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A Compost of Ideas

April 6, 2009

img_0519_2My family has had a compost bucket for as long as I can remember.  It was an eternal chore to take it out behind the garage and stir it into the dirt, and I’ve even heard that my brother now performs that chore as a form of rent.  But there is a science, even an art some might say, in transforming decaying organic matter into rich soil.

On Saturday Dirk and I went to an Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario (EFAO) meeting about compost.  The meeting was held over a potluck lunch at a farm up north a bit in the Blue Hills region.  Irene, the compost queen of the farm had recently spent an intensive week with Dr. Elaine Ingham looking at the microbial science and biology of compost and compost teas. 

The work of Dr. Ingham’s work stems from the scientific explanation of a compost theory first described by Rudolf Steiner and his beliefs in biodynamic farming.  The general practice is to encourage rapid microbial growth and composting by monitoring heat, carbon/nitrogen balance in the mix and turning the mix to keep the processes aerobic.

Her work focuses on the complex symbiotic relationships between the various minerals, bacteria, microorganisms and fungi when creating “good” compost.  She then takes this a step further and asks the question what is “good” compost, and naturally each type of plant prefers a different combination of all the goodies to get exactly what it wants.  She also has elevated the use and concept of a compost tea to where she is brewing specific combinations of bacteria or fungi or even microorganisms that will then out-compete and effectively combat many plant diseases or fungi.  This tea can then be sprayed or applied to the plants and restore the imbalance that had caused the problem to begin with.

Dr. Ingham is also a proponent of preserving the complex and still misunderstood microbiological soil system that makes plants grow and has given many talks around the world about the importance of not using chemical and mineral supplements because they do not belong in that system.

Half of the farmers that showed up to the meeting were avid members of the choir Dr. Ingham has been preaching to for a few years now.  The other half was merely interested in learning a bit about how to compost more effectively.

We started the workshop by preparing some microscope samples from various composts from the visiting farmers and looked at them under the microscopes that people had brought from home. And while it was tons of fun to chase feeding nematodes and ciliates around the slide it created an immediate division in those who had some scientific knowledge or background and those who were just simple, experienced farmers.  The last thing we needed was divided farmers.

I think some idealistic part of me had always dreamed that I could come up with some system, some guiding idea that could change the face of agriculture and steer it towards the path of sustainability.  Even though the group of eighteen farmers that was at this meeting were all part or entirely organic, they all had very different, individualized operations.  And in the end it is the operation that defines what the farmer can and cannot do.

The ideas that we were seeing and hearing seemed to be flawless, organic controls of the worst pests and un-preventable diseases, in theory.  But the reality of applying them to even our holistic and sustainable farm was impractical.  Farmers live on practicality.

For us applying their method was not an option because:
•    To maintain our Organic certification we have to use certified organic compost or abide by the rules for using raw manure.  For our purposes it is worth saving the time and not making compost and leave the legal period of time required before planting certain vegetables after spreading manure.
•    The compost process that they propose for proper growth of the all the right bacteria and microorganisms requires careful monitoring of the compost temperature and once it reaches one hundred and sixty degrees Fahrenheit it must be turned.  This can happen a few times in a week.  Moving the manure of even our small herd of roughly twenty cows is the main use of our tractor, and we try to keep the use of fossil fuels as low as possible.  This means we turn the compost to keep it warm and to “keep the bugs happy” as Tony says, but a few times a week is too much.
•    When you compost in the way that Dr. Ingham describes you loose at least sixty percent of the volume of your compost, and this loss is primarily carbon in the form of organic matter.  The compost then becomes more friable, crumbly and much more difficult to load and spread with conventional horse drawn manure spreaders.

Here is Tony spreading the manure on our fields.  As he turns the corner you can see him engage the spreader and the subsequent cloud of manure.

One of the things that I hope to continue to pursue and explore in my writings here is the constant disconnect that I see between farmers and scientists, intellectuals and peasants, policy and reality…etc.  As Dirk and I drove back though the land of beautiful Ontario homesteads it was clear to us on which side of that divide we were on: practical farmers.  The science may be leading the way but farmers are not quick to jump down a shortcut someone says is shorter.  And how many scientists work on a farm, or think like a farmer?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Katrina permalink
    April 6, 2009 8:08 pm

    Did you know that in grade 11, when I homeschooled one of my courses was about farm stuff and I studied composting?

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