Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Few Reasons Why Compost Could Save Us.

Yes, the news on the environment is really bad this week.  We have an estimated  200,000 thousand gallons of crude floating to the surface in the Gulf of Mexico every day for over a week adding to an environmental wipe out that could reach unprecedented proportions and stretch from Louisiana all the way up the east coast..

But even if you are convinced that burning fossil fuel will destroy the planet, you're probably no more prepared to live without it than I am.  Lets face it we all need to find some answers and we may not like the answers we find. But obviously the time has come to get serious about alternatives. So how DO we get control of the mess we're in and keep everything from spiraling out of control?

Let's start with compost.

Now, I'll disclaim this post here and now with an admission that I am not loaded with research grants or University degrees but there is such a thing as experiential learning.  And I've been working on this for a while, so I hope you'll follow along and add your comments.  Even if I put a foot out of step here, I hope you'll see that what I'm saying makes sense on some fundamental levels. So let's check out the basics.

Plants take in Co2 and breathe out oxygen.  The carbon taken up by plants create the structure of the plant itself. Stems of grasses, wood, leaves, etc are all rich in carbon.

A lot of this carbon comes from the air - the Co2 in the atmosphere.  And we humans put a lot of carbon out there when we burn fuel. There's more there now than there was before we stopped taking a yak to work and drove an Audi instead.

If we park the Audi and take the carbon that plants have soaked up and put it back into the earth, we are sequestering this carbon by taking it out of the air and putting it back where it came from and we're doing something else too.  We're creating plant based fertilizer for new pants to use and eliminating the fossil fuel we were using to create synthetic fertilizer like ammonia nitrates.  Nitrates make plants grow, but they are produced by burning large amounts of natural gas which enters the atmosphere (more Co2) and the leftover nitrates tend to drift into our drinking water which isn't good for people.

With me so far?

OK, so in our organic system at Dunn Creek Farm we really can't rely on chemical based fertilizers.  But without them, we quickly exhaust the fertility of the soil which means that crop yields drop.  And they drop fast.  Enter compost.

First, we harvest all that collected carbon. Dead plants, horse manure, old hay, cleared brush, wood chips, and we mix it in with other stuff like green waste from the kitchen, green plants that have finished producing, vegetables that aren't good for market, grass clippings and seaweed.  Yes, I've been seen on the beach after a big storm scooping up tons of seaweed for compost.       

This material gets layered up in big windrows in a field. Each windrow is about 4 feet wide and 20 feet long.  In short order it gets all hot and steamy, as an army of bacteria feed on the air, moisture and nutrient dense materials in the pile.  The plumes of steam from a working pile look really magnificent on a fall morning.

I cover it up with a tarp to keep weeds from growing on the top and let it work.  By the next fall it looks like dark brown earth.  It's full of worms and bugs and fungus and bacteria...just the stuff to inoculate the field and feed the plants we'll grow next year.  Now some people are saying that hot compost destroys biological benefits like microorganisms and fungus and that a low temp or cold process is actually more beneficial. Hot compost is a means to kill pathogens and weed seeds, so material that is hot composted is thought to be cleaner. The rules for application require a hot composting process in order for the material to be called compost.  Otherwise it is regulated as "manure".  This kind of thinking can give you a headache.  But in order to get the most benefit from the input we make and to comply with regulations that are intended for food safety, we apply our compost/manure in the fall and that way it is never in direct contact with edible food crops.

Now, the fact is that we cannot produce enough compost to meet our fertility needs.  So we also rotate our plantings and we plant about a quarter of our production area in "green manure" to increase fertility in place. We are always farming soil by producing biomass to put back in the ground each year. The plants do their job of taking in carbon from the air and fixing nitrogen in the soil and we chop that material up and put it back in the earth. 

What we spend on seed and time and labor is spent instead of buying more fertilizer.  Our fields test low in organic matter which promotes the biological benefits I mentioned and helps to regulate moisture in the soil. So putting more organic matter and trace minerals from things like seaweed back into the soil improves the health of our plants, the yields we get to market and, we might expect, the nutritional value of the food we grow.

We're doing all this to create a solid system that will continue to produce good yields of healthy food for years to come.  But there are other benefits to consider.

You may be someone who doubts the value of organics.  But it's hard not to like a system of agriculture that isn't entirely dependent on fossil fuels, doesn't use airborne toxic sprays and eliminates the environmental hazards caused by the runoff of chemical fertilizers and pesticides into the ground water we eat and drink.

You may be someone who believes that climate change is a hoax.  But it's hard not to agree that our current  choices have made us dependent on buying fossil fuels from people who may not have our interests in mind.  And the supplies are limited - which limits our potential to grow our own food, the economy...anything.

If you do think that humans have tilted the balance of our environment into a wobbly and unpredictable scenario, then you might agree that supporting a system that can actually help reduce the carbon footprint of all the humans on the planet is a good thing.


Realtor Julie said...

It's really sad to hear about such eco disasters like the one that happened a few days ago in the Gulf of Mexico. We should all be more considerate to our environment. But on a better note, your farm looks really lovely:) Must be a great place to live in.

Neil and Susan Brown said...

John you are right on the mark!So refreshing to read.. We are so happy to hear you are going to make the Island a permanent home. We need more organics and responsible farming. Welcome home!