are as it pertains to what you can and cannot do with on-farm composting practices.  

Please note that this article was originally published in the Michigan Dairy Review in January 2009 by MSU Extension educator Charles Gould and Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development analyst Steve Mahoney. This work has been revised by MSU Extension educator Eliza Hensel to ensure current regulations and resources are accurately reflected. 

Uses and benefits of compost 

Compost has many uses and benefits in a cropping system. Compost encourages the formation of appropriately sized soil aggregates which protect the soil from erosion and compaction. It enhances soil fertility through the slow release of macro- and micro-nutrients and improving nutrient availability to growing crops. Most importantly, compost helps support living biological systems by imparting soil with beneficial microorganisms that suppress or control soil-borne plant pathogens. These suppressive qualities occur in compost made with specific feedstocks for specific cropping systems. Feedstocks, in this context, refer to the organic matter used to supply the carbon and nitrogen necessary for compost production. Examples of carbon feedstocks include sawdust and straw. Examples of nitrogen feedstocks include manure and fresh grass clippings. 

What does it mean to have Right to Farm coverage? 

The Michigan legislature passed into law the Michigan Right to Farm (RTF) Act (Act 93 of 1981). The Michigan RTF Act requires the establishment of Generally Accepted Agricultural and Management Practices (GAAMPs). These practices are written to provide uniform, statewide standards and acceptable management practices based on sound science. On a livestock farm where manure is produced, these practices are implemented through a Manure Management Systems Plan (MMSP) found in the GAAMPs for Manure Management and Utilization (commonly called the Manure GAAMPs). The Manure GAAMPs can be found at www.michigan.gov/righttofarm. A farmer complies with the intent of the Michigan Right to Farm Act when a MMSP is developed, implemented, and sufficient documentation is provided to prove the plan was followed. 

There has been some confusion about how far RTF coverage extends, especially for farmers who: a) bring feedstocks used in compost production onto the farm, and b) sell compost to others. The purpose of this article is to clarify what coverage a farmer can expect under RTF if he/she chooses to compost manure. 

Biological treatment method 

According to the Manure GAAMPs, a biological treatment system is designed to convert organic matter, such as feed, bedding, animal manure and other agricultural by-products, to more stable end products. Composting is listed as a biological treatment method in Manure GAAMPs. Therefore, compost production, as a biological treatment system for manure, is part of a farm’s MMSP. Compost production practices referenced in the Manure GAAMPs are from the On-Farm Composting Handbook (NRAES-54). A newer composting handbook is available from the Compost Research and Education foundation and can be purchased through the United States Composting Council. Farms considering composting manure should add this handbook to their library.  

Compost Production Scenarios 

Regarding composting manure and the distribution of compost, many different scenarios could occur on a farm. The feedstocks used to make the compost, scale of farm operation, composting method, and final utilization of the compost will determine whether the material and activities are covered under RTF or are regulated by the Michigan Department of Environment  Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)  Materials Management Division (MMD) and/or Water Resources Division (WRD) [for farms under a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit]. 

Scenario I 

In general, manure generated and composted on a farm (as a form of treatment) may be used on that same farm or taken off that farm for off-site utilization at another farm under RTF. Compost use and application should follow GAAMPs recommendations. 

Scenario II 

Manure generated on one farm and brought to a different farm for composting (as a form of treatment) may be used on the farm where it is composted under RTF, if managed according to GAAMPs. Any distribution of the composted manure from the farming operation will be considered ‘commercial composting’ and subject to NREPA part 115 rules, as administered by EGLE MMD. 

Scenario III 

Similarly, yard clippings (e.g., grass clippings, leaves, small brush, as defined by part 115) brought to a farm for composting (as a form of treatment) may be used as a soil amendment on that same farm under RTF, if managed according to GAAMPs. In most cases the farm will need to have and follow a Compost Operation Plan (COP) approved by MDARD. A COP includes a site plan, inventory of amount(s) of material(s) received, a description of how the materials will be composted, a description of storm water and runoff management practices, and utilization of the finished compost. 

For MDARD to make a GAAMPs determination under this scenario, the farm will need to 

  • Submit a COP to MDARD  
  • Allow MDARD to conduct an on-site inspection  
  • Produce adequate records to document adherence to the COP and conformance to GAAMPs for Nutrient Utilization (different from the Manure GAAMPs but found at the same website.)  

Scenario IV

Yard waste brought to a farm for composting (not as a form of treatment) and distributed from that farm in any form (raw yard waste, partially composted compost, or finished compost) is considered a commercial composting facility and is solely under EGLE authority. A farmer has no RTF coverage under this scenario. 


RTF coverage extends to all farms that make compost for their own use if it is managed according to GAAMPs. Anything beyond this designation is considered commercial composting and does not receive RTF coverage. These operations fall under the purview of EGLE. If a farm is used as a commercial composting site, permits may be obtained from EGLE. Contact your local MSU Extension office for more information about on-farm compost production. Current Michigan legislation on solid waste management can be found at https://www.michigan.gov/egle/-/media/Project/Websites/egle/Documents/Laws-Rules/MMD/Part-115-Rules.pdf?rev=dad89a7cbc444728944369d1590dec3c 

It’s important to always check your local ordinances regarding compost compliance for your local area. For questions about composting visit  https://www.canr.msu.edu/home_gardening/soils-compost/