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Is There Such A Thing As Organic Compost?

Is There Such a thing as Organic Compost?

A friend of mine wanted me to address a question she fielded one day: “Is there really such a thing as organic compost?”

There are two kinds of organic: one is biological, one is a fabricated label. The former refers to  the carbon content of a material, the latter refers to the  method and the level of chemicals used in the growing process.

In terms of the biological sense, ALL compost is organic. It is the accelerated biological process by which microbes physically break down the biologically organic aspects of a material. But, as all things are a mixture of organic compounds and inorganic compounds (water for example is inorganic—it has no carbon; a tree is made of carbon, water, nitrogen, and minerals) there are inorganic residues in all composts. In the industry, we use  a test called the “organic matter” test to determine what percentage of the finished product is organic, what percentage is inorganic (minerals, i.e., “soil”–in other words, little particles of sand silt and clay.) so for this reason, NO composts are completely organic.

Confused yet?

As for the other type of organic, the one subject to labels and laws, there are certainly many ways to achieve that level of certification. It is the same process by which you certify your tomatoes–know the origin of everything you put into it. That means verify the “organic-ness” of  the feed for the animals that contribute the manure, verify the carbon source. In extreme cases, insist that the chainsaws used to cut the tree branches use organic vegetable oils rather than petroleum based oils. There are some materials that are specifically banned in “organic” composts–biosolids mainly but also construction glues and paint.  You then have to document it and submit those documents to the certifying organization for approval.

I think the bigger question should be directed towards the quality of the compost. It is well documented that compost is an excellent bio-remediator. It is used to clean contaminated soil, it is used to increase the infiltration properties of soil, it is used to increase the bio-diversity of the topsoil layer. But that same remediation property also pertains to the materials that go into it. The  microbes present in the compost pile don’t care if the carbon they are eating is a carbon from a certified organic tree or from petro-carbons (diesel fuel). If a pile is fully composted and cured and managed properly (the specifics of its ingredients were taken into account and the recipe tweaked accordingly) there will be every benefit to the soil, whether the initial ingredients were certified organic or not. By the same token, if a pile is built using only certified organic ingredients but mismanaged, not fully composted, nor cured, it could  prove temporarily detrimental to your over all project.

The decomposition of organic matter is going happen regardless of whether we want it to. Some areas of the world have the right environmental conditions to make this rapidly occur naturally. The southwest does not. Until we collectively reach a good balance of organic material in our soils, I think our time and energy should be spent correcting that imbalance. The semantics of whether it’s organic can come later

Chemical vs. Biological

Chemical vs. Biological

Last week I attended the annual Organic Farmers Conference held at the Marriott Albuquerque Pyramid. The conference offers a chance for me to see and thank the many local farmers that support us year ’round. I always feel humbled when farmers who, in my eyes, are rock stars, go out of their way to thank us and tell us how much they appreciate what we are doing. There is always plenty of good coffee and amazing snacks. This year we had fresh local organic bread with local organic fruit jams and jellies. Someone at the NMDA likes us because their placement of our table always ensures high traffic volume. And, I always strike up a fast friendship with the occupants of adjacent tables.

Over the years, lots of faces come and go, but there are those steady few that, year after year, plug away, doing what they love to do and, thus doing well. If you don’t think your dollar spent at the farmer’s markets is appreciated, I strongly suggest that you go to the conference next year and listen to their comments. everyone is grateful for the opportunity provide the community with fresh healthy food.

This year I found myself in the middle of a conversation with the director of the Rio Grande Community Farm. He is quite the experimenter; I first became involved with them when he was implementing a large scale no-till program at the farm. He is currently researching the benefits of high quality compost tea. I have known intuitively and seen anecdotally, through my professional career and personal endeavors, the benefits of compost tea and compost extract. For those that don’t know, a “tea” is a living, oxygenated brew of various ingredients, while an “extract” is not living, no longer oxygenated. One is a biological product, one is a chemical product. Most gardeners and farmers are concerned with the chemical makeup of the soil. Does it have sufficient nitrogen levels, what’s the pH, EC? These are chemical questions that can be chemically addressed. Not to be confused necessarily with chemicals, but rather the chemistry of the soil make up. Very important, to be sure, but not the only aspect of soil health and, I would argue, not the most important. Organic farmers are, generally, more concerned with a healthy soil (“A healthy soil grows healthy plants”) then are conventional farmers, but both are constantly analyzing, adjusting, and amending the chemical content of their soil. But when you talk of compost tea, you find that there is a strong biological aspect to the health of a crop. Each plant has a coating of protective microorganisms just as every human is covered with billions of germs. Each germ is keeping other germs in check. When our germ count is out of whack, we are sick. Same is true for the plants and soils. When we address biological issues with a chemical remedy, we find ourselves exacerbating the problem. “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly…” She eventually end up swallowing a horse? and who-knows-what-else? in order to ameliorate a simple fly problem! I read in a recent New Yorker that the scientific world is starting to map germs. They are finding that the intestines of humans have very specific populations of germs. When an anti-biotic is prescribed, that balanced population is thrown into turmoil and it often takes weeks or months to recover. If we use those examples and apply them to food crops, the same holds true: a broad application of a general pesticide kills more beneficial micro-organisms than detrimental ones. Destructive micro-organisms always seem to be more opportunistic; the sudden absence of beneficial micro-organisms allows them to reproduce rapidly thus exacerbating the problem…

Harvesting Worm Compost

Harvesting Worm Compost

I was asked the other day if I had any pictures of my worm bin. After a resounding mental “DUH!”, I checked my photo back log and in fact hadn’t any younger than ’09. So I went out yesterday and screened my worms…had to do it anyway. Here’s my bin.

Walter's Worm Bin

It is an 8 foot hole, 12″ deep and lined with plywood that I scavenged from another project. I lined it with plywood so that the dirt wouldn’t fall back in. You don’t want dirt in your compost, any type of compost. Dirt is inorganic material and as such not subject to the processes of organic decomposition. You will want to add you compost to the soil when it is finished “cooking”. Kinda like whipped cream on a cake…you don’t bake the cake with the whipped cream, but rather add it to the whipped cream after you’re done baking it. It makes the cream so much better but would probably ruin it if you added it too soon. Anyway, back to the bin…you’ll notice I have a lid on mine. I use the lid for at least two reasons. One is to keep the dogs and the kids and the coyotes out. The other reason is that worms are photo-phobic; without the lid, the top portion of the material wouldn’t get eaten. And third (okay so there are three reasons) is that the lid keeps the sun off the bin, thus reducing evaporation. And here’s what the inside of my bin looks like.

If you look closely, you may notice that there is a lot of “raw” material on one side and not so much on the other. I do this to make harvesting easier. By putting a bunch of wet gooey stuff on one side, and allowing the other side to decompose and dry, there is more material that can pass more easily through the screen.

“The screen?”, you ask.

You will need a screen, a wheelbarrow, and a shovel. I don’t like a screen too small, I don’t see the point. So I use a square of hardware cloth that has 1/2″ webbing. I only screen the compost because I am lazy on the front end–I am not too particular about contaminates that may end up in the bin;  and partly to screen out the harder to digest materials: the avocado pits, and turkey bones and whatnot. The wheelbarrow and the shovel don’t need discussion, do they?

I shovel the dry material…

onto the screen..

and shake it all about…

When I am done shaking and grooving ( a good set of music on the iPod helps), I am left with the finished material…

and the stuff too big to pass through the screen.

After I sort out the trash from the other big stuff**, I put the bigger stuff back on top of the other raw feed stocks–a sort of cover on the material.

This will help it to stay moist and allow it to continue to decompose, but also will remind me to add material to the other side. As an aside benefit, it is also a good indicator of the worm activity–in the spring, when the vermi-metabolism kicks in, the level almost visibly drops from day to day. After the cover has been spread level, I am ready to start adding material to the freshly cleaned out side. In the spring, I’ll do it all over again.

**I strongly recommend experimenting with various feed stocks…who knows what you’ll come up with. Some of the strangest things I’ve discovered is that cardboard milk containers have a very thin plastic lining on the inside. Worms eat the cardboard but leave the lining. Most cotton t-shirts aren’t–there is always a significant percentage of inorganic fabric. Toothpaste boxes (not the tubes, but rather the cardboard packaging) are really not so much cardboard. And those little stickers on organic fruit–the ones that say “organic fruit”– aren’t. I love pulling out countless plastic “windows” left over from junk mail envelopes. Eggshells don’t decompose.