28 Aug

The single most important aspect of farming sustainably is healthy soil, because good farmers don’t grow food, they grow soil.  The fertility of the soil directly dictates the fertility of the crops, their resistance to pests and disease, and, perhaps of most interest to us, the nutrient content of the food.  Healthy soil means healthy crops, which nourish healthy people and a healthy ecosystem. 

We tend to think of health as something that comes from medicine, doctors, and insurance companies, but it’s much simpler and easily attained; good health comes from good food.  In order to grow good food, you need good soil.  It’s that simple.  Conversely, bad health comes from bad food, grown in poor soil that requires nightmarish additives and processing, leading to modern day epidemics like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, salmonella, E Coli outbreaks to name a few– and that’s only what it does to us.  Environmental casualties are just as staggering.    

Modern commercial agriculture relies heavily on the input of synthetic fertilizer as part of a linear production model.  The fertilizer is petroleum-based, so it must be extracted, processed, and brought to the farm over great distances, requiring tremendous inputs of energy.  If you dump petroleum-derived phosphorous, nitrogen, and potassium on your fields, yes, your crops will grow like crazy– for one season.  Each subsequent season will require a larger dose to produce the same results. 

 20th century agricultural scientists thought they could outsmart nature by providing plants with the elements they need, directly, in chemical form.  What they overlooked is that soil is more than chemistry; it’s biology.  Soil is alive with microbial activity.  Good soil is dense with nutrients and trace minerals that our bodies need to stay healthy.  But these nutrients need to be replaced after plants have subsumed them, or else soil loses its fertility.  Too often, in commercial agriculture, plants are given only the raw chemicals they need to grow large and blemish-free.  Like mutant body builders on steroids, the crops swell impressively, but they’re nutritionally hollow.  It’s all show, poor nutrition.

Products abound to compensate for this nutritional void: multivitamins, supplements, powdered blender drinks, breakfast cereal sprayed with vitamins A,B,C, and E,  but the bottom line is: there really isn’t any substitute for proper nutrition.  It is errant to think that just because a nutrient is on the label, it can be absorbed by our digestive systems.  Dietary supplements don’t deliver but a fraction of what they promise.  What’s on the label is what went into processing the pill, not what our bodies actually absorb.  I reiterate: Health isn’t derived from a bottle of pills, or a doctor, or your health plan.  Health comes from food, which comes from soil.  Let’s take a step back and look at where good soil comes from: Decomposition.

Composting mimics the natural decomposition process that perpetuates soil fertility.  A forest provides a good example of the natural cycle: In autumn, a tree sheds it leaves and they fall to the ground.  That leaf litter mixes with other organic matter on the forest floor, such as dead plants, twigs, and animal droppings. When organic matter is layered on the forest floor, decomposers like fungi, worms, insects, and bacteria get to work on it immediately. There is an entire galaxy of microbial activity in a teaspoon of healthy soil.  By spring, the new growth enjoys the nutritional bounty provided by fallen counterparts from the previous year.  And the cycle begins again.  Nothing is wasted.  Nothing needs to be added from anywhere else.  It is, in a word, perfect.

People are less than perfect, but we can mimic Mother Nature by paying close attention to how she does it.  Composting is just that: we employ the same decomposers and the same kinds of organic matter found in nature, but we put it where we want it, in quantities suiting our needs, on a schedule that works with our planting. 

There must be as many different ways to make compost as there are to make soup, and just like soup it will always work, to varying degrees of success.  The basic ingredients are brown matter (high in carbon), green matter (high in nitrogen), and some kind of starter.  Varieties of each abound.  Brown materials include (but are certainly not limited to) straw, dry leaves, and paper.  Green materials include grass clippings, weeds, and vegetable scraps.  The starter could be dry animal manure, which is the most common, but there are many others that work well.  Blood, bone meal, urine (yes, pee on the pile!), worm castings, finished compost, fertile topsoil, a dead squirrel hacked into pieces, all of these are viable.

Methods vary greatly.  You can use a container of sorts; it could be a bin, a three-sided box, straw bales arranged in a square, or simply a pile on the ground.  You can turn the pile once a week, once a month, once, or never.  You can monitor the temperature or just let it go.  You can add biodynamic preparations of yarrow, nettles, and valerian root, diluted in water and swirled in a vortex to call down the energy of the cosmos if you believe in that, or you can trust in cow shit.  Pretty much, if you put decomposable matter in a pile outside, it’s going to decompose. 

This season, I’ve composted on eight different farms, and they all use a different method for different reasons, but there are some important similarities.  The majority of the pile’s bulk is an even mix of brown and green, arranged on top of one another in alternating layers a few inches thick.  A thin layer of starter goes in between.  The pile needs moisture throughout, so it’s a good idea to spray it down as you build.  The pile needs to be at least three feet high.  Those are the basics.  Let nature do the rest, but observe what happens.  If after a few days there are any unpleasant odors, then it means the proportions are wrong.  A compost pile shouldn’t stink.  Bad smells usually mean not enough brown matter.  The pile should also heat up and shrink noticeably after a week or so.  If it doesn’t, then you need more green matter.  Compost is finished when the texture and color are consistent throughout; it should be dark, moist, and smell so good you want to eat it.

Benefits of Compost: (excerpted from the Washington State University extension publication Compost Fundamentals)
– Compost contains macro and micronutrients often absent in synthetic fertilizers.
– Compost releases nutrients slowly—over months or years, unlike synthetic fertilizers
– Compost buffers the soil, neutralizing both acid & alkaline soils, bringing pH levels to the optimum range for nutrient availability to plants.
– Compost helps bind clusters of soil particles, called aggregates, which provide good soil structure. Such soil is full of tiny air channels & pores that hold air, moisture and nutrients.
– Compost helps sandy soil retain water and nutrients.
– Compost loosens tightly bound particles in clay or silt soil so roots can spread, water drain & air penetrate.
– Compost alters soil structure, making it less likely to erode, and prevents soil spattering on plants—spreading disease.
– Compost can hold nutrients tight enough to prevent them from washing out, but loosely enough so plants can take them up as needed.
– Compost makes any soil easier to work.
– Compost brings and feeds diverse life in the soil. These bacteria, fungi, insects, worms and more support healthy plant growth.
– Compost bacteria break down organics into plant available nutrients. Some bacteria convert nitrogen from the air into a plant available nutrient.
– Compost enriched soils have lots of beneficial insects, worms and other organisms that burrow through soil keeping it well aerated.
– Compost suppresses diseases and harmful pests that could overrun poor, lifeless soil.
– Compost increases soil’s ability to retain water & decreases runoff. Runoff pollutes water by carrying soil, fertilizers and pesticides to nearby streams.
– Compost can reduce chemical pesticides since it contains beneficial microorganisms that may protect plants from diseases and pests.                                   -Only a 5% increase in organic material quadruples soils water holding capacity.

And the most important:
– Compost can reduce or eliminate use of synthetic fertilizers.

So don’t grow food with chemicals!  This should be OBVIOUS.


[For further reading, I recommend The Rodale Book of Composting.]


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