Compost Use: Directions for Use
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Directions for Use—The Good, The Bad, and People Getting Ugly

Have you ever received one of those distressing calls from a client, claiming that your compost product caused irreparable damage to his or her crops? I genuinely hope that this has not been the case. At the very least, perhaps you have considered the potential that a consumer might use your product incorrectly and blame you for his or her failure.

 In the best-case scenario, you can guide the client back on track and provide some consultation on proper use. However, if a farmer or large grower believes your compost is the cause of their crop failure, he or she might demand a refund, insist that your company pay for remediation, or pledge to badmouth your product to fellow farmers. Does this seem improbable, outrageous, highly unlikely?

If so, think again! Longtime USCC members and compost industry professionals can likely conjure a story or two about a compost manufacturer having an unfortunate experience such as this. The best way to prevent misunderstandings from occurring—and in turn protecting your company and your compost’s reputation—is to stick to the directives of the STA Certified Compost Program. 

Thanks to the USCC, STA Certified Compost participants have a template upon which to list specific Directions for Use and feedstocks. While participants are reminded to use this valuable resource, it is in fact a requirement of the STA Certified Compost Program to include Directions for Use and Feedstock Descriptions (leaves, food scraps, biosolids, etc.).

How to Get Started If You Haven’t Been Using the Directions for Use Template

If your compost’s STA Certified Compost documentation does not yet adhere to these contractual requirements, there’s no time like the present! If you need assistance getting it squared away, contact Hilary Nichols (USCC Market Development Coordinator) and she will gladly assist. The USCC requires this for good reasons: to protect members, to create confidence in compost products, as well as to empower and inform consumers.

“Your compost is the same black color of the soil from my homeland, so I figured I’d just fill up my tall raised beds with it and plant! However, my seeds are just not germinating…?” This regrettable complaint could have been avoided by offering the STA Certified Compost ‘Directions for Use’ which would instruct compost to be used as a soil amendment, as part of a blend. Another issue at play with this client’s grievance is misunderstanding. He or she is clearly a newcomer to the geographical area, and what worked well in Illinois is likely to differ (at least by a degree) from Utah, for example. Our continent’s native soil profiles can vary greatly along with climatic conditions, OM (organic matter), preferred plants with their specific needs, and cultural methods.

Another problematic situation can arise when a consumer relies too heavily on previous experience, with insufficient consideration of soil conditions or the unique attributes of a specific compost. I witnessed firsthand an organic market farmer who inherited a working farm with soil enriched for decades using good organic matter. Annual compost applications were routine. The farmer learned how to grow beautiful vegetables there, became quite successful, and set off to start a new farm. The new plot’s soil was barren and undisturbed, with virtually no organic matter. So, the farmer wisely incorporated ample compost from an STA Certified Compost-supplier but planted the crops immediately. Unfortunately the farmer neither performed a soil test before planting to determine which supplements were needed nor allowed the compost adequate time. The crops suffered and stunted, and expectations were dashed. With anxious stakeholders, the farmer sought damages and reimbursement for lost income. The compost manufacturer had provided the STA Certified Compost lab analysis, but the product was simply not used properly. This is a prime example of how the Directions for Use can help to protect a compost manufacturer from major liabilities and potentially prevent misuse.

Composts can be diverse and vary based on feedstocks and methods, and therefore should be specified for their ideal use: for gardens, lawns, or trees & shrubs. As we all know, dirt is not “just dirt”, and compost is not “just any ole’ compost”. Once again, if your STA Certified Compost documentation contains Directions for Use and Feedstock Disclosure, it distinguishes your compost from others and classifies its best use(s).

The Compost Consumer Use Program (CCUP) is another tool provided by USCC to define different types of compost alongside general guidelines for use for each—plus there are snazzy icons for participants to use in labeling. (Consider this also from a marketing perspective: these could invite additional sales by suggesting alternative uses for each compost product.) 

While CCUP offers general guidelines for use, of course there are specific soil, climate, and cultural methods to be considered, as discussed above. It is recommended that each compost manufacturer consult with their state’s Cooperative Extension office for the most current recommendations on compost use. It would be unrealistic to expect that one set of directions will apply to every consumer and scenario, but good directions provide specific numbers and reasonable ranges. Invite consumers to contact you, the manufacturer, if they require confirmation or consultation. Do avoid vague or ambiguous guidelines that seem to dodge accountability.

Unlike other manufacturing industries, our product is a living, breathing material with variations in chemical, biological, and physical properties. Do make sure to include thorough Directions for Use and feedstock descriptions in your STA Certified Compost Program documentation. It’s a simple but effective way to strengthen your product in the marketplace while protecting your business and help ensure clear and correct use of compost products.


--Emily Rockey is a fellow compost manufacturer participant in the STA Certified Compost program.  She has a passion for both plants and sustainability. She can be reached at