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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 →

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 →

Composting: Join the Revolution

The so-called brandling or humus worm thrives in litter. They enjoy great popularity among a number of experimentally inclined gardeners. What is so special about these small worms?

My theory is that in worm composting or vermicomposting (Greek vermi: worm), we have something completely new that has little in common with conventional composting, and most importantly is superior to any previous method. The final product, worm castings, which is the term for worm excrement, is not comparable to other types of compost. It represents a new level of quality.

At this point, I want to quote the well-known words of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl: “The crucial thing is what comes out at the end.” This applies to humus worms in both the literal and the metaphorical senses. This “new” method is able to meet the modern demands of nature, environmental, and climate protection much better than any previous approach.

There is an ever-increasing discrepancy between the waste of natural power and resources in conventional composting methods (unavoidable losses in the forms of gases and liquids during hot composting) and the growing need to protect nature and the environment (through sustainable development to curb global warming). A solution is desperately needed. Composting is a part of the battle of opinions between humus management and ecological gardening and farming on the one side and Justus von Liebig’s so-called mineral theory, which serves as the foundation of the chemical industry and conventional agriculture, on the other side. The remainder of this book shall demonstrate the superiority of the former in detail.

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Homemade Fertilizers

With the economy and farm finance more and more problematic, interest is growing in running farms with fewer, more accurate, and less expensive inputs and homemade fertilizers can help cut costs and keep fertility on the farm.

homemade fertilizer

Vermiwash made in a small biodynamic apple orchard in the
Himalayan foothills of Uttaranchal in sight of Nanda Devi, India’s second highest
mountain.

Formerly we’ve overdosed with a plethora of harsh fertilizers — especially nitrogen. As a result we’ve burned up the better part of our soil carbon, and this has reduced our rainfall.

By burning off carbon, we have created droughts even as ocean warming has sent more evaporation into the atmosphere. We have ignored that few things have more affinity for hydrogen than carbon, and if we want rain to adhere to and permeate our soils we need to build soil carbon.

We thought salt fertilizers were cheap, and the stunning results encouraged us to wish away any hidden costs, no matter that earthworms disappeared simultaneously with the food chain that supported them. Our soils got hard and sticky as magnesium stayed behind while nitrates leached, carrying away silicon, calcium and trace minerals. The soil fused when wet, shed water when it rained, and we continued to get less for more.

As if this wasn’t enough, the mind-set we were sold was get big or get out. As our net margins dried up and our future prospects evaporated, our water dried up and our land became exhausted. Continue Reading →

Tractor Time Episode 12: Edwin Blosser, Farmer and Founder of Midwest Bio-Systems

It’s Tractor Time podcast, brought to you by Acres U.S.A., the Voice of Eco Agriculture. This was recorded on Nov. 2, 2017, in Greeley, Colorado.

We’re going deep into eco-agriculture this hour. This episode’s guest is Edwin Blosser, a longtime instructor in the art of crafting and utilizing high-quality compost in production-scale agriculture. He’ll talk about specific compounds in compost to build, advise about cover crops, and help us connect the dots between profitability and soil structure.

But first, I thought I’d share a story. Earlier this week, I got a call from Ulrich Schreier. For those who don’t know, he’s one of the original advisors to Acres U.S.A., attended our conference early in our history, and now lives in France and leads a team of researchers looking at biodynamics. We’ll share that research at some point once we review it.

His quote, which is really what I wanted to share, has been my beacon of motivation this week. And a lot of you might benefit. Before hanging up, he told me: “There are a lot of cracks showing in conventional agriculture that my generation helped create, but now the real work begins. Find those cracks. And plant as many of your Acres U.S.A. trees in them as you can.”

Continue Reading →

Cover Cropping & Green Manures

After 22 years of farming, my farm’s soil is markedly more fertile and productive. It has been a wonderful journey learning what works and how to continue to improve long-term productivity while harvesting bountiful crops.

Flail mowing summer Sudangrass/cowpea green manure at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in Virginia.

There are several methods that deserve credit for this increase in soil quality: the use of compost, the use of a balanced mineral fertilizer and a serious commitment to cover cropping.

For this article I want to focus on the growing of cover crops and green manures. When I became the farm manager at Potomac Vegetable Farms – West in 1992, I sought advice on how to transition the farm into organic production.

The land had been growing mostly sweet corn, pumpkins and green beans with commercial chemical fertilizers and herbicides. The soil was biologically inactive and nutrients were missing. I can clearly remember the words from a fertility consultant, “I can sell you something in a bag, and I can sell you something in a bucket, but what you really need to do is to make compost and grow cover crops.” And thus began my journey into both compost-making and cover cropping.

Why take on both of those jobs rather than just one? Well, they go hand in hand, each leveraging the benefits of the other to move a soil more quickly toward health and resilience.

Continue Reading →