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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 →

Soil Sentinels: Harness The Power of Earthworms

When moist, practically all soils from tundra to lowland tropics support the activity of earthworms. Largely unseen, earthworms are a diverse, powerful workforce with the capacity to transform soil into fertile ground.

Found in 27 families, more than 700 genera and greater than 7,000 species, earthworms vary from about 1 inch to 2 yards long. Their living mass outweighs all other animal life forms in global soils. Although we may view earthworms as being both prolific and productive, do we fully appreciate our human capability to favor their beneficial efforts as allies allowing farms and gardens to flourish? I think not.

Earthworms not only play productive roles in sustainable agriculture, but they have enormous capacity to help mitigate our elevated atmospheric greenhouse gas content by reducing carbon and nitrogen gas. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: The Secret Life of Compost, by Malcolm Beck

By Malcolm Beck

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Secret Life of Compost, written by Malcolm Beck. Copyright 1997, softcover, 170 pages. $19.00 regularly priced.

There are many beneficial forms of life in the soil. Scientists now tell us there is more tonnage of life and numbers of species in the soil than growing above. All of this life gets its energy from the sun. But only the green leaf plants have the ability to collect the sun’s energy. All other life forms depend on the plant to pass energy to them. The plants above and soil life below depend on each other for their healthy existence and continued survival.

The Secret Life of Compost

The Secret Life of Compost, by Malcolm Beck

Another beneficial microbe that colonizes plant roots was introduced to me by Mr. Bill Kowalski of Natural Industries. He said he had a microbe that has been shown to knock out a half dozen root rots in the laboratory. At first I told him I was not interested unless it was known to stop cotton root rot, because the only deterrent to a booming apple industry in the hill country of Texas is cotton root rot. He replied it hadn’t been tested on cotton root rot, but he would be glad to give me some if I wanted to try it.

Okra is related to cotton and back when we were farming we planted lots of okra. We had a spot on the farm where the plants suffered from cotton root rot. To test the new microbe, we planted two rows of okra across the root rot spot, then skipped two rows and planted two more rows of okra. The seed in these last two rows had been soaked in the product for a few minutes to ensure they would be inoculated with the microbe.

After the okra was in full production, Bill came over and we went out to inspect. Immediately we noticed the inoculated okra averaged a full 12 inches taller than the control rows. We walked down the control rows first and pulled up the smaller and weaker looking plants. We found the roots to be badly infected with some form of root rot and also full of root knot nematodes. Inspection of the inoculated row found not a single case of root rot or nematodes. Continue Reading →

No-Till Growing: Vegetable Production

Robust spring cabbages at Tobacco Road Farm.

Over the last 20-plus years of vegetable growing at Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we have constantly sought ways to improve the health and vitality of our crops and soils, and going no-till has been part of that journey.

About 3 acres of land is in vegetables, with half in year-round vegetable production and the other half cover cropped through the winter months.

The crop rotations are very close, with yields very high, so the intensity of production demands very careful soil care. To this end, soil amendments, fertilizers, inoculants and compost have been carefully selected and applied over the years.

Under this intensity of production, tillage was previously utilized to an excessive degree. This left the soil with a soil structure that was lacking in aggregation, tended toward surface crusting and with a plow pan always in need of mechanical breaking. The loosened soil of the tillage layer dried excessively in summer, leading to irrigation needs, and the soils’ air/water balance was constantly in jeopardy. Continue Reading →

Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →