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


Matt in AK said...

Do you use any organic fertilizers at all, or do you rely the mulch to break down over the years only? I am going to be putting up a 13000 sq. ft. greenhouse and will most likely have to build my top soil over time.

David said...

We use a variety of soil amendments along with compost to build soil fertilty, and when necessary we use organic fertilizers. Examples include granular and liquid fish, seaweed or kelp products.

Peter in MD said...

Personally, I'd be interested to hear what sort of quality control your vendors are doing on their compost? Given the constant use of anti-bacterials and whatnot, are they testing incoming/outgoing materials for stuff that shouldn't be in there? I mean, if scientists are finding traces of acetominophen in fish....

Tom K. said...

If you think that compost has no fertilizer value, you best think again. Dr. Ingham of SoilfoodWeb and The Rodale institute would argue otherwise. The best compost can have up to 25 units of N / 1000lbs, not to mention P and K......

David said...

Contamination is a problem that we all worry about, especially in the world of organic agriculture. Since it's not possible to maintain complete quality control on an agricultural scale, we rely primarily on reputation and certification to monitor the quality of our vendors' products. Our supplier of organic compost is undergoes inspection every year by MOFGA Certification Services, LLC in order to maintain their status as a certified handler and producer of organic compost-based soil mixes. We also maintain vendor affidavits which state the expected contents and quality standards of their organic products.

David said...

Tom, it looks like Brian was trying to emphasize the "Feed the soil, not the plant" method of fertility management. Rather than discount compost's fertility value, this model inverts the conventional mindset that views plants as the primary recipient of fertility inputs. Our friend Mark Fulford's analogy (explained in another blog post) of a buffet line in which "The [microbes in the soil] eat first, then the plants, then us," sums up this attitude nicely.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that you indicated that you plow your compost into the soil. While this may sound like a good practice, I believe you are actually destroying the same organic matter you are trying to build up in the soil by adding oxygen. I'm familiar with long term continuous no-till crop production and this is one of the things producers try to avoid. I do understand that as a seed producer, you have other concerns that may force you to do this, but perhaps on one or two fields, you could try strip-till. Here in Virginia we have many fields that have been in continuous no-till crop production for over 25 years and when you step on the soil it actually springs back up when you step on it.