Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's New at the Farm? Compost -- Lots of It

With the unusual weather we’re experiencing, we have been able to accomplish a lot of field work in the past week and are enjoying the relatively dry field conditions.
Here’s the main trial field and field No. 2 at the farm; ready for spring planting:
Field No. 2 ready to roll.
We’ve got about half the Albion farm plowed which means we have also spread compost on the fields like this:
Spreading compost in Benton.

This is one of our fields in neighboring Benton which we use for growing squash. Much of the surface residue is mulch hay left from the previous year. We use lots of mulch hay – approximately 350 large round bales each year. This mulch helps keep the weeds down and conserves moisture on fields we can’t irrigate easily. The biggest disadvantage is the large amount of materials that have to be plowed under the following spring - and the cost.

Once the compost is applied we plow it under. The nutrients aren’t available immediately but rather have a cumulative effect over the years. A soil high in organic matter will release nitrogen every year to provide for the growing plants. By adding compost each year we continue the recycling of nutrients.
As you can imagine, we use lots of compost. We used to make all our own compost. Of course that was a few years ago when we used under 500 yards per year, had easy access to materials – usually local,  free, or cheap - and only two field locations to haul to. Times have changed.

When we made our own compost there was cage layer manure available, and for a small fee delivered. Straw was three dollars a bale and cow manure was fifty cents a yard plus three dollars delivery. Sawdust was twenty five dollars a cord and horse manure (which is mostly shavings) was 3 dollars a yard, also delivered.  Unfortunately most of the materials are (A) no longer cheap, and (B) no longer easily accessible.

We have also been expanding our land base so we’re using over a thousand yards per year now. In order to make 1,000 yards of compost we’d need 2,000 yards of materials, and the space to handle all this material. We would also need the time – making this much compost would take one person all summer to turn and windrow the materials. And none of this takes into account the wear and tear, and fuel expense of the equipment.  So, all in all, in the 1990's we started looking at companies that made compost from farm wastes and sold locally. Many small companies came and went during that time. After that initial flurry of activity there were a few companies that were really interested in selling compost to farmers and gardeners; reasonable and delivered.

We found two of these companies; one is in Lisbon Falls and one is in Charleston; both in Maine. They both use farm wastes and have excellent reputations and products. Other than the high quality, I think the best thing about each of these companies is their delivery schedules, which are tailored to my needs. One delivers in 50-yard trucks, which can pile up in a hurry. The other in 22-yard trucks, which can get into the smaller fields easily.

Most of our compost is delivered the year before we’re going to use it. This way we can avoid the “posted roads” issues we’ve had in the past. Nothing like having an early spring and not be able to get our compost delivered!

Alternatively, some fields which would be nearly impossible to get into in the spring because of damp field conditions are easily accessible in the dry days of summer.

Compost is great stuff, and we use a lot of it. But it isn’t a fertilizer. It is a soil amendment. It is organic matter and full of biological activity. By applying it every year, it will break down and supply nutrients to the planted crops. I think that’s the key to using compost – applying it yearly, in good quality and generous quantity, and keeping up with applications. Bringing up the organic matter content of your soil will only benefit you and your plants in the garden and in the field.

Until next week, Brian

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