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Archive | Compost

Reducing Food Waste: Compost Production Recovers Nutrients for Soil Benefits

When you consider our nation’s health, the quality of our food, its decreasing nutritional value and the increased degradation of our farmland, it’s not a pretty picture — and the challenges related to these issues keep growing.

Green waste used as part of a mixture of ingredients for compost.

By 2050 the world’s population will likely reach close to 9 billion people. To feed everyone, we’ll need to globally produce more food. Yet, almost 40 percent of food currently produced ends up in landfills.

According to ReFED, a collaboration of over 50 business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States, American consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion per year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food waste.

Food waste is a global problem. The 2017 Food Sustainability Index ranks 34 countries from best to worst. In France, No. 1 on the Index, supermarkets don’t toss food approaching its sell-by date; they must donate it to charities or food banks. This has lowered the country’s annual wastage to 1.8 percent of its total food production. Germany, Spain and Italy, which follow close behind, also scored high with agriculture-related conservation and research and nutrition education. Continue Reading →

Building the Microbial Bridge to Support Nutrient Availability

The root zone around plants, known as the rhizosphere, is an area of intense activity in the soil. It’s a lot like the snack stand at the state fair on a hot day. Everyone is crowding around trying to get to the cold drinks, funnel cakes and hot dogs. Snacks are being sold as quickly as the workers can make them. In return, the snack stand is bringing in a lot of cash.

Corn roots with lots of root exudates and soil sticking to the roots.

While the snack stand exchanges food for money, plant roots feed nearby microbes in exchange for plant nutrients. The roots put sugars down into the soil, creating an area of crowded, busy bacterial feeding in the rhizosphere, and exchange that microbial food for nutrients the plant needs but would otherwise have a hard time accessing.

We tend to think that plants photosynthesize entirely for their own metabolism, but in truth plants spend a good portion of their energy feeding soil life.

Plants fix sugars through photosynthesis, and while 55 to 75 percent of those sugars support plant growth, reproduction and defense from pests, the rest goes into the soil through the roots to feed the soil biology. This isn’t a waste of energy by the plants.

Those organisms living in the rhizosphere, primarily bacteria, not only make nutrients available to the plants — they also provide a protective layer against pests and diseases. It’s a win-win for the plants and the bacteria living in the rhizosphere. Continue Reading →

Book Excerpt: How to Start and Operate a Successful Container Plant Business

The book Made From Scratch: How to Start and Operate a Successful Container Plant Business by Louise Placek serves as a comprehensive, step-by-step guide for those interested in learning how best to create and organize their container plant business.

Chapters include topics such as greenhouses, botany basics, disease and pest management, marketing, handling employees and more.

Appendices include example activity logs and forms, instructions for making a soil-texture analysis, even tips for creating a simple employee handbook!

Continue Reading →

Keys to Composting for Increased Soil Health, Vitality

For many years we have been composting various agricultural and forest materials at Tobacco Road Farm to provide for the soil fertility in order to raise vegetable crops without the use of pesticides. This practice has been highly successful though it has required more refinement as the environment continues to deteriorate and the soil’s need for rebalancing becomes increasingly important.

Compost with temperature gauge carbon materials

Compost with undigested carbon materials still present has now cooled to about 80°F and is ready for application.

The composting system is the mouth and stomach of the farm system and prepares the nutritive materials for absorption into the soil. How we choose the appropriate materials to feed into this system, along with an examination of mixing, piling and application of this material, is the focus of this article.

Let us set the stage of how and why this compost is utilized on our farm. At Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we focus on intensive vegetable production with 3 acres in crops. The vegetable fields produce tremendous volumes of crops year-round. The soils are typical of the Northeast with a sandy acidic nature. The impact of pollution and climate manipulations on our soils is tremendous. The forest surrounding the farm is in a rapid state of decline. There are die-offs of trees and vastly reduced numbers of insects, bats, frogs, snakes and birds.

The variety of pest insects and diseases of vegetable crops moving into the region continues to increase and is a reflection of the environmental conditions. It has been very useful to re-examine compost and its utilization through a holistic eye that can see these changes and adjust the compost system accordingly. This is similar to the way humans have had to adjust their diets in this modern age of illness. Continue Reading →

Real-World Composting: Making the Life/Death Cycle Work for Your Operation

By Malcolm Beck

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the February 1997 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. We republished it in 2018 in memory of Malcolm Beck, who passed away and was an important figure to Acres U.S.A. and to the world of agriculture.

When I got into the compost business, it was by accident. I made my living working on the railroad. Our farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, although it was a good place to live and raise our family. Besides the usual farm crops and animals, we raised vegetables, up to 20 acres some years, and did it all organically. Our fertilizer was lots of manure gathered from our and the neighbor’s cow pens. We always kept a few big piles around.

Malcolm Beck

A visiting friend who was a landscaper spied our manure piles and pestered me until I finally sold him some. We loaded it by hand using manure forks. He paid me forty dollars for four yards. I got to looking at that money and thought, Gosh, that was much easier than spreading that manure in the field and plowing, disking, planting, cultivating, irrigating, harvesting, then going to the market and letting someone else dictate the price. Then it struck me, Why don’t I sell compost?

But I soon learned that at that time, few people, including farmers, knew was compost was. Next, the landscaper’s mother wanted some compost mixed with sand, then his uncle wanted compost mixed with sand and topsoil. Soon word got out that I had manure mixed with sand and/or soil, and here came the landscapers. I was forced into the soil mixing business. It wasn’t long before I used up all the rotted manure. Then I had to use manure that was still raw to make the mixes. I explained to customers “this stuff may be hot,” but they bought it anyway. One day, I made a delivery to a woman who operated a small nursery. She grew shrubs in big containers and I noticed her containers were free of weeds, while other nurseries always had a weed problem. I complimented her on the good job she did weeding, and she replied, “Malcolm, you soil/compost mix never has any weeds in it.” Continue Reading →

Treasure Trove of Fertility: Composting Mussels

For about the last two years, I have been experimenting with composting mussels. Head to southern West Virginia and you’ll meet farmers who are learning to amend the brown, yellowish sandy soil deep within the Appalachian Plateau. The Berks-Pineville and Gilpin-Lily soil created by weathered shale, siltstone and sandstone can be unpredictable. Though it appears to be well drained in some areas and easily cultivated in others, the black gold they need to amend their crops is all but gone.

The author has experimented with a compost mix of zebra and quagga mussels.

Here in the southern coalfields that surround Mullens, Itmann and Pineville, mountaintop soil and dirt can be tightly packed and tough to work.

Compost can take a long time to break down, especially when there are long stretches of dry hot weather.

I knew little about the soil in Mullens when I first started experimenting with my zebra mussel shell compost mix. I first made a visit there last summer and stumbled upon a row of gardens at the Mullens Opportunity Center while I was in town for a meeting.

There, I met the executive director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League and a farm-to-school AmeriCorps worker who was caring for their summer crops and high-tunnel complex. I asked if I could return to Mullens with just the right remedy for their soil. Continue Reading →