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.

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

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.”

Charged with finding a way to process manure from factory dairy farms that would be beneficial to cropland, he and his wife — and behind the scenes collaborator — Hui-Chun Su designed a bioreactor for producing fungal-rich compost. Previous researchers on the project had only been able to make highly saline composts that proved harmful to plants. Johnson went on to demonstrate the remarkable power of his compost to dramatically boost crop growth and carbon sequestration in soil, which correlates with its high fungal to bacterial ratio. Currently, he is experimenting with this compost as a seed inoculant and working to expand the scope of this critical research through collaborations with other interested researchers.

Interviewed by Tracy Frisch

Microbes in Action

ACRES U.S.A. At what point did you fall in love with microbes?

DAVID C. JOHNSON. I guess when I started seeing results. Through a fellowship I had at New Mexico State University, I was put in a lab with Dr. Geoff Smith who was looking at biodegradation of toluene in a lake in Mexico. All the oil from the cars was washing down into the lake. We have a pond here that all the roads drain into. I got a sample of that soil and put it in the bioreactors. The toluene completely degraded overnight. That kind of set my path. Every lab situation has taught me something about what I’m looking at today. What I learned about the structure of clays and their ability to catalyze reactions was part of this as well. You always wonder why are you doing this. I stopped asking that question. Now I think let’s see what happens.

ACRES U.S.A. How did you get on the research path you’ve been pursuing?

JOHNSON. For my Ph.D., I was looking at microbial community structures for hydrogen production. It’s bio-hydrogen, where you can make hydrogen using hydrogen-producing microbes with certain substrates. At the same time, I was working on a project with USDA to figure out what to do with dairy manure.

ACRES U.S.A. I haven’t been to New Mexico for a number of years, but I remember seeing what looked to be very large CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).

JOHNSON. Many dairy CAFOs moved to our area from California to get away from the regulations there on the disposal of their manure and effluent. Some of these CAFOs are still here, but a lot of them have gone further east, to the other side of the state, and to states like Texas. One of the problems with the dairy manure was it was very saline. Researchers had been working on the project for about a decade before I got assigned it. They experimented with making compost with the manure but had concluded that compost was bad for soils.

ACRES U.S.A. How were they making the compost?

JOHNSON. They were using a windrow composting process. I started with windrows, too. But then my wife changed the way of doing it. She stepped in and said, “You’re coming home with too many dirty clothes, turning these piles. We’re going to figure out a better way.” So we developed a no-turn static composting process that also kept the pile aerated, which was essential for allowing the fungal community to begin to dominate in the piles.

ACRES U.S.A. She sounds like a good collaborator. What’s her background?

JOHNSON. She has a talent for recognizing the obvious, which is quite commonly missed and she is very creative.

ACRES U.S.A. Why wasn’t the windrow method successful for composting this manure?

JOHNSON. With windrows, most of the time it’s anaerobic. Then every time you turn it, you’re disturbing the fungal community’s households. Basically you’re throwing everything out in the street and having them start over. At the beginning, you’d turn it up to twice a day. Later you taper off to turning once a day, and then usually to about twice a week and on down, as the process continues. But every time you turn the pile, you disturb it. We found out that with the windrow process, the salinity stays the same or increases. The compost would have from 30 to 44 millisiemens conductivity. But plants can’t take anything over, say, 10, and they really like it at under 3 millisiemens.

ACRES U.S.A. I imagine you already have a salinity issue in a dry state like New Mexico.

JOHNSON. Yes, and the more fertilizer they put on, the more severe the salinity is becoming. The fertilizers seep down into the water table, and now they’re pumping those salts back up when they irrigate their fields with groundwater. That’s pretty detrimental to our soils.

ACRES U.S.A. Of course, that’s one of the causes behind the downfall of the great irrigation civilizations.

JOHNSON. You’re correct there. But add the fertilizers and you compound the problem. We originally had the ability here to leach [the salt out of] these fields because we have a shallow water table with a significant amount of water. But now that they’ve pumped out the aquifers, they’re down in the phreatic zone. The result is they’re just putting out more salty water right on top of salty soil.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there parts of New Mexico where ag land has already been abandoned due to its salinity?

JOHNSON. Not yet, not like Arizona, but we’re really close and the farmers are really concerned. The one redeeming thing is the Rio Grande, which goes through Las Cruces. That water is pretty low in salinity so farmers are still able to leach out the salts. But the Rio Grande’s flow rate depends on Colorado having a good snowpack and the last decade has been pretty dry.

ACRES U.S.A. Last year I did a story with a farmer who does static pile composting for his vegetable farm. To aerate it he uses PVC sewer pipe and a little squirrel cage fan that he only has to run intermittently for a week. He makes his compost very fast. Would that be too quick for fungi to take hold?

JOHNSON. That’s more a mulch than compost. From what I’m seeing in the research, my compost is not even mature at six months. The compost I put out is like clay. It oozes between your fingers when you squeeze it. The analysis of its community structure shows at least a four times increase in the biodiversity of the microbes. More importantly, I see that fungal community really thrives.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you do this analysis yourself or do you send it out to a laboratory?

JOHNSON. The equipment is about $1.5 million, a bit out of my budget, so I send it out to a lab.

ACRES U.S.A. How are the fungal bacterial ratios determined? Is it based on the chemical composition?

JOHNSON. I use two processes. The cheaper, less expensive process is called 16S or 18S analysis. The 16S does bacteria; the 18S does fungi. The tests are about $40 to $50. In some cases it gives me the bacteria or fungi down to the species level.

ACRES U.S.A. Is this DNA-based?

JOHNSON. Yeah, it’s genomics. The technology was developed in 2004 or 2005. I also run metagenomics on it. This basically breaks apart all of the DNA and sequences and reassembles it and then assigns it to an organism that matches the closest. Those tests run from $400 to $800.

ACRES U.S.A. It’s amazing that they could do that.

JOHNSON. We have information overload now.

 ACRES U.S.A. What should we know about the Johnson Su Bioreactor you and your wife designed?

JOHNSON. It’s a relatively simple, inexpensive bioreactor made of readily available materials. It is simple to put together and fill and requires no turning or maintenance once built and filled. You don’t need any electricity. We designed it so it can be applied anywhere from the Third World to an industrial setting. Material costs are approximately $40/reactor and can be used multiple times. The bioreactor is made of remesh, used in concrete construction; landscape cloth (the woven cloth, 5 oz. or greater); a pallet; and 4-inch perforated plastic pipes, though they are only used for one day. After that first day, fungal hyphae will have stabilized the pile so much that you can pull the pipes out. The six cores will stay open and allow air to flow up from under the pallet, which is slightly elevated. The most important thing is allowing it to go long enough — for a year. The instructions are available in video and PDF form.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you need to use a certain ratio of nitrogen-rich materials and carbonaceous materials?

JOHNSON. I really didn’t follow that. I started out trying to adhere to a ratio, but my big problem was figuring out how to get airflow into the dairy manure because it was too dense. We put the tubes in the center because we found out that anything over 1 foot away from ambient air would start to go anaerobic. To get the dairy manure to compost, we had to add other materials. You could mix hay with the manure and you’d be fine. But then I used one-third dairy manure, one-third yard trash and one-third wood chips. Now I’m using all leaves. Of course, leaves have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 50 or 60:1, but they compost just fine. I’ve actually composted straight wood chips just to see. They make a really nice, rich black compost, but it’s not practical time-wise.

ACRES U.S.A. How much material would you need to fill one of your bioreactors?

JOHNSON. It’s 5 feet tall. For wet leaves, it takes three pickup truckloads to fill a bioreactor. That’s 1,700 pounds. I pack them down. You get about a third of that height in finished compost.

ACRES U.S.A. I have some old round bales of grassy hay. Could I use hay alone or would I want to put other materials in?

JOHNSON. I would run it through a chipper shredder, so you could get more in. Otherwise, it would be really tough to pack. It would be good to throw in some manure and whatever other waste you have. Nature doesn’t discriminate, as long as there’s a carbon bond in it.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s the goal for moisture?

JOHNSON. It’s so dry here that I put all the materials through a water bath. It can be 113 degrees with 10 percent humidity, and in a day we’ll lose an inch of water on a pool or in a field.

ACRES U.S.A. What form is the CAFO manure in?

JOHNSON. They just pile it up. The cows are locked up, standing outside.

ACRES U.S.A. The initial charge of the project was to figure out a composting solution for the CAFO dairy manure that’s good for the soil. Did you succeed?

JOHNSON. If the project had gone further, we’d have been able to develop an industrial plant that could parallel process it. Two of the biggest problems with composting operation are odors and leaching. This process has neither of these problems. You can stand right next to one of the bioreactors and you wouldn’t be able to tell what it’s doing. We’ve been to composting operations all over the United States. When we went to one in Disney World, we had to run upwind. The ammonia was so powerful that we couldn’t breathe. In an anaerobic process, ammonia and all your volatile fatty acids — the ones that really smell — are released. They’re the issue that’s most likely to shut down most composting operations. The second issue is leaching. Most often, the compost is on a pad on the ground, and it’s watered. If you get a heavy rain, effluent leaches out of the piles and flows into rivers or the aquifer. The way the pile in the bioreactor is made, it will absorb almost any amount of rain it gets. It’s up off the ground, it’s aerobic and more porous, so it holds much more water before there’s any leachate.

ACRES U.S.A. What happens to the ammonia when you’re using high-nitrogen feed stock in the bioreactor?

JOHNSON. If it’s aerobic, the right microbes will be breaking it down and putting it into their cell structure.

ACRES U.S.A. I didn’t realize that. You’ve said that compost shouldn’t be considered a nutrient source. What do you consider compost to be?

JOHNSON. That goes to the root of the problem. For so long, in agriculture, we’ve thought that we have to amend the soil in order for anything to grow. That’s a dangerous mindset. Nobody fertilizes the rain forest! Nature does this handily without any nutrients. Rain forests are the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and they do this with biology. When I do the analysis, I find a lot of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in these soils, and in this compost as well, since I don’t abide by that recommended carbon to nitrogen ratio in making compost. If nature has a need for nitrogen there are a lot of organisms that can supply it.

ACRES U.S.A. That is revolutionary. I hear you suggesting that all the dogma we’ve learned about compost may be incorrect.

JOHNSON. How we look at soil today is counterproductive. It’s a living system, not a sponge that you put nutrients into so that plants grow. We need to ask the question, what biology do I need, not what fertilizers do I add. Besides free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, I’m also finding phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria. We probably have a 40-year supply of phosphorus from fertilizer in agricultural soils but it’s inaccessible by plants without the right microbes to make it available. I also see microbes that secrete plant growth-promoting hormones. This system is beautifully and exquisitely dynamic in nature. If we can restore it back on our farmlands and rangelands, there’s a lot of potential.

ACRES U.S.A. You stress the desirability of a high fungal to bacterial ratio. Tell me what the implications are for growing plants.

JOHNSON. I currently see such a ratio as a coarse measure of soil fertility and soil health. Practically everything we’ve done in agriculture is detrimental to fungal communities. Now from what I’m seeing, using the metagenome, I think that bringing the fungi back is an indicator of good soil health.

ACRES U.S.A. Let’s make a list of what’s detrimental to fungal communities.

JOHNSON. There’s the plowing we do and the application of herbicides. One study figured out that applying glyphosate at 1/100th the recommended rate kills half the Aspergillus nidulans fungi. At 1/50th of the rate, it kills all of them. We need to reconsider things like that. When we leave a soil in a bare fallow, it’s probably the worst thing we could do to a soil. Soil depends on energy flow to function, just like we do. If the energy flow isn’t there, they won’t have a dynamic microbial community.

ACRES U.S.A. When you talk about energy flow, I’m assuming you’re referring to plants photosynthesizing using solar energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make energy for themselves and soil microbes.

JOHNSON. Basically the majority of our energy supply on this planet is what has happened that way. With that carbon flow the plants put a significant amount of root exudates into the soil to feed these soil microbial communities. I did a greenhouse experiment to try to tease out what percentage of the carbon flow went into the soil, and I found that in a bacterial-dominant, low-carbon soil, 96 percent of the carbon captured by the plant went into the soil.

ACRES U.S.A. To try to heal the soil because the soil was in a desperate condition?

JOHNSON. Yeah. If a plant is going to put that much of those valuable resources into the soil instead of growing itself, there’s a reason. In my experiment, in a healthy soil 46 percent of that carbon flow went into the soil to feed the microbes.

ACRES U.S.A. What happens in soils that are heavily contaminated with pesticide residues?

JOHNSON. We don’t have a good handle on that. It’s a dynamic system. We only have to look at our own microbiome and consider how significant an impact it has on our health. The microbes in our digestive system are turning on and off genes in our body that affect our appetites, our cravings and our immune system. If a person’s microbial community has been decimated by antibiotics they can get Clostridium difficile, IBS, IBD and Crohn’s disease. Doctors may give them more antibiotics to try to fix it and even cut out sections of the intestines to help them survive. Now they’ve found that a simple fecal transplant can cure most of these patients, some within 24 hours. They’re just getting the right biology back into the system.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you saying there’s an analogy with plants?

JOHNSON. That’s what I’m observing — soil is just like us. I suspected it, but it took putting in about seven years of research.

ACRES U.S.A. I like how you’ve referred to humans and plants as superorganisms that depend on many times more microorganisms to thrive. Is symbiosis then far greater than what we learned in school?

JOHNSON. Most assuredly. We are outnumbered 10 to 1, cell to cell. And we only have 30,000 genes to their 8 million. If there wasn’t a beneficial relationship for both sides, we would be just a tasty morsel to that many microbes.

ACRES U.S.A. Going back to your bioreactor, after you made that first good compost, what was your next step?

JOHNSON. In order to prove to USDA that it was a good product, I compared it to eight other composts available in the area. I did a standard inorganic chemical analysis and I threw in measurements of fungal and bacterial biomass. I had taken Elaine Ingham’s class and was curious how significant those results would be. For my growth test, I grew chili pepper plants in each of the different composts. In one of my tests I watered my bioreactor compost daily in the greenhouse for five months to see what would leach out, and how well the plants would grow in this medium. That material was better than all the others, including my raw bioreactor compost. Overall the two materials from my bioreactor supported twice as much plant growth as the next best compost. When I looked at the levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the different composts, the correlations with plant growth were less than .05. (Some of the commercial composts had been amended with inorganic nitrogen.) The correlation with organic matter was poor as well, but the fungal to bacterial ratio gave a correlation of about .88. That’s pretty good odds, if you’re in Las Vegas!

ACRES U.S.A. That seems quite amazing.

JOHNSON. This was serendipity for me. I didn’t expect it, but it got me started looking at the fungal-to-bacterial ratio and the biological dynamics. I set up several experiments to look at what happens if I use this compost as a soil inoculant. I had already used my compost in the bio-hydrogen reactors with some interesting results and that reinforced this new path. That’s what I got my Ph.D. on. The microbial community that developed from the compost for bio-hydrogen broke every rule of hydrogen production. The rules are: hydrogen production happens at a pH of 5; at low headspace pressures, so in the reactors we keep the headspace pressure as low as possible; at mesophilic temperatures, which is around body temperature and low headspace hydrogen partial pressure. But the microbial community that came out of my bioreactor compost produced hydrogen down to a pH of 3. That’s a very significant amount lower than the pH that they say it happens at. The hydrogen bioreactors achieved high enough pressures to blow up, around 45 psi. The microbes produced hydrogen at room temperature and also at 100 percent hydrogen partial pressure in the headspace, and at headspace pressure of 45 psi. None of these conditions are supposed to allow microbes to produce any hydrogen. That was the clue telling me to look at the microbes. Going back to the growth test with the chili peppers, I had noticed that seeds wouldn’t germinate in some of the composts. When I transplanted seeds from my bioreactor compost into other composts, I found that eventually boosted their productivity, suggesting it could be an inoculum. All these little observations got me thinking. The first time I used my bioreactor compost in the field I put on a dusting of 400 pounds per acre. I only used it once. From that point on, it’s how you manage the soil. I say it’s 2 percent inoculant and 98 percent management. The biology needs oxygen, water and food and to be taken care of, just like any other organism. My wife says it’s the fifth animal on the farm that you need to consider to keep it alive.

ACRES U.S.A. Talk about the longer-term tests you’re doing.

Microbes in the Field

JOHNSON. In the seven-year test — which is going on eight years now — I was looking at a mechanism to pay farmers to put carbon into the soil. I’d grow a cover crop, green chop it and disc it back into the soil. Then I’d immediately replant and grow another crop. Everything went back into the soil. I used no fertilizers or amendments besides that initial compost application. From the first year until now, I’ve had a five times increase in net primary productivity in my winter cover crops. At one year there was about 50 grams of dry biomass per square meter of production on the control versus 250 grams on the treated. Then, from that soil to what I have now, production jumped 250 to almost 1,200 grams. By improving the biology in the soil I observed a quintupling of its ability to grow a crop.

Scientist David C. Johnson discusses soil microbes

ACRES U.S.A. It would be interesting to continue to compare the inoculant treatment to a control that has also been planted in the cover crops for a number of years.

JOHNSON. That’s the second test, which ran for four years. For this test, I wanted a soil that didn’t have legacy issues — no herbicides — so I picked a sandy desert soil that doesn’t grow much without the microbes. For four years I grew a cover crop, cut it, hauled it off and planted another crop. One plot was inoculated and one wasn’t. I wanted to know the best-case scenario so I irrigated the plots. I noticed there was always a defined line between the control and the treated. I planted them right next to each other to see if there was any drift or movement. I saw none.

ACRES U.S.A. You mean you found that the microbial life didn’t move over and colonize another area?

JOHNSON. As a microbiologist, we think everything is everywhere. When I did the composting here, I did an analysis of where the microbes were from. There were some that were first discovered in the Arctic and in the Antarctic. There were pelagic or ocean-going bacteria and also intestinal bacteria. All of them were in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is a little strange. For this experiment I thought we’d do a treated plot and an untreated plot, and we’d see no difference. If the microbes are there, they just need to be fed. But there was a difference. The final annual productivity on the untreated plot was about 2,200 grams of dry biomass per square meter. That’s as much as the most productive terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, like old-growth forests. But the treated plot produced 3,200 grams, another 1,000 grams above that.

ACRES U.S.A. In other words, you found the desert soil was quite productive when it had a cover crop?

JOHNSON. With a cover crop and the right biology. Both are integral.

ACRES U.S.A. Right, because you have plants feeding the soil microorganisms.

JOHNSON. But with the microbial inoculant, it was half again more productive. Our first season with the winter cover on the treated was about 800 grams. The second season was over 1,600 grams. The third winter crop season was almost 2,200 grams. There’s some overlooked ability in these soils.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s your climate like?

JOHNSON. It’s pretty temperate. We have a long growing season. It can get down to -16°F in the winter. We usually have about a half-inch of rain every month in the winter. We plant the cover crop in the fall, and it doesn’t grow over a couple inches tall. Then in mid-February, growth just takes off. There’s no winterkill. We’ve seen these plants freeze, the leaves become like potato chips and you can go out and crush them. Yet by 10 a.m. when it starts to thaw, they’re busy photosynthesizing. That winter cover crop is ready for harvest at the end of April. In those 10 weeks, it grew 2,200 grams of dry biomass per square meter.

ACRES U.S.A. Are other researchers and farmers doing trials of similar systems of making compost in other settings?

JOHNSON. In other countries, they are. I just got an email from Pakistan today. We presented in Australia. Last week people in New Zealand contacted us.

ACRES U.S.A. Are there active trials where people have made bioreactors, used the finished compost and are now reporting results?

JOHNSON. They’re in the process. It takes a year to make this compost.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your current thoughts on different application methods?

JOHNSON. I’ve done applications of up to 400 pounds per acre. I’m looking at much lesser amounts. I’ve been making a slurry out of the compost and coating seed before planting. I see a difference in the growth dynamics compared to a control. In Australia, they are doing something similar. Their application rate for a very similar fungal to bacterial compost product is 1 kg per hectare. From what I’ve heard and read, they’re having pretty good success. They make an extract by vigorously stirring their compost, either with air or mechanically in water, to make a homogenous solution. They use about a kg of compost per 70 liters water, or a pound per 15 gallons. Then they inject it when they plant. In an area that normally produces about 1.6 tons of wheat on an early spring grain crop, they’ve reached up to 3 tons. This is the work of Ian and Diane Haggerty in dryland Western Australia. Their neighbors have gone broke trying to grow crops conventionally in that area. The Australian government is invested in improving their soils because they know that’s their future. Farmers could get started right away by using cover crops. There’s no reason to wait just because you don’t have the right compost. But once you do, at least in that desert soil, there’s a definite difference between inoculated and not inoculated.

ACRES U.S.A. If you use this sort of compost to inoculate seed or you apply it under dry conditions, would the bacteria and fungi go dormant and then be revived in the soil?

JOHNSON. I think what you’re putting out there is a lot of spores and cysts. When you let the compost go this long, without the recommended carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of feedstocks, you get lot of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the pile. And when the whole system senses that it’s running out of usable resources, the fungi will form spores and bacteria will encyst. There still would be living organisms, like the worms processing it, and the compost would continue to mature.

ACRES U.S.A. Is your compost similar in composition to what ancient farmers were producing?

JOHNSON. Judging by the description in Farmers of Forty Centuries, the Chinese did it for 4,000 years. My wife, who is from Taiwan, was growing up during the shift to using synthetic fertilizers. She said they noticed that they had a lot more rice, but lost their protein source. All the fish and cockles and frogs that lived in the paddies died. Applying fertilizer completely decimated the whole system. The Amazonian Indians seem to have done something similar with Terra Preta del Indio. They used Terra Preta for 2,000 to 5,000 years.

ACRES U.S.A. I understand that if you use raw biochar, rather than allowing microorganisms to colonize it, it can pull nutrients out of the soil so plants grow poorly.

JOHNSON. Yeah, it becomes detrimental, as does biochar over 15 tons per acre.

ACRES U.S.A. Are you able to focus on your compost-related research, or are you involved with other topics?

JOHNSON. This has been part-time research. Since things grow slowly, I’ve had time to do other research here at the university. Mostly I’m working on technologies for purifying water, with reverse osmosis and electro-dialysis reversal methodologies.

ACRES U.S.A. What are your next steps?

JOHNSON. We want to scale up the bioreactor and do trials in different locales. There are a lot of people interested all over — in Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, Canada, Mexico and Europe, and hopefully we’re going to get into China. A month ago, we were in Finland talking about their possibly using it to restore the Baltic Sea by reducing or eliminating all of the fertilizers and herbicides flowing into that water body.

ACRES U.S.A. You could find those types of scenarios practically everywhere around the world.

JOHNSON. Yeah. And there are some people using similar practices that are seeing dramatic results.

ACRES U.S.A. Can you give some examples of where people are using similar practices, with or without inoculation?

JOHNSON. Roland Bunch has been doing this in Africa and South America for 30-odd years. He is seeing that cover crops can bring these soils back. And it’s bringing that biology back that makes it work. But mostly, people consider compost as an amendment that has to be applied in large amounts. What they’re not realizing is that if they allow compost to mature, they can use it as a microbial inoculant. That’s now starting to come to light. Now that I have an improved soil, I’ve gotten an idea of what the biology’s supposed to look like. That’s going be what I’ll be comparing to, but I had to have that first.

ACRES U.S.A. That’s great because there are many questions about how to select good measures of soil health. Some of the measures being used may not be very appropriate.

JOHNSON. I agree.

Soil Carbon

ACRES U.S.A. Often there seems to be a lack of understanding of how to increase soil carbon. People are still thinking it comes from crop residues or adding something to the soil, rather than from the action of microbes in the soil. While I don’t know the science in much detail, I recognize it’s really about a paradigm shift, which hasn’t fully caught on yet.

JOHNSON. Nobody knows the science yet. I’m trying to learn.

ACRES U.S.A. Could some persistent carbonaceous molecules in compost be the mechanism for increasing soil carbon?

JOHNSON. From what I have seen, I don’t believe that is the mechanism.

ACRES U.S.A. Yet there are people still dwelling on questions like, what kinds of carbon compounds are present in a particular compost.

JOHNSON. They are asking that. One paper I recently read pretty much characterized any carbon entity in the soil as being fair game to a microbe. They’ve found sugars that are 10,000 years old, though sugars are supposed to degrade really fast. They’ve found aromatic ringed carbon structures that are supposed to be more resistant to microbial breakdown, but they degrade in a month.

ACRES U.S.A. Well, microbes inhabit every kind of environment on the planet, including those considered extremely inhospitable, but they have figured out how to use whatever substrate is available as an energy source.

JOHNSON. Yeah. We have to look at this a little differently. It’s not that we want to put carbon in the soil and lock it up. It’s a living system, and carbon is the lifeblood of this system. We have to allow it to flow. With our modern farming techniques we’ve cut back the efficiency of the system for capturing carbon. Remember, I said I had a five times increase in productivity. I’ve seen that in the greenhouse and in my field experiments. I’ve talked to Richard Teague and he has seen it in grazing management.

ACRES U.S.A. Tell us who Richard Teague is.

JOHNSON. Richard Teague is the rangeland ecologist at Texas A&M AgriLife Center in Vernon. He has been looking at how we can change grazing management on the planet. Along with Johan Zietsman in Africa, Terry McCosker in Australia, and others, he sees that we need to mimic how the bison grazed the Great Plains. It was a complete system that functioned properly. The animals would take about 30 to 40 percent of the grass and move on because predators were behind them. They deposited their manure. Dung beetles rolled it up into little balls and put it into the ground. That was the perfect environment for it to compost in place. It started to build soil carbon up and that’s what I’m trying to mimic. We have to slow the velocity of the carbon moving through the system. So little carbon is left in the soil, and there is going to be a certain amount of respiration always taking place in soils just to keep it alive. We have to create a system that’s capturing more carbon than it’s respiring. Reinvigorating the microbial community structures seems to also increase carbon-use-efficiency of the soil microbes as well.

ACRES U.S.A. Your research finds that the amount of carbon in a soil that’s respired off as carbon dioxide varies. It’s not a fixed percentage of soil carbon, or even a fixed amount. What factors influence the magnitude of soil carbon loss through respiration?

JOHNSON. From what I’ve seen in my research, it depends on the microbial community structure. I did both a greenhouse study and a one-year field study that looked at respiration in different soils with different levels of carbon and different biology. In the low-carbon, bacterial-dominant soil, over 50 percent of the original soil carbon was respired. Yet as you moved to a soil that was more fungal dominant and had more carbon, only 11 percent of the original carbon in the soil was respired. Increasing the rate at which we capture carbon while decreasing the rate at which that carbon is respired is how we will begin to reduce atmospheric CO2. Now this contradicts what most scientists are saying — that when we increase soil carbon we’ll increase respiration.

ACRES U.S.A. That sounds like linear thinking.

JOHNSON: Very, and nature has never been linear. In the greenhouse, I had soils with an 18 times increase in soil carbon, compared to the lowest treatment, and a 5 times increase in microbial biomass, and respiration was only four times greater. In a field study conducted for one year, I had soils ranging from less than half a percent up to 7 percent soil carbon. With the fourteen-fold increase in soil carbon there was only a doubling of the respiration.

ACRES U.S.A. What’s the significance of carbon respiration?

JOHNSON. Ninety-seven percent of carbon that’s respired into the atmosphere comes from microbes or plants. Plants and microbes have metabolic processes that are very similar to ours. In order to stay alive, they, like us, respire and release CO2. In plants for the most part this occurs only at night. Plants just also have the ability to fix carbon during the day and capture CO2.

ACRES U.S.A. How does the amount of respiration of crop plants compare to the amount of carbon that they capture?

JOHNSON. Plants capture enough CO2 in their photosynthetic processes to offset 97 percent of CO2 emissions and they keep it pretty balanced. It is the other 3 percent, our emission of CO2 from burning fossil fuels, that tip this balance.

ACRES U.S.A. Talk more about that 3 percent of the atmospheric carbon.

JOHNSON. That’s what we, as humans, contribute by burning fossil fuels. When you look at the ratios, the 3 percent we contribute is a relatively small component. We can reduce this one of two ways; make big changes in a small system by reducing our emissions or make small changes in a large system by improving plant productivity and regenerating carbon into soils. We have a choice here, and I believe it will be easier to achieve a reduction in atmospheric CO2 by regenerating carbon in our soils than by drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption.

ACRES U.S.A. When did we go wrong?

JOHNSON. We started out by adopting the European model of farming, where agriculture extracted nutrients and carbon out of soils and then farmers moved on to areas with undisturbed soils to repeat these soil-degrading practices. Then in the early 20th century came the Haber-Bosch process for manufacturing nitrogen fertilizers. Before 1940, you could produce six units of food energy for one fossil fuel unit. Now it takes 10 units of fossil fuel energy to produce and deliver 1 unit of food energy, even though the solar energy to grow the plant is free. So the last great hope I see is soil, and microbes.

ACRES U.S.A. Under this scenario how much greater could carbon sequestration in the soil be?

JOHNSON. In my transitional soils, those that I’ve just started using a biologically enhanced agricultural management (BEAM) approach, I have observed 10.7 tons carbon per hectare per year over the first 4.5 years of application. That’s a 0.25 percent annual rate of soil carbon increase.

ACRES U.S.A. I’ve been led to believe that soil carbon levels are hard to measure since they fluctuate a lot. If that’s the case, how are you able to say they’ve increased?

JOHNSON. There’s too much noise in soil carbon data to measure annual increases. But at four and a half years, I feel pretty confident in what I’ve observed and the analyses I’ve done. I’ve done multi-core sampling, composites and triplicates of those samples run with a LECO test, which is a combustion test. It’s the gold standard of soil carbon estimation. As you get the carbon back in the soil, you also see that change in growth dynamics, and the increased tonnage of carbon in above ground biomass. But let me give a caveat. If we want to build the carbon up, a certain amount of the cover crop has to go back into the soil. On the desert soil, when I’m harvesting everything off, I see only minimal increases in soil carbon. It’s like any relationship — you’ve got to give something back.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have a big enough field experiment to divide your treatments in half and in some plots put some of the biomass back and in others, not?

JOHNSON. No, none of mine are big enough. I’ve been doing this research on a shoestring budget. The ag schools have yet to see its value. I funded a lot of this work myself. In the last couple of years the Thornburg Foundation has been very kind and helped me, but the plots are not big enough. This research needs to be replicated here and in other areas under different conditions. But I know it has potential with the right biology. I see what Gabe Brown and other people have done with grazing management and other changes, and how these progressive farmers are turning their farms around.

ACRES U.S.A. Is there research into whether the importance of the high fungal bacterial ratio holds in other places where people are sequestering significant amounts of carbon? I’m wondering if anyone has looked at this ratio on Gabe Brown’s farm.

JOHNSON. Not that I’m aware of. I would definitely like to compare his soil to what I’m seeing here with the biology that I have.

ACRES U.SA. Perhaps you and other researchers will determine that the fungal bacterial ratio, plus ongoing management, are the decisive factors, and then measuring soil carbon might take a back seat. Or maybe carbon is a better and cheaper measurement?

JOHNSON. There are still questions on all of this. I’ve had good luck in the lab and in the greenhouse, where I can control everything, but once you get out into nature that changes. In the greenhouse, I was able to use pretty much the same microbial community all the way through the test, but with different fungal to bacterial ratios. That allowed me quite a bit of latitude to eliminate all the other variables. If I were to get soil from Gabe Brown with a certain fungal bacterial ratio and then try to compare it to the soil I have here, it would be complicated by differences in the structures of the microbial communities.

ACRES U.S.A. Right. There are all kinds of confounding factors.

JOHNSON. This is such a dynamic system, and we think linearly.

ACRES U.S.A. It seems quite urgent to get other people interested in doing allied work.

JOHNSON. Yes, it’s critical, and not just for the soil carbon part. In my estimation, the carbon is just the icing on the cake. There are so many benefits for agriculture, like increasing crop productivity and improving crop water use efficiency. I did a cotton crop this year just to see how it would turn out.

ACRES U.S.A. I saw the incredible photos!

JOHNSON. The cotton grew 6 feet high. Of course, tall cotton doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a crop, but when we harvested it last weekend, there was a little over five bales of cotton per acre without fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides, just biology. The average in our area is about two and a half. This was on the improved soil in my seven-year field trial. As a scientist, you have to be half skeptic and half optimist. I’m always wary and expect failure, but nature has been pleasantly surprising.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any opportunities to talk with farmers in New Mexico and elsewhere?

JOHNSON. Yes, Rudy Garcia, the regional NRCS manager, has been pulling me into a lot of his meetings to do presentations, as has Ray Archuleta. In California certain groups like Chico State are really interested. They see that it’s the microbes that are making this work.

ACRES U.S.A. Even on a shoestring you seem to be doing a remarkable job of letting people around the world know about this.

JOHNSON. We have a lot of help. Carbon Underground is helping us. Terry McCosker with Carbon Link in Australia is an intermediary between the ranchers and the carbon market there, which actually has money.

ACRES U.S.A. How do you get this on the ground in a large enough number of places to make the big difference in our atmosphere we need? How do you get farmers to try and implement things?

JOHNSON. You never know what one connection will lead to. That has been proven to me over and over. I get frustrated, but then something seems to come through every time it needs to. Carbon Underground took us to Finland because Finland is interested in this. I’m talking with Patagonia now.

ACRES U.S.A. Is Patagonia still buying organic cotton?

JOHNSON. That’s what I’ll be working on. I’ll be sending them the results on that cotton, so there is potential.

ACRES U.S.A. A recent study led by scientists at Woods Hole Research Center and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that agriculture had removed 133 billion tons of carbon from the top 2 meters of soil. Could your approach potentially put some of that carbon back?

JOHNSON. I think we can do better. There is a limit to the percent carbon increase you can get in a soil, but there’s no limit to the amount of carbon increases you can get as you build up new soil.

ACRES U.S.A. The USDA promotes the false notion that it takes 500 years to create a half-inch of soil. What’s your evidence that we could increase the amount of soil?

JOHNSON. In the United States, our average loss rate is about 10 tons of soil per hectare per year, but we have demonstrated the ability to rebuild more than 10 tons of carbon per hectare per year on top of that. That’s how nature did it on the Great Plains. How else could they get the 6-foot deep topsoils that we have so destructively mined for the last 75 years or more? That was our carbon bank account and we’ve pretty much withdrawn it all the way down. It’s up to us to build it back up because that’s where the fertility is. It’s by putting that carbon back in there and letting the microbes function optimally that we’ll see an increase in primary productivity.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any critics or detractors?

JOHNSON. People do say it’s not going to work, but they don’t come up with a good argument of why it won’t. Nature is doing it every day. My work is about aligning ourselves with nature enough to understand how she does it.

ACRES U.S.A. Do you have any thoughts on why more people haven’t seen this?

JOHNSON. I think it comes from assuming procedures that other people used in the past are the best. My approach has always been different. I wouldn’t have discovered the bio-hydrogen community had I not challenged what other people had done before me. I approached things different. I’ll be the first to admit there was a certain amount of luck in it. We pasteurized the compost at six different temperatures and in triplicates. One out of the 18 went crazy. It produced over 200 ml of hydrogen while the others were producing less than 10. I can’t argue with fate. I nurtured that microbial community for over two and a half years while I was doing research on it and it kept producing. It was trying to tell me then to look at the biology. I ignored it until I got working at the Plant Science Center here at NMSU and started using biology again.

ACRES U.S.A. As a building contractor, did you just do the normal things, or were you taking risks?

JOHNSON. I did specialty and custom homes, a lot of homes for artists. They’re always unique in how they looked at things, and how they wanted things put together. I won an award for the design of one of the homes. My wife Hui-Chun and I did everything. Sometimes we would work for a year and a half with a customer on a set of house plans. We ended up friends with all of our clients.

ACRES U.S.A. How should education change to facilitate greater openness and vision in people?

JOHNSON. Right now, with the reductionist viewpoint in science, we’re missing the dynamic part of this planet. We need to realize that the Earth is a living organism. It’s going to be very complex, and we may never figure this out.

ACRES U.S.A. You mean we might not have the capacity to understand exactly what’s going on?

JOHNSON. I think that’s a distinct possibility.

ACRES U.S.A. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Without characterizing every microbe in our gut, we probably can know that certain practices are health-promoting and others promote disease or sterility.

JOHNSON. You can see almost every pathogen known to man in these soils. Yet most likely they have a function there. It depends on the environment they’re in. When we destroy the composition of that microbial community, that’s when we start having problems. Like you were saying about soil health or soil fertility, I don’t know that anybody can really define it right now. I don’t know that we ever will, but I believe we’re going the right direction when plants grow better. Supporting that seems like a good goal. And building that soil carbon also takes care of water issues. Seventy percent of the world’s water goes toward agriculture. If we can double the production of a commodity crop with the same amount of water the efficiency of that water use doubles. We see that in rangeland management. Nancy Ranney in New Mexico has been practicing adaptive multi-paddock grazing management. They built dikes to supply stock tanks. For the first couple of years, they filled up, but as they improved their soil and grew better grasses, the tanks stopped filling up. Their aquifer level started coming up. They went from four species of grasses to 44. This is the direction we need to go.

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

The Secret Life of Compost by Malcolm Beck

Malcolm Beck’s knowledge of soil and composting came from being a lifelong farmer, as well as years in the composting and recycling business, as founder of his own company – Garden-Ville.

“Malcolm Beck’s intuitive knowledge and lifelong research on the subject of compost and composting gives us a holistic presentation of the process in The Secret Life of Compost,” says John Dromgoole, radio host and organic gardening authority.

In this excerpt, Beck discusses soil microbes, and their role in soil organic material, and how it relates to recycling and composting:

From Part 1: The Why of Composting

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.

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.

The Secret Life of Compost
The Secret Life of Compost

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.

This was exciting. I immediately called Dr. Jerry Parsons. He came out and did his own inspection, and he too found lots of root rot and nematodes in the control rows but none in the inoculated rows. Then Dr. Parsons told us he had seen microbes such as these tested before and sometimes they worked perfectly, other times a little, and sometimes not at all.

I later contacted Dr. Don Crawford at the University of Idaho about this root rot-destroying microbe. Dr. Crawford originally discovered it. He tells me it is a saprophytic, rhizosphere-colonizing actinomycete, which means it is a microbe that lives on the roots and eats the skin sloughed off by a healthy, normal growing plant. As long as the plant is flourishing and the root is growing and lots of root skin is being shed to feed the actinomycete, it doesn’t let a disease organism or root knot nematodes attack the plant roots.

The soil life and the plant life support each other. Dr. Parsons said the reasons these things don’t always work is because the plants were probably growing so poorly they couldn’t feed the beneficial root colonizer, allowing them to weaken; then the bad guys get a toehold. Hence the Laws of Nature: Destroy the weak and allow survival of the fittest. Without the colonizers feeding and protecting the plant, it falls victim to the natural laws. Weakened plants are attacked by all kinds of pests below and above ground. Nature wants the weak and sick plants to be destroyed. But man interferes. He uses his arsenal of pesticides to keep the unfit plants alive. Then he eats from the poisoned sick plants — and wonders why he gets sick.

The beneficial soil life can perform its job only if we do our part in following six important rules when growing plants.


  1. Use the best adapted varieties for each environment.
  2. Plant in preferred season.
  3. Balance the mineral content of the soil.
  4. Build and maintain the soil organic content — humus.
  5. Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life.
  6. Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules having been violated.

Of the above rules, number 4 is the most important. It is the law of recycle and return. When practiced, it supports the other five rules and makes them less important. Because of rules 4 and 6 being ignored or not understood, the big use of pesticide became necessary. As a result, 1.9 billion pounds of pesticide are sold each year in this country.

We recognized and followed these rules on both of our farms. The first farm had a fruit orchard, an acre-and-half garden, and the rest was covered with pecan trees under which we grazed our milk cow and other farm animals. One day Dr. Sam Cotner, the vegetable specialist of Texas A&M, came for a visit. After looking around he said, “Beck, your farm is beautiful. Are you sure you are not using any modern farm chemicals?” I told him our little farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, as I made my living working on the railroad. As an experiment, we kept the farm all organic. He replied, “This is nice but it is not practical on large acreage. We have to feed the world.”

The more I thought of Dr. Cotner’s statement the more I realized a new challenge. We soon sold the little 11-acre place and moved onto a much larger farm where we learned that the larger the area over which you have control, the easier organic farming becomes. You have more different environments to use, more room for rotation, and no close neighbors upsetting the natural balance with toxic sprays.

There are large farms all over the United States that have turned toward a more natural way of growing. And more are changing daily. Many are certified organic, following strict rules and using absolutely no harmful agricultural chemicals of any kind. The certified farms have a niche market and usually get better prices for their products.

In my travels around the country, and because of our business, I get a chance to visit with many farmers and ranchers who are changing or have changed to more natural, organic ways. When I ask what made them decide to change, the answer is always the same: “I was going broke following the modern, conventional ways.”

Modern conventional farming is not all bad. It gives a lot of attention to NPK and other minerals needed to grow crops. But not enough importance is put on the soil life. Many agricultural pesticides and herbicides — and even some of the fertilizers — are harmful to soil life, especially when there isn’t enough organic matter in the soil to supply the energy microbes and earthworms need.

Without this needed energy, the soil life can’t properly process the applied minerals. The minerals may become imbalanced and toxic to the plants. The plants become weak. Then they can’t feed the beneficial root colonizers. The colonizers can’t furnish nutrients or protection to the roots. The plants get sicker. Nature wants to get rid of the sick plants and sends pests to attack and destroy them. Then the farmer is told to use toxic rescue chemistry. The environment, the farmer, and the consumer suffer. It is a vicious cycle. All become losers because of a lack of organic matter in the soil.

Organic materials from sewer plants, landfills, dumps, factories, feedlots, and other sources become waste materials only after we have wasted them. In Nature nothing is wasted, she has no waste. When we recycle an organic product, it immediately becomes a natural resource. When organic resources are recycled back into the life stream, the whole environment comes out a winner. There are no losers. The soil life, plant life and animal life all gain tremendously. And all contribute to man’s well-being so he wins the greatest.

About Malcolm Beck

MALCOLM BECK was a lifelong organic farmer and the founder of Gar­den-Ville, a composting/recycling business and retail horticultural supply house. He spoke widely throughout the country, but was particularly well known in south-central Texas. His Garden-Ville operation has grown from a composting pile on his family farm to a multi-million-yard operation in a few years. His compost, fertilizers, bedding mixes, and soils supply leading landscapers throughout Texas. He authored and co-authored many books on organic gardening, including Lessons in Nature.

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.

Compost Tea: A Remedy for What Injures Your Crops

By Mary-Howell R. Martens

Compost tea can serve multiple functions to develop healthy and fertile soil. Combating disease on fruits and vegetables can be a frustrating experience, even for the most committed organic grower. A brief spell of adverse weather at just the wrong time can reduce peaches to unappetizing brown mush, apples to hard scabby nuggets, and cucumber vines to wilting, mildew-covered disasters. Organically approved disease control materials that are effective and do not demand too rigorous an application schedule are hard to find. So what can you do when your grapevine gazes at you imploringly, begging for relief from yet another battle with botrytis?

Perhaps a spot of compost tea would be just what the doctor ordered!

Dr. Elaine Ingham, a professor at Oregon State University and a central figure at SoilFood-Web Inc., has been working on the use of compost tea to suppress plant disease and to stimulate plant growth. In its simplest form, compost tea is the water extract of composted manure and/or plant materials. Other special ingredients, such as molasses and kelp, can be added to enhance control of certain types of pathogenic organisms and to provide extra nutrition to the plants. The resulting tea is rich in a diverse population of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and soluble plant nutrients.

While chemical pesticides work by killing microorganisms, both the pathogenic and the beneficial ones, compost tea works on a very different principle. Dr. Ingham explains that when compost tea is sprayed on a plant, the leaf surface is occupied by beneficial organisms, forming a physical barrier against the pathogenic species and providing a competitive environment in which the pathogenic species lose out. Additionally, the compost tea stimulates healthy plant growth as a foliar nutritional source, helping the plant to further resist attack.

But that’s not all! Inoculation of the soil with beneficial organisms can help to retain and release plant-available nutrients, aiding the decomposition and recycling of soil organic matter, improving soil structure, and adding valuable beneficial organisms to the soil food web and soil ecosystem. The end result is that plants treated with compost tea will often grow more vigorously, resist disease and insect attack, and may produce higher yields of more flavorful fruit.

A compost heap with kitchen food waste, animal manure, vegetables, fruit peel and green refuse.

How to Make the Compost

Because both beneficial and pathogenic organisms may be present in compost, it is essential to make compost correctly. If compost is properly made, most disease-causing organisms will be killed by temperature or out-competed by beneficial organisms. The organic material chosen to compost will determine, to a large extent, the microbial population of the final compost. The composting process also will affect the final quality of the product. Equipment to turn the compost during the process, a long probe thermometer, a watchful eye and a sensitive nose are essential to producing fine quality compost.

Starting the process with a mixture that is approximately 25 percent animal manure, 50 percent green plant material, and 25 percent shredded woody plant material will result in compost that has proportionately more bacteria than fungi. Starting the process with a mixture that is approximately 25 percent animal manure, 30 percent green plant material and 45 percent shredded woody plant material will result in a much different product, one that has a high fungal biomass. Both types of compost have value in disease suppression but would be used under different conditions.

The process of composting is very critical. It is important during the composting process that there is sufficient oxygen throughout the pile to favor the growth of aerobic organisms. When a pile is depleted of oxygen and becomes anaerobic, pathogenic and otherwise non-beneficial organisms will be favored, and toxic metabolites can form.

Loss of oxygen is primarily due to excessive heat, which causes the microbes to use oxygen more rapidly, or due to a poorly constructed or inadequately aerated pile. For bacterial compost, the composting process will generate a lot of heat. It is critical that the compost is turned regularly to keep the oxygen level fairly high and uniform throughout the entire pile, and to keep the temperature at a constant level. This will prevent the pile from becoming anaerobic and prevent some portions of the pile from incompletely composting. After each turning, the pile will cool temporarily and then re-heat as the microbes resume growing with fresh oxygen. Compost made primarily of finely chopped materials will not allow air to move in the pile, and anaerobic bacteria that produce plant-toxic materials will proliferate. Loss of oxygen in a compost pile is often the result of bacteria and fungi multiplying too rapidly due to too much readily available nitrogen. When this happens, the pile temperature may rapidly rise above optimum and anaerobic organisms will predominate.

The smell of the compost can provide clues of whether or not anaerobic fermentation is occurring. If you notice an ammonia odor, your mix is probably too rich in nitrogen and is becoming anaerobic. Adding additional carbon materials, such as leaves or wood shavings, should help to correct this. If you smell vinegar, sour milk or musty odors, the pile may be too moist and lack sufficient air space. This can be corrected by mixing in more dry or large, chunky materials. A foul, sulfurous or rotten egg aroma and a black color indicates the formation of hydrogen sulfide, which results from advanced anaerobic conditions. If any of these off-odors are detected, thoroughly turning the pile will introduce a fresh supply of oxygen and should restore aerobic conditions.

Compost should reach a temperature between 135°F and 155°F
Compost should reach a temperature between 135°F and 155°F

In order to achieve a complete composting process, the pile temperature must exceed at least 135°F for no less than three days, although higher temperatures for 8 to 15 days produce a more reliably safe product. However, the temperature should not exceed 155°F, at which point many beneficial organisms will be killed. If the pile temperature rises above 180°F, there is a possibility of fire. Checking several locations of the pile with a long probe thermometer regularly during the composting process will ensure you know when to turn the pile. If sections of the pile appear to be either too hot or too cold, prompt turning and mixing is warranted.

It is essential to realize that whenever manure in any form is used on crops destined for human consumption, especially on those that are likely to be eaten fresh, extreme caution must be taken to avoid introducing human pathogenic organisms. The potentially pathogenic bacteria E.coli, which is normally present in raw manure, is effectively killed if piles are kept at 135°F for three or more days. For that reason, compost tea should not be made from manure-based compost unless the pile temperature exceeds this for at least 10 to 14 days and the compost is carefully made to ensure uniform heating. Other even more deadly pathogenic bacteria are also killed at this temperature. Recent research at Cornell University has shown that manure from animals fed a grain-based diet are much more likely to harbor the highly pathogenic E. coli 057:H7 strain than are animals that are fed forage. It is also not clear how well genetically modified DNA degrades either in animal digestion or in the composting process, so steering clear of manure from animals fed GMO crops would make sense.

The higher proportion of woody material in fungal compost keeps the pile cooler. Fungal growth can actually be inhibited by frequent turning, so if fungal compost is desired, turning may be detrimental. The lower manure concentration could be used, but this will limit the amount of available nitrogen and thus the pile temperature. Woody compost rarely heats above 150°C. If the pile temperature does not reach this temperature, it is probably because the woody material was insufficiently shredded, there was not enough fresh plant material, or the starting materials were too dry.

If worm compost (vermicompost) is used, the material does not have to reach the same temperatures but must be adequately processed by the worms. Passage through the earthworm digestive system kills human pathogens and most plant pathogens, but adequate time must be allowed for worms to process all the starting materials.

How to Make the Compost Tea

Once you have a fine vintage of compost, you can now make compost tea. A low-cost method of making compost tea involves placing the compost into a “tea bag,” such as an old nylon stocking or a plastic mesh feed bag, and suspending it into a “tea pot,” such as a 5-gallon plastic pail or a small barrel half-full of water. Metal containers are not recommended because the compost tea can corrode some types of metal. The mixture will “steep” for several days, with a better product achieved if there is periodic stirring to circulate the materials and introduce sufficient oxygen into the water. Placing an aquarium-type aerator at the bottom of the barrel will create enough turbulence to provide some mixing and will introduce a continuous flow of air into the water.

There are more sophisticated compost tea micro-brewing systems on the market, such as the MicroBrewer and the SoilSoup Machine, that are designed to optimize aeration and recirculation by swirling the water around the compost in a continuous vortex. This high-tech approach reduces the time required to produce a good quality, microbially diverse compost tea, and is especially valuable in producing large quantities of compost tea commercially.

After the brewing is complete, compost tea should be allowed to settle for several hours and the liquid portion carefully decanted to avoid the sediment at the bottom of the container. A good compost tea should smell earthy and sweet and be dark brown, like good coffee. After the finished compost tea is removed, it should be applied to plants within five hours if it is not aerated with an aquarium pump, or within 15 hours if it is aerated.

Compost tea can be applied as a foliar spray, using a sprayer with nozzles that provide a light mist. For best results, at least 75 percent of the upper and lower leaf surface should be covered with each application.

Depending on the plant species, approximately 5 gallons per acre per 1 to 5 feet of plant canopy is needed and should be applied every two weeks through the growing season. Tea should be applied before 10:00 a.m. or after 3:00 p.m. on sunny days because UV light can kill microorganisms. As a soil drench, tea should be applied at about 1 quart per plant.

Factors Affecting Compost Tea Quality

Not all compost teas are created equal. Obviously, in order to produce a highly beneficial compost tea, you must start with high quality, fully finished compost. However, there are additional considerations that must be addressed.

Water Source

It is important to use water that is as pure and as uncontaminated as possible. Water containing high levels of salts, heavy metals, nitrates, pesticides, chlorine or pathogens should not be used. These will affect the survival and reproduction of beneficial organisms from the compost and may also adversely affect the plants on which the compost tea is applied.

 Characteristics of the Compost Tea Bag

The mesh size of the tea bag will determine what components of the compost are extracted into the water. With a fine mesh bag, only the tiny soluble components will enter the water. This is critical if the compost tea will be applied with a sprayer or in irrigation systems. Farmers and researchers have found that old nylon stockings make fine tea bags, though fine-weave cotton and silk will also work. Nylon window screening, plastic feed bags, and burlap can also be used. It is important to use clean material that is not treated with any preservatives or other chemicals.

Aeration and Recirculation

Aeration systems should provide the proper amount of water agitation. When compost tea is not adequately agitated, oxygen can become depleted, reducing aerobic microbial growth, favoring anaerobic conditions, and resulting in poor extraction of materials from the compost.

Ratio of Compost to Water

If there is too much water for the amount of compost, the tea will be dilute and will not provide maximum benefits. However, if there is too much compost, it is possible that there will be an excess of nutrients for bacteria, which can lead to oxygen depletion and anaerobic conditions. It is important to experiment with different quantities in your system to achieve the best ratio.

Brew Time

The longer the compost remains suspended in the water, the greater the amount of soluble materials that will be extracted from the compost. These include both living organisms and the nutrients that will feed them. Compost tea that is well aerated and recirculated will require a shorter brewing time than tea made without adequate agitation. Using a sophisticated micro-brewing system, it is possible to produce good-quality compost tea in 18 to 24 hours. Under more basic conditions, it may be necessary to let the compost steep for a few days to a few weeks.

Environmental Conditions

Temperature, humidity and evaporation can each affect the quality of the compost tea. If water is too cold, extraction will be reduced and microbe growth slowed; if it is too warm, though, microorganisms may be inhibited or excessive evaporation may occur. It is hard to change the ambient weather, but a cover over the container in hot weather should help control evaporation.

Added Materials

Certain stimulatory additives can be included during brewing to improve the final quality of the compost tea. These include materials such as kelp, rock dust, molasses, humic and/or fulvic acids, and commercially available microbial spore suspensions. Solid materials, like rock dust, must be added to the compost in the tea bag, while soluble materials like molasses should be added to the water.

Choosing the Right Compost Tea for You

Dr. Ingham, working with Karl Rubenberger from Umpqua Farms and Michael Alms of Growing Solutions, Inc., has tested various types of compost and compost tea for their effectiveness in controlling disease on different types of plants growing in different types of soils. While much of this work is preliminary, results suggest that matching the proper compost and compost tea recipe to the particular situation will give more benefit than using a “one size fits all” approach.

For example, foliar diseases of vegetable row crops grown on clay or loam soils are best controlled with foliar applications of a bacterial compost-based tea supplemented with molasses and kelp. However, when such vegetables are grown on sandy soils or in potting mix, a soil drench of compost tea based on fungal-dominated compost is more effective at controlling root diseases.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the February 2001 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Reducing Food Waste: Compost Production Recovers Nutrients for Soil Benefits

By Debra Atlas

When you consider our nation’s health, the quality of our food, its decreasing nutritional value and the increased degradation of our farmland, it’s not a pretty picture — and the challenges related to these issues keep growing.

By 2050 the world’s population will likely reach close to 9 billion people. To feed everyone, we’ll need to globally produce more food. Yet, almost 40 percent of food currently produced ends up in landfills.

According to ReFED, a collaboration of over 50 business, nonprofit, foundation and government leaders committed to reducing food waste in the United States, American consumers, businesses and farms spend $218 billion per year growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food waste.

Food waste is a global problem. The 2017 Food Sustainability Index ranks 34 countries from best to worst. In France, No. 1 on the Index, supermarkets don’t toss food approaching its sell-by date; they must donate it to charities or food banks. This has lowered the country’s annual wastage to 1.8 percent of its total food production. Germany, Spain and Italy, which follow close behind, also scored high with agriculture-related conservation and research and nutrition education.

The United States, however, falls into the third quartile, ranked 21 out of 34 for food sustainability. But this is a story of possibilities — one where innovation is helping create solutions to a problem that could dramatically affect our future. If we are to meet the food needs of an increased population sustainably, we must do things differently. Composting — using food scraps to add nutrients to soil — is a good first step.

According to BioCycle Magazine, around 200-300 cities have food composting programs in place. The San Francisco Bay area’s urban compost collection program, possibly one of the largest in the country, began in 1996 to reduce landfill disposal and turn food scraps into compost. Other U.S. cities with compost-collecting programs include Denver; Austin, Texas; Portland, Oregon and New York City.

Green waste used as part of a mixture of ingredients for compost.

Benefits of Reducing Waste

The Harvard School of Public Health said reducing food waste by an estimated 15 percent could feed more than 25 million Americans annually. You would think this would be a driving incentive for waste reduction. But how does food collection figure into soil health? Simple. The quality and health of the soil determines the quality and yield of the crops planted in it.

“You can view compost as a food,” said Bob Shaffer, agronomist, soil scientist and 40-year farmer. “It’s a high-quality, diverse food that’s able to give you health.”

Shaffer, who works to improve soil health by increasing organic matter and nutrient levels on large and small farms around the world, says there are many stresses on soils and our food systems.

Degraded soil comes from a lack of calcium, nutrients and food for the microorganisms that plants need in order to grow. To turn soil “soft” again, says Shaffer, requires organic management, tillage management and nutrient management. “The soil needs to be fed,” he said. “The soil is the big prize.”

Composting waste is crucial to soil health. Shaffer says all the organic matter available should be applied at the farm level. He is dismayed at the sheer volume of recyclable material found but not used on farms today.

Every ton of collected food scraps yields 1 to 1½ cubic yards of compost — approximately 1,000 pounds per cubic yard.

Composting reduces the starting material from 50 to 60 percent. The 40 percent of food we waste each year presents a huge opportunity to revitalize degraded farmland.

The question we should be asking, said Shaffer, is: What can we recycle and/or compost? “There’s so much organic matter that goes to waste. We should recycle all these materials and put them to use. We need zero waste and all the materials brought to the farms to be composted and returned to the soils that are providing food to the cities. If it doesn’t come from the city to the country to be composted, we’ll continue to have degraded soils.”

Composting processes vary, including:

  • Static aerobic compost.
  • Thermal compost, which employs heat to create compost.
  • Vermicomposting, which uses worms to turn food scraps into nutrient-rich compost.

Whichever process is used, Recology, a San Francisco-based integrated resource recovery company, knows that adding compost to soil offers a cornucopia of benefits:

  • Keeps materials out of landfills, saving landfill space and reducing landfill emissions such as methane and other potent greenhouse gases.
  • Returns nutrients and minerals to farms to keep soils fertile.
  • Promotes microbial activity in topsoil, which switches on the soil food web, making micronutrients available to plant roots and discouraging diseases.
  • Helps protect topsoil from erosion.
  • Saves tremendous amounts of water. Good quality compost is 50 percent humus by weight, and humus is a natural sponge that attracts and retains water. This minimizes the need for irrigation and artificial fertilizers, which could have harmful effects on the world’s oceans and other waterways. Building up the water-holding capacity of soils can help farms weather droughts. If you increase organic matter by 1 percent on 1 acre of land by adding compost and employ eco-farming management strategies, we can save 16,500 gallons of water per acre per year.
  • Sequesters carbon deep in the soil, especially when used to grow cover crops which shade topsoil.
  • Creates three times more jobs than landfilling.
  • Helps cities make progress toward achieving zero waste.
  • Helps clean up contaminated soil by binding heavy metals and preventing them from migrating to water resources or from being absorbed by plants.
  • Turns food scraps and plant cuttings into fruits, vegetables and even fine wines.

Shaffer says education is crucial for more people and farmers to get on board with composting. It’s about educating municipalities and individuals who buy our food and then don’t recycle it about why we want it as compost, he said.

“We lose a lot of opportunity with consumers who don’t participate in food recycling. It doesn’t make sense to them until it’s explained.”

Composting in Action

In 2017 Baltimore’s National Aquarium partnered with Colorado-based Eco-Products (a certified B Corporation) to help turn guests’ trash into rich, fertile soil rather than have it end up in local landfills. The aquarium replaced all its conventional disposable plastic foodware products with reusable, compostable or other sustainable choices. These get turned into nutrient-rich soil and mulch for area farms, gardens and for the waterfront park that surrounds the aquarium.

Companies like ChicoBag and Sierra Nevada Brewery incorporate on-site composting to reduce food waste. Napa Valley California’s award-winning Chateau Montelena Winery has been applying compost and planting cover crops in their vineyards for almost 20 years. “And they have healthy, consistent crops,” said Shaffer.

One of the largest onion growers in the country is based in King City, California. Composting is a big part of his operation. The grower says he wouldn’t grow onions without it, and he uses his onion processing waste to give back to the soil.

Shaffer works with large banana growers, rice growers, grape growers and tomato processors who recycle their organic matter into compost for their operations. Shaffer worked with General Mills to set up an operation in northern California where they process the 2,500 acres of organic tomatoes they grow. They process the tomato skin and seeds from their pulped canned tomatoes.

Compost applied to vineyard soils.

Shaffer noted that tomato seeds have about 4 percent nitrogen. “This recycled waste makes a great source of compost feed stock,” he said.

The federal government has gotten involved in the food waste issue. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency launched the U.S. Food Waste Challenge.

They called on entities throughout the food system — including farms, agricultural processors, food manufacturers, grocery stores, restaurants, universities, schools and local governments — to get involved.

In December 2014 the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) and USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture competitively funded a first-of-its-kind conference on food loss and waste in the United States; The Last Food Mile Conference: Food Loss and Food Waste in the U.S. Supply Chain. Its purpose was to define the state of knowledge, understand the factors affecting behavior, identify critical control points and build a network of research and intervention strategies to address food waste.

During this same timeframe, the USDA recognized innovation as a major driver in increasing the reduction, recovery and recycling of food waste. It saw innovation as helping to make reducing, recovering and recycling food waste economically viable for businesses, organizations and households by increasing the feasibility or reducing the cost of better food waste management.

In September 2015, for the first time both the USDA and the EPA announced a national food loss and waste goal, calling for a 50 percent reduction by 2030 to improve food security and conserve natural resources. They recognized that innovation could help stimulate economic development and job growth by turning food waste into an economic opportunity.

USDA’s Agricultural Research Service is designed to support innovation, often in collaboration with industry and academic partners, by conducting research on new technologies for reducing spoilage of fresh foods and for the development of new products from waste materials at food processing facilities.

San Francisco-based Full Harvest Technologies, Inc. is one of the companies filling this niche. Their goal is to solve food waste at the farm level with technology. In 2017, it secured funding so it could offer the first business-to-business marketplace to purchase and sell surplus and imperfectly shaped produce.

Full Harvest aims to turn the billions of pounds of produce that go to waste each year due to surplus or cosmetic reasons into a new profit center for the industry. They plan to help growers recapture the estimated $10 billion market of lost produce sales by selling excess produce to food and beverage companies while lowering costs for those companies and for consumers, and have farmers receive additional revenue.

“Excessive food waste creates an enormous burden on our society, economy and environment,” said Christine Moseley, founder and CEO of Full Harvest. “With the knowledge and technology we now have at our fingertips, no food should go to waste. Our goal is to be the Alibaba of produce — a universal, easy-to-use platform that allows growers, food and beverage companies and retailers to benefit from excess farm produce.”

Rich healthy soil is essential to producing better quality crops and healthy nutritious food.

The more we reduce food waste and turn it into compost applied to farmland to improve soil health, we ensure that our farms will be able to meet the food demands of a growing world.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Debra Atlas is a freelance journalist and professional blogger.

The Best Worm-Friendly Worm Bin for Composting

By Bill Palmisano

Composting with worms produces a consistently superior product called vermicompost, which contains high counts of beneficial soil micro-organisms.

Harvesting the finished vermicompost from most worm bins presents a problem, though: one either stops feeding a significant part of the bin to take it out of production, encouraging the worms to vacate the area to be harvested, or the worms have to be physically separated from the finished compost.

The Continuous-Flow Worm Bin

Continuous-flow worm bins are designed to provide a continuous output of finished vermicompost without disturbing the worms or taking any part of the bin out of production. This design makes it much easier to harvest the finished compost. Most continuous-flow designs have a winch-powered knife that cuts a slice of finished compost from the bottom of the bin about 2’ above the ground.

There is a passive self-harvesting non-mechanical continuous-flow design that is simple to use, though. This elegant design is used at the Open Alternative School (OAS), a public elementary school in the Santa Barbara Unified School District in California. The bins are fed with food scraps, paper and cardboard. They produce rich compost that is then used in the school’s large organic garden. This design can also be adapted to compost animal manure.

Continuous-flow worm bin construction
A 4’x8′ continuous-flow worm bin in construction at OAS.

Continuous-flow boxes receive air from the top and bottom of the pile. This provides the aerobic conditions that worms need in order to thrive. This design makes it difficult for anaerobic (low/no-oxygen) conditions to develop. Excess water cannot collect at the bottom of the box to become anaerobic because excess water drains through the ropes. The finished compost also drops through the spaces between the ropes and falls to the ground for collection.

In my experience, students are universally fascinated by the incredible variety and vibrancy of the organisms found in a healthy worm bin. Schools can provide a steady supply of feed materials for bedding such as uneaten food, kitchen waste, paper and cardboard. Students watch as the worms facilitate the decomposition of food to produce vermicompost.

The worm bins at OAS provide a tremendous volume of nutrient-boosting vermicompost that is full of soil organisms. The compost inoculates the soil and ensures the success of the school’s garden and orchard. The only downside we’ve found to the use of vermicompost is that tomato seeds sometimes sprout out of it; these are easy to identify and weed out, though.

The two worm bins at OAS that process food waste are located in a shady 60-year-old redwood lath house. The bins have a total surface area of 90 square feet. This is enough to process more than 50 gallons of food waste a week.

worm bin for composting
A finished continuous-flow worm bin

A thin layer of food waste is spread on the surface of the box and covered with shredded office paper, torn newspaper and/or sliced, pre-wetted cardboard. Microbes begin and worms finish the digestion of the food and paper, producing dark, humus-rich vermicompost. The boxes are raised about 18” to 24” inches off the ground. The bottom of the box is made of closely spaced parallel ropes, through which the finished compost falls down to the floor. When enough compost has accumulated, it is simply raked out and used in the garden or bagged up for fundraising sales.

This worm bin design was discovered in the late 1990s in an article in the now-defunct Worm Digest. An organization called Berkeley Worms originally constructed two dozen 4’x8’ continuous-flow worm bins at the Berkeley Transfer Station that were made out of recycled lumber, using rope as the bottom layer of the boxes.

How to make a continuous-flow worm bin
Ropes through the middle of the worm bin

These were used for about five years until the wooden frames rotted and the boxes began to fall apart. The current design replaces the wood with a steel frame. The bottom of the box is now polypropylene rope strung parallel at 2” intervals across a galvanized or epoxy-painted steel frame.

The first steel-framed bin we constructed has been making vermicompost for 17 years and shows little sign of wear or decomposition (except for the lids, which wear out and need to be replaced every few years).

The 2” x 12” wooden sides that contain the worms, food waste, paper, cardboard and compost sit directly on top of the steel frame on which the ropes are strung. The box lids are made of 1⁄2” exterior plywood, with a stiffening lumber frame screwed to the plywood’s perimeter that fits snugly to the 2” x 12” wooden sides in order to exclude rodents.

All About Compost Worms

The worms used in our bins (Eisenia fetida) are known as redworms, manure worms, litter worms or red wigglers. They are not earthworms. In their natural habitat, Eisenia fetida do not build tunnels in the mineral soil like earthworms. They remain in the upper litter layer, where they help decompose plant and animal detritus.

Food decomposition in a worm bin begins when microbes start to grow on the surface of the food waste, paper, or cardboard. Worms slither along the surface and use their mouths to suck up this microbial growth. The microbial food passes through the worm’s pharynx and esophagus to the crop, where is it is temporarily stored. It then moves to the worm’s gizzard, where strong muscles, aided by small pieces of sand, crush the microbes and release their internal juices. This soupy mix passes to the worm’s intestines, where the gut extracts the nutrients the worm needs and the remainder is processed and then excreted as worm castings.

Worms require wetter composting conditions than the optimal 50% moisture level of a thermophilic (hot) compost pile. Worms demand aerobic (presence of oxygen) conditions and 80% or greater moisture in order to properly diffuse oxygen through their skin.

Managing Worm Bin Temperature

Redworms are the only vermiculturing beast I’ve worked with, and they have very specific environmental parameters. I stress the need for high-moisture conditions and the requirement for an oxygen-rich environment. They also demand a specific temperature range: under 40°F (4.4°C) or over 90°F (32.2°C) and they start to die off. They don’t work very fast until the temperature is above 60°F (15.5°C) and seem the most active at about 80°F (26.7°C). Keeping an active worm box warm in all but the coldest temperatures is possible because of the metabolic heat produced by the active decomposition. Lids must be kept closed tightly when it is cold.

In very cold conditions the box needs insulation to keep the temperature at an acceptable level; a seed tray heating mat can be placed in the box if it is extremely cold. One must keep feeding the worms as necessary. It can be a challenge, however, to keep them cool in hot weather.

Food waste is a high-nitrogen feed source and will heat up when decomposing—protein and calorie-dense foods more so than whole fruits and vegetables. Monitoring the box temperature with a thermometer is helpful in warm conditions. Adding food to a box that is over 80°F can lead to catastrophe when the ambient temperature is already warm.

It is disheartening to open the lid of an overheated worm box and smell the unmistakably putrid odor of dead worms. However, there are strategies to deal with the heat. Do not feed the worms if the box temperature is over 80°F. Provide shade from the sun for the bin in hot weather. If a shady location is not available, stapling a layer of Tyvek (a weather-durable, white, moisture barrier ) to the lid and sun-exposed sides of the bin will provide some protection from solar heating.

It is also important to feed the worms thinner layers of food. Another hot-weather strategy is to feed in shallow rows or piles with larger “fallow” areas adjacent for the worms to escape into if the food areas get too hot. Also helpful is adding more carbon bedding waste: straw, shredded paper and/or wetted cardboard.

One can increase air circulation by propping the lid open or leaving an air vent space between removable lids (but beware of rodents). Or one can use a fan to blow air over the surface of the bin.

Air circulation in hot weather is key. Evaporating water can cool the contents of the bin. Remember to add water to keep the moisture level up. Hot air temperatures coupled with high humidity are the most challenging of conditions. In extreme cases, ice can be dumped on the surface of a bin that is overheating. In hot and muggy conditions, wetted corrugated cardboard may be the dominant feed source to prevent overheating.

How to Keep Your Worm Bin Pest-Free

The entire worm bin needs to be sealed off from rodents and other animals. The warm, cornucopia environs of a worm bin are irresistible to rats and mice. Removing a mouse or rat nest from your bin can be a daunting project, so it is extremely important to prevent them from getting in.

In our design, the plywood lids have a lumber-frame lip that overlaps the top of the box with less than a 1/4” gap. 1/4” hardware cloth encloses the compost collection space under the box.

I use 1/4” because I have found that small mice are able to squeeze through the 1/2” hardware cloth. For harvesting, 1/2” plywood panels slide up and down in snug channels formed by 2” x 2” lumber, the channel lumber being screwed to the bin’s support posts (no hardware cloth needed here).

The complete exclusion of animals from your bin must include some type of paving that the bin rests on. Access doors and hardware cloth must remain in flush contact with the pavement. It is a good idea to periodically inspect for digging, gnawing, or access points on the bin’s exterior (including the lids). Act promptly if you see signs of rodents digging inside the box. They usually leave evidence of their visits with round holes, tunnels and debris piles on the surface of the box’s contents. Look for access areas around the exterior of the bin and seal the entry spot as soon as possible with hardware cloth, lumber or bricks. In my experience there is usually a week or two following the initial feeding visits by a rodent before the subsequent building of a permanent rodent nest inside the bin.

Another benefit of having a paved surface under the bin is that it makes harvesting the finished compost easier. Simply rake it out! However, you don’t want to let it pile up for too long. I have never had any finished compost get smelly and anaerobic, but if it builds up for more than a year I have seen it produce a mild, very short-lived odor when finally harvested.

If there is a perennial vine, shrub or tree nearby you may need to guard against root invasion of your finished product. I once built a bin on an asphalt driveway adjacent to a cape honeysuckle vine. The compost built up for a few months, and when I went to rake it out my rake stuck in the compost and would not move. The entire pile of compost under the ropes was permeated with fibrous roots that had entered the finished compost from cracks in the asphalt. I rebuilt the bin in a slightly different location with two layers of thick, matted root-blocking weed cloth covered with concrete pavers on top of the asphalt.

Bedding Materials

Cut-up cardboard produce boxes make excellent bedding and covering material; be sure to slice them into strips for faster breakdown and water penetration. Waxed produce boxes cannot be recycled, but can be given to worms. The waxes are food grade and do compost, plus they feed fungus, which is a desirable organism in your compost.

I once had the chore of moving a large worm bin that had been in production for six years. Disassembly was the only option because it could not fit through the door intact. I was stunned by the amount of plastic and aluminum foil debris that had accumulated on the ropes at the bottom of the box, even though I had been careful to pick the trash out of the food waste that I fed into it. Of note were plastic ghosts from paper cups and plates. Most paper cups have plastic film bonded to the paper, as do some paper plates.

Try tearing paper cups and plates before putting them in the worm box. If they tear cleanly and easily, they do not have a plastic coating. Also, compostable cutlery and compostable plastic containers are anything but compostable in a worm bin. Remember to remove plastic tape from cardboard boxes.

Vermicompost is pathogen-free. Our school district is very leery of garden composting because of the possibility of contamination with pathogens when not done properly. However, they have no problem with vermicompost, because all pathogens that traverse the worm’s gut are destroyed, as are all pathogens that come in contact with the secretions on a worm’s skin. Between the worms’ gut and skin there is no chance for a pathogen to survive the vermicomposting process, so worm boxes are the ideal partners for school food-waste composting.

In conclusion, this particular worm bin design is slightly more complicated to build than a standard worm bin, but the generous output of compost, large worm populations and ease of harvesting more than make up for it.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

Keys to Composting for Increased Soil Health

By Bryan O’Hara

For many years we have been composting various agricultural and forest materials at Tobacco Road Farm to provide for the soil fertility in order to raise vegetable crops without the use of pesticides. This practice has been highly successful though it has required more refinement as the environment continues to deteriorate and the soil’s need for rebalancing becomes increasingly important.

The composting system is the mouth and stomach of the farm system and prepares the nutritive materials for absorption into the soil. How we choose the appropriate materials to feed into this system, along with an examination of mixing, piling and application of this material, is the focus of this article.

Let us set the stage of how and why this compost is utilized on our farm. At Tobacco Road Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, we focus on intensive vegetable production with 3 acres in crops. The vegetable fields produce tremendous volumes of crops year-round. The soils are typical of the Northeast with a sandy acidic nature. The impact of pollution and climate manipulations on our soils is tremendous. The forest surrounding the farm is in a rapid state of decline. There are die-offs of trees and vastly reduced numbers of insects, bats, frogs, snakes and birds.

The variety of pest insects and diseases of vegetable crops moving into the region continues to increase and is a reflection of the environmental conditions. It has been very useful to re-examine compost and its utilization through a holistic eye that can see these changes and adjust the compost system accordingly. This is similar to the way humans have had to adjust their diets in this modern age of illness.

compost pile temperature gauge
Compost with undigested carbon materials still present has now cooled to about 80°F and is ready for application.

We utilize many techniques to deal with these difficulties, including no-till (Acres U.S.A., October 2016), Indigenous Microorganism cultures (Acres U.S.A., September 2017), foliar feeding, side dressings and cover crops as well as composting.

The no-till nature of the growing system influences compost production dramatically. Since the compost will only be applied to the surface of the soil and not turned into it, it simplifies its making greatly by allowing for more bulking with carbon-rich materials like wood chips. This allows for more air infiltration and thus less turning. The top-dressing of compost also allows for a less-decomposed compost to be applied, which is of great benefit to the hungry soil life. Let’s have a look at the materials and the process.

Compost Materials

For raw materials we blend relatively large amounts of carbonaceous wood chip, leaf and straw with nitrogen-rich cattle manure and vegetable wastes.

We maintain separate piles of all these ingredients on the farm and then blend them into compost windrows.

large compost pile
Large volumes of carbon-rich materials are incorporated into the compost at Tobacco Road Farm.

Wood Chips

The wood chips come from our surrounding forest and is primarily deciduous in nature. Often the chips are from roadside clearing and contain the small, more nutrient-rich branches and also possibly leaf.

The chips are available from various sources that manage to pile this material directly from roadside clearing trucks or land clearing companies. The material is generally free, but transportation adds cost.

Wood chips are considered one of the cleanest materials in commercial composting as the trees generally receive little to no pesticide applications, and there is little foreign matter mixed in. Wood chips are the primary ingredient in our compost.


Leaves are also incorporated into the compost at a relatively high volume. Leaves are generally collected in the fall so ample space is provided to bring in this harvest. Landscapers are our choice of providers here, where we have a personal relationship and can secure high quality. Again the material is essentially free, however we pay to have the materials delivered. Municipalities also collect large volumes of leaves and are often looking to give them away, however they contain a fair bit of plastic debris that must be picked out. Leaves also offer less risk of chemical contamination, however caution should be applied if lawn grasses are mixed in to any great degree.


Straw is another source of high-carbon material and provides a diversity of ingredient to our mix. The potential for herbicide contamination in straw is substantial so straw is secured from local producers whose practices are appropriate or from large commercial organic farms. The danger of “persistent” herbicide residues is said to be the most challenging problem in commercial composting. The chemicals do not readily break down during composting and can damage vegetable crops.

This group of herbicides is used in the production of small grains and hay.

When necessary, we purchase 1,000-pound square bales from organic farms in the grain growing regions of Maine. Since the straw is purchased and trucking is often paid for as well, it is our most expensive compost ingredient and thus is used to a lesser degree.

Straw is seldom totally free of the seed if the grain was harvested with a combine, however some rye straw is purchased from a local farmer who harvests before the seed heads are formed, yielding a seed-free straw. This rye straw is long-stemmed and is often run through a bale chopper for use as mulch (this helps with decomposition as well).

When used in composting, the straw, which has been run through a combine tends to be shorter in length and is generally not run through the chopper; instead the bales with grain seed in them are roughly laid out to allow rain to sprout the seed. Then the straw can be utilized either as mulch or put into the compost, as the process of moving the straw after grain germination effectively kills the sprouted grain.

Tobacco Road Compost Recipe

Base Ingredients
40% wood chip
20% leaf and/or straw
30% cattle manure mixture
10% vegetable scrap mixture

Mineral Additions at Assembly
(to about 30 yards-plus of base ingredients)
5-10% quarry dust or clay subsoil
100 lb gypsum
150 lb calcium silicate (wollastonite)
25 lb hydrated lime
250 lb talc (magnesium silicate)
100-200 lb soft rock phosphate

At Turning
(1-3 months later)
250 lb talc
100-200 lb soft rock phosphate
5-10 lb elemental sulfur (depending on pH of pile)
50 lb agricultural sea salt (Sea-90)
40 lb manganese sulfate
5-10 lb sodium molybdate
5 lb zinc sulfate
5 lb copper sulfate
1 lb sodium borate
2 oz. cobalt sulfate
And a splash of selenium feed supplement[/box]

Grass-Fed Cattle Manure

The primary nitrogen-rich material we utilize is grass-fed cattle manure. This material is from a nearby herd that is fed the farm’s hay on in-field concrete feed pads during the cooler months. This allows for easy collection of the manure and spent hay, especially with a few well-placed large concrete blocks for the loader to push against.

Since the hay is produced on the farm, the potential herbicide contamination is low, and the cattle eating grass in a natural environment are very healthy and require very little to no veterinarian intervention.

The mixed hay and cattle manure piles on the pads often are heating and composting at a high temperature (above 150°F) before we even begin to haul them for further composting at the farm. Cattle manure has a long tradition of being the manure of choice for vegetable crop production. It composts very well, adds an appropriate biology to the composting process and is the easiest manure to use for high-quality compost. We have also used manures from various other animals, including our own poultry flock as well as fish processing waste.

With all of these materials, contaminants always need to be seriously considered including de-wormers, antibiotics and feeds grown using persistent herbicides. That being said, nothing has produced as beneficial a compost for us as the cattle manure. The manure is piled on a wood chip base, when brought to the farm, and covered with a high-carbon material like leaf/wood chip/straw to await further assembly.

Food Waste

The other primary nitrogen-rich material utilized in the compost is vegetable scrap backhauled from our co-op grocer and restaurant accounts, combined with the farm and household wastes. This material provides a lot of feed for the poultry, but generally does need to be covered with the high-carbon materials to keep it from attracting flies and varmints and to begin the composting process.

It is surprising how much carbon materials need to be mixed with this vegetable scrap in order for it to properly compost. This pile is also preheating to a high temperature before being mixed into the fully assembled compost windrows.

It is much harder to make high-quality compost using just this material as the nitrogen source, but it works well when combined with cattle manure.


Minerals are the final raw ingredient. Often we utilize a ground rock from our local quarries such as traprock (basalt) or sometimes granite. This material is the end result of rock crushing and is very inexpensive at $3 to $5 a ton plus trucking. It is high in silica, a much-needed nutrient for us, and provides a clay-like material to provide a base for the compost to build aggregates upon and for clay-humic complexes to form.

Spraying minerals onto compost
Minerals are sprayed onto piles during assembly.

Clay subsoil from on-farm digging projects is also often incorporated. Other ground minerals of clay nature that are used in the compost are talc (magnesium silicate), wollastonite (calcium metasilicate) and rock phosphate (calcium phosphate).

Additional materials used include: gypsum (calcium sulfate), zinc sulfate, manganese sulfate, copper sulfate and cobalt sulfate along with sodium borate, sodium molybdate, sodium selenate and hydrated lime.

Seawater or liquified sea salt is also incorporated. Many of these materials and salts are utilized in very small quantities, and the formula is based upon tissue and soil laboratory testing, crop response in the field and other guidance. They are therefore somewhat unique to our fields’ conditions.

Although the formula on page 20 is specific to our farm, I’ve provided it to give you an idea of materials and amounts that have proven useful for our situation.

Composting Area, Method

The composting area is built up with a base of stone and processed gravel to allow for drainage and tractor traffic, though piles on top of topsoil may allow for even better soil microbe/compost pile interactions. The area has solid, easy access for truck deliveries of material. This always makes the truckers happy: an important component.

The raw materials are piled separately, except as noted when some carbon materials are premixed into the nitrogen-rich materials for preservation of quality. Generally all the materials described are present, however sometimes piles are assembled with more or less, or the complete absence, of a material.

Compost area at Tobacco Road Farm
Compost yard at Tobacco Road Farm with solid base, free of weeds.

The basic formula is something like 40 percent wood chip, 20 percent leaf and/or straw, 30 percent cattle manure and 10 percent vegetable scrap. On top of this is the quarry dust or subsoil and other minerals and clays up to a volume of about 10 percent, which of course gives 110 percent, but the point is that the loader takes four buckets of wood chip to two buckets of leaf to three buckets of cattle manure, etc.

The cattle manure and vegetable scrap also contain fair amounts of the more carbon-rich materials so overall the pile is quite high in carbon and moderate in nitrogen. This allows the pile to heat to a generally lower composting temperature of about 120°F, which favors a more fungal-rich compost, which is what we’re after due to our soil conditions.

The high volume of wood chip allows bulking of the pile that gives the ability of the pile to breathe and allows for adequate air infiltration, greatly reducing the need for turning, which is of benefit to fungal organisms.

The piles are built into windrows of about 15 feet wide and 6 feet high with varying lengths. Upon initial construction, wood chip is piled first at the base about a foot thick, then the other materials are piled atop this with as much mixing with the tractor bucket as can be done quickly and efficiently.

As the tractor is assembling, the minerals — talc, hydrated lime and wollastonite — are sprayed onto the pile. This liquefying and spraying requires two people as some of the minerals do not go into solution, and they must be constantly agitated in a large stock tank of water by hand.

A heavy-duty sump pump then moves the slurry to another person with a hose who is spraying down the pile.

This gives us a better mix into the pile and greatly cuts down on our exposure to the aggravating silica dusts and hydrated lime. The gypsum and rock phosphate are often applied dry as they are less dusty, and this helps cut down the amount of minerals that need to be agitated.

The pile is then covered with a bit of straw to provide a “skin,” and the biodynamic compost preparations are applied; they are a blessing for the pile. The pile is allowed to sit for a period of a month or more before it is turned. This is generally the only turning the pile receives and is an opportunity to further mix the materials as well as apply additional minerals.

The piles are turned using a loader tractor, and basically the windrows are moved sideways. At turning, additional talc and clay minerals are supplied, however a second stock tank is now mixed with the various salts that go into solution, and that is sprayed on as well.

The vast majority of mineral additions to our fields happen through the compost. This allows for digestion of these minerals into more accessible and biological forms and is very useful for the more difficult-to-access minerals like silicates.

It is also very useful for buffering the potential damage that the use of the soluble minerals could inflict upon the soil biology if applied directly.

The introduction of most of the materials, especially the soluble salts,later in the composting process seems best in terms of timing as it allows the process to be well underway before introduction of materials that could reduce biological activity. Also the piles are better prepared to buffer and hold these soluble nutrients at this time.

The addition of these mineral materials goes a long way toward increasing the soil’s fertility. Our soils have been damaged by past agricultural activities and the impact of various pollution sources. The pollution impact, combined with the use of various agricultural chemicals, has resulted in organic materials that are highly imbalanced, so as feedstocks for the composting system they are lacking in various mineral nutrients and excessive in others. In other words, it is difficult to take materials from a dying forest or from damaged agricultural soils and turn them into high-quality compost without some adjustment.

The knowledge of how to adjust the compost recipe comes from a variety of sources, including trialing various composts for their impact on soil and crop health, utilizing long-term soil and tissue testing to see mineral nutrient trends, biodynamic principles and spiritual guidance.

The temperature of the piles is monitored, and generally the hot cattle manure and vegetable scrap materials start to cool to about 120°F when they are incorporated in the windrows with such large volumes of carbon. This is the condition that we are seeking as our crops respond well to the more fungal-rich compost, which these lower temperatures encourage.

The compost is considered ready for use when the temperatures have dropped close to ambient and the nitrogen-rich manure and vegetable scrap has decomposed. Often there are still partially decomposed carbon materials left; this is ideal as with surface application these less-decomposed materials provide excellent food for in-field soil biology. So the compost at this stage resembles a mulch/compost mixture.

Moisture & Air

Other conditions to monitor as the piles progress include moisture and air. When there is more air there is less water, and vice versa. Generally in our environment in the Northeast there is sufficient rain for composting, so rarely do we have to add moisture, however the piles do need coverage during periods of excessive rain, often in the cooler months.

To cover these piles we use large, black plastic tarps, often silage-style tarps that have previously been used to cover straw or for field occultation. These used tarps have a few holes, which are helpful in allowing the piles to breathe while shedding the vast majority of rain.

Proper air penetration into the pile is provided by the coarse nature of the materials composted, along with moisture control and proper sizing of the piles.

Insufficient air will lead to anaerobic conditions which results in off-smelling compost with a black color similar to swamp muck. If this occurs we recycle this material into a new compost pile.


The compost is spread when the piles have significantly cooled using a loader tractor to fill various spreading equipment, such as a manure spreader, dump truck or a line of wheelbarrels. The dump truck and manure spreader fit to the bedding system.

Dump spreading compost onto beds.

The compost is spread on the surface of no-till soil, making it important to keep the material from drying out, so after the compost is spread the beds are seeded or planted, mulched and irrigated pretty much immediately. This preserves the biology present in the compost and provides an environment appropriate for plant feeder roots to penetrate the compost. Compost is spread before most, but not all crops, at a rate of about 30 tons per acre, or a wheelbarrel-full to 150 sq. feet.

The compost described here is utilized pre-plant and is meant for broadfield application to assist in soil remineralization and balance as well as to provide a food source for the very hungry soil biology in our fields. We also produce specific composts for other uses on the farm including specific blends for side-dressing vegetables at various growth periods, potting soil and vermicomposting.

Liquid compost extracts from the vermicomposting system are utilized in the liquid side-dress fertilization to help buffer salts. These specific compost recipes will have to await future articles.

Phosphorus Concerns

When discussing composting with other farmers, one recent concern has been phosphorus levels. Various laws and regulations have limited the application of phosphorus-containing materials including compost in the name of water quality. This kind of broad sweeping regulation defies common sense, agricultural tradition and experience; stands on weak science; and is unlikely to help water quality when the greater picture is considered.

However, phosphorus can be excessive in composts if they are not properly blended. Phosphorus levels are highly related to the grain ration in animal feeds, so usually the manures of these grain-fed animals are responsible for elevated phosphorus levels in compost.

Without manure from grain-fed animals we have seen the phosphorus levels on the Mehlich III soil test drop when applying 30-plus tons of compost per acre per year.

If you are interested in a more scientific evaluation of phosphorus level and plant availability, saturated paste soil tests and tissue analysis will probably give a more accurate assessment than the strong acid Mehlich III extract.

Spreading finished compost over potato hills at Tobacco Road Farm.

I have seen many lab results from various farms in the region showing what are now considered “high” levels of phosphorus on the Mehlich III that have low to very low levels of phosphorus on the weaker LaMotte and saturated paste soil tests as well as tissue analysis. These soils may well benefit greatly from phosphorus-containing compost application.

Compost is of course the very heart, backbone, and shall we say, digestive tract of the organic system of agriculture.

Most soils I’ve observed on vegetable fields in the Northeast region would most likely benefit to a great extent from the application of high-quality farm-made compost.

The benefits of the biological stimulant nature of compost are quite significant in terms of yield and quality, especially when combined with materials that aid in the mineral nutrient balance of the soil.

Compost can indeed imbalance a soil if the materials utilized are in severe imbalance, so guidance here may be appropriate. However, often the best way to learn these things is by doing: make the compost, trial it, evaluate and learn from error and success.

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the October 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazineBryan O’Hara can be contacted by mail, at 373 Tobacco St., Lebanon, CT, 06249.

How to Produce Compost on a Large Scale

By Malcolm Beck

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.

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.”

Edwin Blosser: Composting Made Simple, from the 2017 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (1 hour, 58 minutes) Listen in as Blosser, the founder of Midwest Bio Systems, explains how to make compost, and how it can be used on a commercial scale.

Soon word got out that I had a weed-free soil, sand, and manure mix. Then I had to buy more trucks and tractors.

Large compost pile
If you are thinking of setting up a large composting operation, you need to determine the best ways of making sure your product is good and your operation in set up in a profitable way.

Keep it Simple

Every living thing will sooner or later die. When it dies, it is going to rot whether you want it to or not. Composting is the art of working with the decay process in an economical way. If you are thinking of setting up a large composting operation, you need to determine the best ways of making sure your product is good and your operation in set up in a profitable way.

Trucking will be you greatest expense. You can minimize those costs by using all the organic materials available in your immediate area. Find out what resources there are nearby. Is there a feedlot? Are there horse stables? Is there a food processing plant in your area? You can make compost with all manure or almost no manure. Take a close look at the prairie or the forest floor. You will learn Nature uses very little manure to help compost all the carbon materials she deposits there each year. You will never get in trouble composting or using a high carbon ratio compost. High-percentage manure composting requires a little more art.

Neal Kinsey, Compost & Manure Analysis, from the 2005 Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show. (50 minutes, 39 seconds.) Listen to Neal Kinsey’s helpful lecture on how to test compost and manure, to ensure those inputs are balancing your crops and soil.

Study Nature to master the art. Study the books to understand the sciences.


The regulatory agencies—the EPA, the water commission, or the health department in your area—will probably have rules about what you can and cannot do. Most of them will be sensible and have a good reason behind them. Some will appear stupid (and may be), but you still have to abide by them. Don’t fight the agencies; they can make your life miserable. Instead, become friends with them. They can be a big help to you, and usually will be. Many times over the years, the water commission, air quality people, or the aquifer water authorities were out inspecting, visiting or following up on a complain at my compost operation. I always answered their questions honestly and showed them more than they asked to see. I would give them a full tour. A lot of the time I would ask them for advice. A suggestion from one agent saved me more than eight thousand dollars in taxes in one year alone.

Dealing with agents was usually pleasant. Once, a new neighbor moved into the area. Even though she was a mile away, she got a whiff of some turkey manure being unloaded one evening. As soon as we opened the doors the next morning, an air quality agent was out quoting me the rules I was violating and the fines I would receive. This guy was new in the department, and he was really going to throw the book at me. I calmly invited him for a tour so we could find the problem. I explained our composting methods and all the materials we saved from landfills. After about thirty-five minutes of answering his questions (he seemed very interested), I took him back to where I figured the smell originated. I explained that the load had to sit in the truck in the heat a long time. Because of mechanical problems, the truck couldn’t be unloaded. As a result, the manure did stink when we finally got the truck working.

He said, “Mr. Beck, I don’t smell anything.” I said, “Yeah, but it really stunk when we unloaded it.” He repeated in a louder voice, “Mr. Beck, I don’t smell anything,” so I dropped the subject and started driving back to the office. The agent remained quiet for some time before he spoke. Then he said, “You know I do have to write this up.” I immediately though, “Uh-oh, he is going to get me now.” When he spoke again his words were real comforting. He said, “The way I am going to approach this is, with the standard of living we have today, all of us create a lot of waster and that waste has to b e recycled, and it is not feasible to haul it great distances to do the recycling. As a result, we all have to learn to put up with some of the unpleasantness of the recycling process.” Boy, did I ever agree with his approach. I haven’t heard from him since. And my respect for the authorities is holding strong.

Selecting a Location

Perception is reality. Try to find an out-of-sight location. People smell with their eyes and on suggestion. I spoke to a fellow who operated a compost yard for a small town. He said when they announced in their daily paper a compost operation was being proposed at that location, the very next day they were getting odor complaints from that area.

Nobody wants to smell or look at someone else’s waste. When people put out their garbage, they just want it to go away. Their reply is usually, “Not In My Backyard!” There is no way that can happen. Anywhere you go you will be in someone’s backyard.

Way out in the desert of West Texas, miles and miles for the closet neighbor, there was a court battle when a company wanted to dump a thin layer of sludge over soil that desperately needed it. It is the same anywhere you go. I visited with the sewer plant engineer of a little town up in Canada. He told me they were composting their processed sludge with yard trimmings and selling it to the citizens at a fair profit. But the town was outgrowing their little five-acre yard. They bought some acreage a few miles out of town that they planned to expand. Before they could get started, the neighbors, although none were really close, were screaming, “Not In My Backyard!” They decided to move the plant out another five miles and ran into the same thing. They kept going out and out until they were fifty miles from town and still met stiff opposition. The last I heard, they still had not found a location that wasn’t in someone’s backyard.

I know of a private composter up in the state of Washington that has a compost yard in the middle of a town with homes, apartments, and buildings all around him. He does an excellent job of composting, and foul odors are rare, even though he is composting sludge and tree trimmings. Still, when a new neighbor moves nearby, there is usually an odor complaint as soon as the new people discover what he is doing. He told me that some people smell better with their eyes than with their noses. On my first visit to that compost yard, the owner/operator was not there, so I decided to place a call to the regulatory agency in his area.

When the agent came to the phone, I asked him if he was aware of that compost operation in the middle of town. He quickly replied, “Yes, I have been watching him, and I am getting ready to shut him down,” then he hung up. I mentioned this to the operator and he got a big laugh. He told me the agent was his biggest supporter and had gotten so tired of explaining and even arguing with some citizens that he quickly cuts them off with an answer that most of them want to hear.

Cities and towns will probably set up compost operations near their landfills; the zoning is correct and neighbors should tolerate it. Private composters will have to search far and wide for a site because of the NIMBY syndrome. Start looking near your raw material supply; you may be more readily accepted there. At least try to find a location between supply and there the product will be sold because of the tremendous cost of trucking. Also try to situate downwind if there are or will be neighbors.

Site Development

After the location is acquired, design for ease of operation and flow of traffic around the yard. Studying and speaking with operators of other compost yards remains tremendously helpful.

The pad is extremely important. My first compost yard has been my only real problem. It was not graded with the proper slope of 1 to 2%. We put down six inches of hard limestone base, but the soil under it was not stabilized. If I had removed the topsoil, it would have been much better. After a few years of heavy truck and tractor traffic, the limestone started sinking in areas and rising in others. Soon I had large puddles of water after rains, which we had to soak up with scarce dry sawdust or pump out. Also the uneven surface made it hard to operate loaders. They were either digging into the pad and getting limestone rock in the compost being loaded or leaving too much material remaining on the surface. This is a constant problem, and hard to correct one the operation is in business, because it would mean shutting down for a while. Do it right to start with. Highway engineers who build roads in your area can give advice on how to stabilize the soil at your location.

Plant lots of big evergreen trees around the site. Trees stop noise and dust, trap blowing trash, slow the wind, and hide the operation. They also give your yard a landscaped look and stop people from smelling with their eyes.

My newest compost pad was built by a road construction company. They stabilized the soil using lime at the rate of 6% thoroughly mixed in ten inches deep, then we topped that with three inches of fly ash, a by-product from a coal-burning power plant. The fly ash was watered and rolled the same as you would treat limestone. At first I was worried that it wasn’t setting up hard like limestone, but with time it finally did. So far the fly ash is holding up well. It was a big savings over limestone or any other surface I could have used; besides it is a recycled product that goes with the theme of our new research and recycling park.

The statement from the young air quality agent that checked on my smelly turkey manure was so correct. With our standard of living we all do create a lot of waste. We can’t make it disappear. It has to be recycled, and at a location near where it is created. The recycling has to be simple and economical and at times there will be the unpleasantness of noise, odors, traffic and dust. Most people will live a safe distance from the nuisance of their waste being recycled. However, those near enough to experience any unpleasantness should somehow be compensated. I would think cutting property taxes to the degree of nuisance being tolerated would be a fair way. And the citizens who don’t have it in their backyard could pick up the difference. Even if science did some day discover a way to just make what we consider waste, disappear, Nature would still demand that we recycle for our very survival.

Getting Started

Always start with a good supply of dry carbon materials. Carbons can be stockpiled, but wet nitrogen material can’t because it will smell bad and draw flies. Start the pile using two parts carbon to one part nitrogen and see how it works. From there, you can make changes—either more carbon or more nitrogen. If the pile doesn’t heat but smells and draws flies, you have too much nitrogen. Add more carbon. If it heats and doesn’t smell but works too slowly, you may want to add more nitrogen. Either way you need to keep experimenting until you get the feel for the right proportions. Remember, composting is an art, and like any art it can only be mastered with practice.

I believe in keeping it simple, efficient, and economical. Try static piles before using windrow turners or some expensive in-vessel methods. It is best to study Nature. Do what she has been efficiently doing since the beginning. The static pile is very efficient. Very little moisture is wasted.

We make our piles 10 to 12 ft. high. They can soak up our annual rainfall of 29 inches without any leaching out the bottom. We usually turn the piles after big rains. The compost reheats and drives off any excess moisture, making it ready for the next rain. We seldom have to water our compost piles. The large size retains the moisture that comes in the material being composted, so we don’t even have to water when the pile is first made. If your materials are dry to start with, you must wet them while they are being ground or mixed. You cannot thoroughly wet a really dry pile from the top. It has no capillary attraction, and the water will run straight down and puddle on the ground.

Equipment Needed

In the early ‘70s, when I decided to make compost for sale, someone told me you needed to make windrows. I tried windrows, but it didn’t take me long to learn that all I was doing was drying the material out. Once it was dry, it was always impossible to get uniform moisture in it again. Building static piles and turning them only four times has been my composting method ever since. The secret to static composting is to be sure to keep the carbon a little on the high side. I have never tested, but I believe it is around 30 or 35 to 1, or possibly higher. The next most important thing is to make sure the pile is fluffy and not packed down.

An operator from Kentucky visited me one time and said static piles would not work where he lived, although he admitted he had not tried them. He was using forced-air windrows. Two years later I was in his neighborhood. I stopped in for a visit and noticed that he had abandoned his forced-air and changed to my method. He said the static piles were much more efficient than his old way. I have never seen or heard of static pile composting failing, but I have visited or consulted with numerous windrow operations that failed, were failing, or could be doing better with static piles. In almost every case, the operators were not able to keep adequate moisture in the windrows. I know of one operator in East Texas where the annual rainfall is around 60 inches. He composts yard trimmings. He started with windrows, but has now changed to the static pile method.

I am not ruling out windrow turning machines. They do a good job of blending and drying out materials that are too wet. I even intend to buy one someday to dry out materials so they will screen faster during the wet seasons. They would also help dry materials down so we can get greater volumes on the big trucks without overloading when we ship long distances. Another place windrow turners come in handy is around some feed-lots where the manure is so caked-up in big, hard chunks that it has to be broken up. They might also be helpful in some of those areas where there usually isn’t bulking carbon material around to raise the carbon-nitrogen ration and to fluff up the pile.

Keep it simple. Don’t let salesmen talk you into buying equipment you do not need. I see this happen way too often. Visit compost operations similar to what yours will be, using the same feedstock, in the same environment, annual rainfall, evaporation, etc. Find those that have been in operation for a few years. Learn from their mistakes, they usually like to talk about them anyway.

Two gentlemen came to me once and sad they had some money saved. They asked if I would bet mad if they went into the composting business in a location near one of my distant outlets. I said I would not only not get mad, nut I would even purchase all their finished compost for that outlet, which was 70 miles away. I could save on transportation costs. I invited them to see exactly how I was making my compost. They would be using the same raw products I used in almost the exact same environment—no way they could foul up. I suggested the type and size of equipment they would need and even helped them secure a lease on some property near their raw material supply. I also assured the landowner and neighbors there wouldn’t be anyodor or fly problems.

Months went by and I hadn’t heard from my new friends. Finally a call arrived. Could I come up? They were having problems. On the drive up, I was wondering what kind of problems they could be having. My instructions to them were so simple. All they had to do was to put the stable bedding—which already had a perfect carbon-nitrogen ratio of wood shavings, hay and manure—into a big pile. It already had enough moisture to get the composting action started. It was fluffy enough to get oxygen and never go anaerobic. And they already had a loader to turn the pile after each rain.

Upon arrive I found a disaster. The flies were unbearable. I have never seen flies so bad anywhere in my life, and I didn’t see any big compost piles. They had bought wrong equipment and were doing just the opposite of what I told them. Instead of static piles that would conserve moisture, they made small windrows which quickly lost the little moisture in the stable bedding from the urine and manure. They didn’t pick the glass bottles and other trash out. The windrow turner broke it up into little pieces, so now they couldn’t screen it out. They then had to pipe in water from a distance at a big expense. They had purchased leaky pipe to try to wet the small windrows, but the material was so dry it was hydrophobic (resisted wetting). The water just ran straight down through the windrows to the soil and created the perfect environment to grow fly larva.

I asked them why they tried another method to compost rather than my proven way. They said they bought some compost science books and wanted to make a better product in less time. Had these two gentlemen not bought the books, or at least not tired to apply the science until after they learned to make compost, they would be in business today.


If you have tree trimmings to grind, check into hiring someone to do the grinding. There are many grinders around that need extra work to keep the machine and crew busy. Grinders are designed to destroy things and, in the process, they are continually self-destructing. You will quickly discover they are expensive to operate. If you decide you need one on-site for daily grinding, again talk to someone who has owned and operated one for a year or longer. Most popular brands are advertised in magazines like Biocycle. You can call the dealers, and they will direct you to long-time owners and operators.

I have owned three different kinds of grinders. One they quit making. The second was a good machine, the manufacturer stood behind it, but it was too small. The third was a good machine that I really liked, but I can’t recommend it. Neither the factory nor the dealer would back it up when there were problems. If you have large branches and tree stumps to grind, get one that has bullet bit teeth or knives to do the grinding. They are much more efficient on big stumps of eight-inch diameter and larger. You can’t grind big logs by beating on them with hammers. We use two-inch screens in the grinders for making mulch and composting. The product comes out three inches to fines. The finer particles compost fast; the larger particles keep the static compost pile fluffy and well aerated so less turning is required. After compost is completed, the large material can be separated with a screen, and you then not only have compost but all size materials to be used to for lawn dressing, bed preparation and a dark, partly decomposed mulch that is excellent and feeds the plant while mulching.

Power Sources

Use three-phase electricity on all stationary equipment such as small grinders, screens and conveyors. High-voltage electricity is the most efficient, trouble-free power source there is. The next best choice is equipment with air-cooled diesel engines. Even some of our tractors have Duetz air-cooled engines; they are very fuel efficient and dependable. We started with coolant-cooled engines and spent too much time blowing the radiators free of trash. Air-cooled engines eliminate 40% of maintenance problems. We demand them on all new equipment that’s used around blowing leaves, grass, shavings, etc.


All-wheel drive, articulated loaders are the only way to go. Small, rear-wheel drive tractors, such as used on backhoes, are useless for loading. The front wheels, where the load is, are too small. With the load on the front, the weight is raised off the rear wheels, causing them to lose traction. But is is nice to have on of these tractors on the property with a box scraper or weed and brush shredder to use as the need arises. Start with a small loader if finances and needs are low. Purchase a larger—3 to 6 cubic yards—when needed but keep the small loader. It will come in handy to load small trucks. It is always good to have a second loader in case one breaks down.

If your loaders are only to be used in composting, you can enlarge the buckets since the compost material will weigh half or less as much as the dirt, sand or rock they were designed to handle. We add 4 to 6 inches to the cutting edge and 6 to 10 to the sides and top. This increases the volume by 30 to 50%, enabling that much extra work to be accomplished each day.

Compost Turners

We use large, 6 cubic yard tractors and only turn four to five times, depending how fast we will need the compost. It takes about six to eight months from start to finish. A good operator can easily make about 80 cycles (pick up, turn and dump) per hour at 6 cubic yards per scoop. That comes to 480 cubic yards per hours and costs about ten cents to turn a cubic yard. The loaders used for turning have good resale value and many other uses around a compost yard. They also have a lot less down-time than a windrow turner. If the material to be composted is full of bottles, Styrofoam cups, and other trash, it will have to be picked over first if you are using windrow turners. They will break everything up into small pieces that can’t be screened out. Turning with loaders won’t break up trash and it can easily be screened out of the finished compost.


During my first seven years in business, I didn’t use or own a screen. The day I finally got a screen, the demand for our products doubled and we soon doubled our selling price. Screened material looks good; unscreened materials may be of the same quality, but it looks trashy. Screens do more for quality appearance and sales than any piece of equipment salesman you could employ. It costs very little to screen materials. We kept records one month and the electric bill was less than ½ cent per cubic yard. We convey the screened material direction into the trucks, which we found to be another savings. Some of our trucks are too high for tractor loading and would require loading ramps. When trucks are continually loaded from the side with loaders, they soon get banged up and start looking trashy and cheap. Screening materials directly into the trucks before each delivery has other advantages.

Leaving screened materials in stockpiles too long has caused problems. It tends to lump together, trucks and tractors run over the edges and pack it, or it gets contaminated with other materials while being loaded. However, some materials screen too slowly to have trucks waiting, and you will have to do some stockpiling. We now have eight screens, three of them are trammels and the rest are vibrating.

Why so many screens you may wonder? We need them. We screen different products to different sizes, and we operate three different locations. We don’t want trucks waiting for a screen. All of our screens were purchased used. Some we had to redesign, others we repaired, and some we built with mostly used materials. However, we have four screens on order—all trammel with stainless steel screening mesh. We make all kinds of mixes, including some with a high percentage of clay, which tense to tick to the wire. We learned that rusty wire holds product to it. Stainless steel is always slick and shiny, product sticks for a while, builds up to a point, then breaks free exposing slick wire. As needed we are replacing all of the screens with stainless steel. In some cases efficiency was increased as much as 300%. With some products, however, it didn’t make much difference.

I visited a compost operation that was just getting started in a big city. The operator had already purchased a monster-sized screen that cost well over $200,000. I considered it a poor design. I hope the operator had a good plan and it was not another case of letting a salesman design his operation. All eight of our existing screens didn’t cost nearly that much. The four trammel screens we have on order are my design and are being built in a friend’s welding shop. When they are completed and in operation, the cost will be about $36,000 each.

Quality Control

Perception is reality. A clean, screened product, free of rocks, roots, seeds and trash is your best sales tool. As mentioned earlier, once we started screening our sales doubled. Many times after delivering to a home owner, a neighbor would see the screened compost or soil mix and order a load. We often sold to three or four people on the same street. Looks will make the first sale, but it takes performance for repeat orders. Success in the garden or an extra-green lawn holds customers forever. Burn up the lawn or kill some plants, and the customers are gone forever. I had a driver load from the wrong pile once and deliver material that was very raw and still smelling. It was a long time before I sold that customer or his neighbors compost again.

Lab Tests

Before you waste time and money on laboratory testing, give the product the plant test. Plant seeds and transplants in it. If they grow well, the compost is ok. If they do not do well, then you can get a lab test. Find a recommended lab. Introduce yourself to them and let them know what you are composting and how. And then stay with the same lab. You can’t make adjustments on analysis from two different labs. After you make adjustments, go back to plant testing.

We do a lot of testing by growing. We plant a lot of trees, shrubs, vegetables and flowers. When the test is completed, we use what we can and usually give the rest away to employees, customers and neighbors. It spreads the word about compost and creates a lot of good will. We gain more by giving the plants away than if we sold them. The cost was already written off as research anyway.

Do not have an institution research your products. I did that once, and they destroyed the reputation of that product forever—even after extensive testing that proved them wrong. In order to show they are experts, most institutions will have something good and bad to say about a product unless there is a sizable research grant attached. If a university professor publishes something good or bad, be it true or false, it becomes law.

A Simple Compost Test

To tell if compost is ready, I roll up the sleeve on my right arm and dig my hand into the compost pile up to my elbow and pull some out and smell. If it has a bad odor, other than ammonia, it is not ready. All of the proteins are not yet digested. If you can only detect an ammonia smell, it might be ready. To tell for sure, wash your hand and go to the office or someplace away from the pile and have someone smell both hands. Women who don’t smoke have the sharpest noses. If both hands smell the same, the compost is ready for most uses. Caution: if you stick your hand into a rank pile, the lingering smell is absolutely impossible to wash off. I use tomato juice or salt water. Rub your hands with either until the smell is gone. Even in the compost passes the smell test, you may still need to let it cure for a while if it is going to be used to sprout seeds or in potting mixes. For flower bed preparations, mulching, and spreading on lawns it is ready to use. Let the curing action in or on the soil. That is where Nature usually does it all anyway.

Composting Problems and Solutions


Odor has no respect for boundaries. The best fence can’t hold it; it even escapes while you are watching. Once it is loose, you can’t catch it or put it back. It generously divides itself among all your downwind neighbors. The only way to control odors is to anticipate and try to prevent them. I have had a few escapes that attracted unwanted attention. I mentioned the turkey manure earlier. It was the only incident that brought out the air quality control people. It was also the shortest and least foul, but it just happened to go in the wrong direction.

The worst odor I created was when I was composting whole onions. I was getting 40 cubic yards per day, six days per week, and I was running out of room and also dry sawdust to blend with them. I was backing off on carbon to save space and also using some wet sawdust. There was no smell until we started the first turning. Wow—was that booger strong! We did finally get it turned by waiting for the correct wind direction.

Whole vegetables are the hardest to compost, even meat products are easier. Vegetables rot from the inside out. They go anaerobic on the inside, but the liquids are not released to be absorbed by the dry carbon until everything is good and stinky because the cell walls break down so slowly. We learned to grind the vegetables first or to grind them with a carbon bulking product. Ground up, the liquids started releasing much sooner and a little at a time so oxygen could enter. We could compost them whole if we used double the amount of dry-bulking carbon and waited much longer before the first turning. There wouldn’t be a bad order, but it took up needed space and time.


If you compost high-protein materials, vegetable waste or manure, you will have a fly problem in the beginning. We did at all three of our locations. At the first location, the problem lasted almost three years. I didn’t know any better and tried to control flies with non-toxic sprays or poisons in bait traps. This approach just seemed to aggravate the problem. I finally decided to just live with them because I didn’t want to use toxic materials around the compost. Organic growers didn’t like it, and besides, it was costing too much for the little good it did. When I stopped using the sprays the flies started getting fewer and fewer. Their natural enemies such as dragonflies, robber flies and other predators and parasites started moving in. The problem improved, but the flies weren’t controlled as well as I wished until fly parasites became commercially available. I released them around our compost sites for a while, then I decided to go to the main source. I began releasing predators at the stables and other places the manure came from. The operators of these locations soon learned how well the parasites worked and now release on their own.

The parasites deposit their eggs in the late stage of the fly larva or early pupa stage. When some of them arrive in our yard along with the manure, the parasites hatch there and the fly larva and pupae die. Now we seldom need to purchase and release parasites.

At our newest and largest compost yard, it took less than three months to get the fly problem well under control. We started immediately with the parasites at our location and the new places we got the manure from. The parasites alone couldn’t do the job completely until help came from the dragonflies and swallows that came out in droves every evening after they discovered the good hunting around our piles. The retention pond offered water to go with their meal of flies.

A few flies around a compost operation are necessary. You shouldn’t, even if you could, eliminate them completely. A few flies keep their natural enemies coming around and the ecology stays in the balance. The flies also keep the compost piles well inoculated with numerous species of the necessary decomposing microbes they are able to carry from place to place.

Editor’s Note: This was an excerpt from Part II of The Secret Life of Compost by Malcolm Beck. Buy this book, and other titles by Malcolm Beck, at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

About Malcolm Beck

Malcolm Beck was a lifelong organic farmer and the founder of Gar­den-Ville, a composting/recycling business and retail horticultural supply house. He spoke widely throughout the country, but was particularly well known in south-central Texas. His Garden-Ville operation has grown from a composting pile on his family farm to a multi-million-yard operation in a few years. His compost, fertilizers, bedding mixes, and soils supply leading landscapers throughout Texas. He authored and co-authored many books on organic gardening.

Malcolm Beck stands on large pile of compost.
Malcolm Beck stands on a giant mound of compost.

Composting Tips and Strategies

By Bruce and Athena (Teena) Tainio

Charles Walters, as quoted in Secrets of the Soil, by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, says of microbial life: “There are more kinds and numbers of minute livestock hidden in the shallows and depths of an acre of soil than ever walk the surface of that field.”

As much as a cattle rancher’s livelihood depends on healthy livestock, he and his cattle’s very lives depend on armies of beneficial microbes for survival. Microbes are the foundation for all life on earth; without them the earth would be nothing more than a barren rock. There would be no fertile soils, no plants, no trees, no insects, no animals and no humans.

Soil bacteria secrete acids that break down rocks, and enzymes that break down dead plant and animal matter into rich, life-giving soil, while transforming minerals into forms that are usable to plants. Microbes help prevent soil erosion, combat disease organisms that attack plants, animals and humans, and are an important link our food chain.

Like any livestock, microbes need proper food and shelter to grow and thrive. Composting is an easy way to provide a suitable environment for raising your own “herd” of beneficial microbes and ultimately build nutrient-dense, energy-packed soil for your farm or garden. All that’s required are a few basic ingredients, a little space, a good nose, and a little know-how.

Compost in a wheelbarrow
Compost provides a sustainable environment for beneficial soil microbes.

Composting Ingredients

Before starting the composting process, it is important to know how to blend the right materials to provide a balanced food supply for your digester microbes. No single material is sufficient by itself to create good compost. The two main elements essential to compost are nitrogen and carbon.

Nitrogen is the essential building block of proteins for microbial growth and reproduction. A shortage of nitrogen-rich materials causes slow growth rates of the microorganisms, which slows down decomposition. Carbohydrates (sugars) are required for energy (heat) and a source of carbon for microbial cellular protoplasm.

Creating a nutrient-balanced compost requires a wide variety of materials. Some plants contain substances that enhance beneficial microbial activity, while others are accumulators of specific minerals and trace elements.

Table 1: Exceptional Nutritional Benefits of Some Common Weeds
Table 1

In general, weeds are more likely to provide better nutrient balance than most cultured crops. For example, certain types of vetch are selenium accumulators. Comfrey and lamb’s quarter provide manganese, and dandelion is high in potassium (see Table 1). Yarrow, one of our favorites, carries more than 6,000 species of microbes on its leaves and makes an excellent microbial inoculant as well as an overall source of nutrients and complex amino acids.

Crushed eggshells are a good nonplant source of calcium. Just rinse, dry and grind them in a blender or food processor before adding to the compost pile. And here’s a great idea from the owner of our local health food store: instead of throwing away outdated vitamin and mineral supplements, grind them up and add them to the compost pile. The rule of thumb here is, the more variety of materials you have, the better your mineral balance is likely to be.

Ideally, the carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of a successful compost program should be 30 to 1. The precise amounts of carbon and nitrogen are difficult to ascertain, but knowing proper ratios is not so important as long as the compost is working well and remains warm. As a general rule, use two-thirds high carbohydrate matter, such as dry leaves, stems, straw, shredded paper, etc., to one-third green, succulent material high in nitrogen content, such as fresh grass clippings or weeds. See Table 2 for some carbon/nitrogen ratios of commonly used materials. Because microbes are the work force behind the transformation of waste materials into a usable soil amendment, one needs to ensure that a good variety of digester microbes go into the mix. Besides the traditional shovel or two of rotted livestock manure or garden soil to start microbial action, it is possible to achieve a faster and surer response by adding a multiple-strain microbial digester product (such as Tainio Technology’s Herman III).

By using digester microbes, creating the right C/N ratio and maintaining proper aeration, it is possible to produce finished compost in as little as 12 to 14 days.

Know Your Local Soil

Many regions are historically deficient in certain minerals. Here in eastern Washington, the soil is typically deficient in selenium, so even if we use vetch — a selenium accumulator — as one of our ingredients, our compost will still most likely be deficient in this important trace mineral.

The addition of a broad-spectrum mineral source such as rock powder or seaweed is good insurance against any possible nutrient deficiencies when building compost.

This simple addition may have saved an organic fresh-market vegetable farmer who contacted us several years ago, desperately seeking help for his failing crops. An Extension agent from the local university had diagnosed his problem as some unknown virus, and not being a regular client of ours, he had no soil test to give us any clues. What Bruce Tainio found when he arrived at the farm was not a virus, but a crop of nearly dead plants with all of the classic symptoms of manganese deficiency, which was later confirmed by a tissue test.

Table 2: Average Carbon/Nitrogen Ratio of Common Compost Materials
Table 2

The farmer couldn’t believe it was possible to have a deficiency in his soil because, he explained, he used the best organic materials he could find in his composting program — manure from the dairy down the road and a variety of straw from a neighboring grain grower.

With all of that, how could his soil be deficient in manganese? Tainio explained that the soils in and around this coastal farm community were typically deficient in manganese, and therefore any local materials he used for compost would not supply him with adequate supplies.

Unfortunately, at that time the organic certification program was still in its infancy, and supplement choices were very limited, and so this farmer’s crop could not be helped in time. The few sick and nutritionally deficient vegetables that survived were harvested and sent to market, where the consumer paid premium prices for what they assumed to be healthy food.

A happier story concerns the Findhorn Garden community founded in the 1970s, and how a free and abundant supply of seaweed from a nearby beach was instrumental in turning a wind-blown patch of sand where nothing would grow into a rich and productive Garden of Eden. Perhaps if the farmer with manganese problems had known of and taken inspiration from the story of the legendary Findhorn Garden, his own story might have turned out differently.

The moral is to know your own region’s soils when planning your composting strategy — and to get a soil analysis!

Building and Managing Compost

With these facts in mind, then, let’s look at a basic approach to an effective composting program.

First, once you have collected your ingredients, chop or shred your materials as much as possible. All places in the stems, skins or leaves that have exposed or open areas are places that provide entry points for the digester microbes, so the finer the material, the faster the digestion process.

The largest pieces of stem and stalk will be the slowest to decay. Mix the chopped materials uniformly.

One important key to successful composting is moisture. The material should be moist but not soggy. Green materials usually provide all or most of the moisture the compost needs. Turning will cause much of the moisture to steam off, so in dry weather it may be necessary to add some water. Remember, however, that excessive water can drive oxygen out of your compost, leach nutrients, and lower the temperature — so water sparingly and only when necessary.

Other important elements for rapid composting are frequent aeration and appropriate temperatures.

The first turning should be made on the second day after the compost is built; again on the fifth day, then again on the seventh day and once more on the eleventh day.

During the process, monitor the temperature of your compost daily. Ideally it should range between 140°F and 160°F. If it gets too hot, turn the pile more often. If it isn’t reaching optimum temperature, add more nitrogen material.

After the last turning, the temperature of the compost should begin to drop down to about 110°F. At this point your compost should be finished and ready to apply. Fresh compost is rich with living energy and should be used quickly. If it is left to age in the pile, the microbe population will gradually dwindle or turn anaerobic. To revive compost that has been stored too long, just mix in a little microbe digester product before you apply it. (A good idea when using commercial, bagged compost, too, whether for soil application or tea brewing.)

Tips for Checking Compost Quality

You can use your nose to monitor and diagnose the state of your compost.

For example, having excessive amounts of nitrogen materials causes an excess of ammonia-smelling gas to be released when the compost is turned. If this happens, just add more carbohydrate material to correct the balance. Keep in mind, however, that it is better to add too much nitrogen-rich material than to not have enough to heat the decomposing matter.

Heat is needed to augment microbial activity as well as to kill weed seeds, parasites and pathogens, and to digest any toxic chemicals. This became a problem a few years ago for a large commercial composting operation in our area. When people’s tomatoes began to die, they traced the culprit back to an herbicide commonly used on lawns and brought in on grass clippings. The composting plant had failed to provide the right combinations of elements to ensure proper temperatures and microbial numbers.

The objective is to promote aerobic (oxygen-rich) digestion of your materials. If you fail to turn your compost enough or it becomes too wet or too compacted, the microbes can turn anaerobic (without oxygen) and create a sulfur or rotten egg smell.

Let your nose be your guide: finished compost should have a sweet, earthy smell.

Composting Tips for Livestock Waste

If you are fortunate enough to have horses, goats or rabbits, you have the ingredients for another type of compost.

All you need in addition to barn waste is a good digester microbe product and some patience. We have two miniature horses that provide us with plenty of manure, an occasional bale of moldy hay, and some bedding chips. Every few months we just sprinkle some microbes over the manure pile and keep layering on more barn waste. Microbes and worms continually digest the waste, so that the size of the pile never becomes too unmanageable. (Digester microbes and enzymes mixed together and sprayed around the barnyard work well for controlling fly-attracting odors, too.)

Every year or two, we push back the newest top layers (14 to 16 inches) to find a cache of rich, sweet-smelling compost with an amazing capacity to hold moisture; a much-appreciated bonus in our semi-arid climate. Added benefits that come with our manure compost are the huge colonies of red worms and beneficial fungi that have taken up housekeeping there.

This no-fuss method of composting works well with horse manure because horses have relatively inefficient digestive systems, which means the manure contains high levels of partially digested carbohydrates and lower levels of nitrogen.

The C/N ratio is about 20:1, and with the addition of a little bedding and hay waste, the ratio is excellent for composting. In addition, the round, compact shape of the manure creates spaces for air circulation in the pile. It is important on food crops to use manure only if it is well-aged and composted to insure against possible parasite contamination. Composting time will also allow for microbial remediation of any residual chemicals such as de-wormers.

Tips for Composting Field Stubble

Cornstalks or grain stubble left in the field after harvest can be composted where they stand. Disc or till so that the stalks are well chopped, then spray-apply a combination of enzymes and digester microbes.

By the following spring, most of the stubble will have been digested. Any remaining debris will shatter into fine particles when tilled, leaving the soil richer in available minerals and abundant microbial life.

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in the September 2007 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine. For more information, visit, or purchase their book, Farming in the Presence of Nature, from the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Why is Composting Important?

By Malcolm Beck

Observe the Cycle of Life

Walk into the woods and meadows and visit with Nature. You will be in the presence of much life. Especially in the spring, you will find many types of plants, grass, trees, animals, and insects large and small. There will be life in abundance.

Now take a closer look. There is an equal amount of death, particularly in the winter. There will be dead grass and leaves, fallen limbs and trees, even dead animals and insects.

Every living thing will sooner or later die; no living crea­ture, plant or animal, escapes death. In Nature, every dead thing is deposited in the very place it dies, and there it serves as a mulch protecting the soil until it finally decays and, in due time, is covered and replaced by still later deposits of expired life.

When a plant or animal dies, even though it may be con­sumed higher in the food chain, it will eventually be eaten by the decomposing microbes. They will decay or disassemble it and put it back into the soil. If they didn’t, our planet would now be miles deep in dead things.

This life-death-decay cycle has built the thin layer of fer­tile soil that covers our land. It nourishes and grows our plants which are the bridge of life between the soil and man.

Malcolm Beck
Malcolm Beck stands on a large pile of compost.

In the beginning, our planet was just a round mass of min­erals moving in its planned orbit through space. At some point, the Almighty saw fit to breathe life onto earth, very meager and primitive life, but life with a crucial mission.

As these micro-forms of life lived and reproduced, they fed on and etched away at the rocky mineral earth surface, and as they died, their remains formed humus and mild acids to etch away still more minerals. This process went on and on until very small amounts of our first soil was formed.

Even though extremely small, the life, death, and decay of each preceding life form has been creating better conditions for future life forms. The decay process builds with added interest to the soil’s bank account, and after countless centuries of creating conditions for higher and more complex forms of life, Man, the most complex of all life, was able to exist and be sustained.

Man . . . does he know? And can he trace his life support system far enough back to understand the life cycles? Man has accumulated much knowledge, but in areas of his healthy exis­tence he seems to be slow to learn. Man sees death as a loss, or something to be sorrowful of, and he considers decay as some­thing ugly. He doesn’t understand why Nature always returns the dead back to the soil from where it came.

If man understood the laws of recycle and return, he would without delay put back into the farmlands all the animal manure and other organic waste he generates. He wouldn’t be daily burying the thousands of tons of these life-generating materials in landfills that seal and lock them away from the natural soil-building processes for centuries to come.

In Nature, there is no waste. All is reused, and usually made into something of still greater value for the sustenance of life.

If man continues to break this law of return, he will not only stop the life-generating processes of the soil, he will actu­ally cause the soil to degenerate. This process will sooner or later degrade all life . . . including man himself.

Why Recycle and Compost?


Ours is the only planet known to support life. All life on Earth is maintained by a thin layer of soil covering a small por­tion of the earths surface. The quality of all life on this planet is determined by the quality of that thin layer of topsoil. If we allow the quality of that thin layer to degrade, all life on Earth, man included, will degrade to the same degree. The parent to all soil is mineral rock. The wind, rain, freezing and thawing break the rock into smaller sizes to start the soil-making pro­cess. Small rock particles do not become fertile soil until some life form has interacted with them.

The first life forms to attack the rock are microbes. They use elements from the air to grow and reproduce and slowly etch away at the rock surface. They exude, die and decompose, forming humus and mild acids on the rock, which dissolves mineral to further enrich the accumulating soil. This process goes on and on until higher plants and then animal life can be sustained. The death and decay of each life has a generating effect. Each time a living thing dies and decays on the soil, it creates a more fertile condition than was there before.

The energy to keep this cycle revved up comes from the sun. Plants alone have the ability to collect solar energy. Then, this energy passes through the food chain to all other life forms. Through the excrement and finally death of the many life forms, the sun’s energy is passed to the soil to fuel the life systems in the soil and keep the cycle going so man, the highest form of life, can be sustained. Plants bridge the void between soil and man.

Walk onto the prairies or into the woods and look around, you will see much life, plant and animal, large and small. Then look down, you will see many expired life forms covering the soil. A mulch of dead things, twigs, leaves, grass, insects, manure, and even dead animals. Dig into this mulch and you will find it beginning to decay. The deeper you dig, the more advanced the decay until it fades into rich moist topsoil.

Nature has been building fertile topsoil by mulching and composting the surface of the earth since the beginning of time. With our modern way of living we consume, use, wear out and discard mountains of once-living materials. Most of this we waste by sealing it in landfills where it is locked away from its soil-building destiny for centuries to come. In the landfills, these natural resources are a waste. In the streams and lakes they are pollution. But on farmlands they become fertil­izer. We must loop these natural resources back to food-pro­ducing soils so the life cycle can be maintained.

In the towns and cities, organic materials should be col­lected at feasible sites. Then through the art of composting these once-alive materials can be partly decayed to a condition that is sanitary and easy to transport to the countryside where Nature can reuse it.

Reports from governments of all countries, the United States included, show widespread humus depletion and topsoil erosion from the food-producing soils. The degraded soils can only grow degraded plants which forces the higher life forms to follow that same path. Only proper recycling of all organic materials coupled with good farming practices can stop and reverse this little noticed decline that creeps through all life.


Why doesn’t man pay more attention to the natural chem­istry, physics and biology of the world and see himself as part of that natural world, of its perfect design? Is it greed? Is it vanity? Or could it be that soil fertility has eroded to a level that no longer nourishes the body and the mind? Is man losing his ability to see and think logically ?

History books are full of stories about the decline and fall of many great nations. Soil decline was always the start of the fall. Poor soils result in failure of the economy and then the defense system. But if history were closely studied and the truth were known, you would find it was really decline of the mind that made the difference — and the mind begins to decline as soon as the soil begins to produce food that is empty of nutrients.

I know an animal nutritionist who taught at a small col­lege. For an experiment he had his students divide a large group of pigeons equally into two separate large cages. One group was fed polished rice and water; the other group received brown, whole grain rice and water. Then he made the predic­tion that the pigeons on polished rice would get five degenera­tive diseases, stop reproducing and die prematurely. He also predicted that the pigeons on the brown rice would remain healthy and live and reproduce normally.

His predictions came about exactly as he said, but the stu­dents learned something they weren’t expecting. The first noticeable difference in the two groups was behavior. The pigeons on the polished rice became irritable and discontented and started to fight amongst themselves. The pigeons on the brown rice never became irritable or discontented.

This experiment inspired me to do a similar test. I used young chickens instead of pigeons and fed one group white bread and water. The other group received whole wheat bread and water. The results were the same as the test with the pigeons. The very first sign of malnutrition in the animals was irritability and discontent among those eating white bread and water. Those on the whole wheat bread always remained happy and contented. The first white bread-fed chicken died on the thirteenth day, and they were all dead by the seventeenth day. The chicks on whole wheat were kept on that diet until full-grown. They grew normally, never were sick or attacked by parasites. The hens started laying eggs, and we butchered the roosters.

Look at our society and the people all around the world. You can find many examples that show evidence of eating too much white rice and white bread. Or, could it be symptoms of soil decline!


Sir Albert Howard, the author of the book The Soil and Health, was an early scientist who recognized that the health of the soil determines the health of the plants, and the health of the animals that eat from them. Albert Howard is known as the father of compost. However, he learned from the Chinese. They have been maintaining soil fertility for forty centuries. We have worn out farm after farm in two centuries.

When Howard first used compost around failing plants, he noticed almost miraculous recovery. The plants also became resistant to pests. He then fed animals from the composted, healthy plants and noticed they didn’t contract diseases, even when allowed to mix with sick animals that had very conta­gious diseases. Health did indeed pass from one life to the next through the food chain. Perfectly healthy plants and animals have resistance to diseases.

Albert Howard believed his compost to be rich in nutri­ents but was disappointed when test returns showed it to be low in N, P and K (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous). He had not used it thick enough to have good mulching effects, so he was eager to learn how a little compost could get such good results. After studying the roots of the plants with compost, he found the reasons. The beneficial root-colonizing microbes, especially the mycorrhizal fungi, were present in very high populations, and no harmful root pathogens were present. The roots of the nearby plants without compost were being attacked by pathogens and very few, if any, of the beneficial microbes were present.

I have a friend that grows cotton up in the high plains of Texas. He was slowly going broke, so he decided to look at other, and possibly better, ways than the conventional farming methods he was practicing. He cut his acreage from 2,500 to the 240 acres he owned. He then started using organic meth­ods, among them biological sprays which included free-nitro­gen-fixing microbes, which he applied along with feed-grade molasses for an energy source.

After a few years on the natural program, he discovered he could quit irrigating even though he was in a low-rainfall area. In drier years his production is below that of his irrigating neighbors, but his profit per acre is always greater since he has no irrigation or pesticide expenses. I have seen this man’s cot­ton stand up showing no signs of stress while the neighbors cotton across a dirt road just 70 feet away under conventional farming methods was severely wilting, even though it had been irrigated twice that year. To find out how this was possible I had the soil and roots tested from both farms, and there was a striking difference. The roots from the organic farm had 24% mycorrhizal colonization with many spores and vesicles. The cotton roots from the conventional farm had only 2% coloni­zation with some roots showing none. I discussed these two farms and the difference of soil microbes with Dr. Don Marks of Mycor Tech, Inc. and Dr. Jerry Parsons, our extension agent, and both agreed that overusing chemical fertilizers and pesticides on soils low in organic matter is detrimental to the beneficial soil life.

Mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic association with the roots of most plants. The fungi grow into or between the cells of the roots and use 10% of the carbohydrates the plant passes from the leaves to the roots. The fungi don’t have chlorophyll in the presence of sunlight, so they can’t manufacture carbohy­drates. In return for the energy taken from the plant, the fungi grow out and search far and wide for nutrients and moisture and feed the plant so it can continue to manufacture more and more carbohydrate energy. The bigger and faster the plant grows, the farther and faster the fungi grow to feed the plant still better. A plant colonized with mycorrhizal fungi will have the equivalent of ten times more root. Another benefit of this association is that as long as the fungi are flourishing, they can prevent all root pathogens and damaging nematodes from attacking the root. Decaying organic materials on and in the soil keep both the plant and the fungi flourishing to help each other.

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.

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 twelve 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.

This was exciting. I immediately called Dr. Jerry Parsons. He came out and did his own inspection, and he too found lots of root rot and nematodes in the control rows but none in the inoculated rows. Then Dr. Parsons told us he had seen microbes such as these tested before and sometimes they worked perfectly, other times a little, and sometimes not at all.

I later contacted Dr. Don Crawford at the University of Idaho about this root rot-destroying microbe. Dr. Crawford originally discovered it. He tells me it is a saprophytic, rhizo­sphere-colonizing actinomycete, which means it is a microbe that lives on the roots and eats the skin sloughed off by a healthy, normal growing plant. As long as the plant is flourish­ing and the root is growing and lots of root skin is being shed to feed the actinomycete, it doesn’t let a disease organism or root knot nematodes attack the plant roots.

The soil life and the plant life support each other. Dr. Parsons said the reasons these things don’t always work is because the plants were probably growing so poorly they couldn’t feed the beneficial root colonizer, allowing them to weaken; then the bad guys get a toehold. Hence the Laws of Nature: Destroy the weak and allow survival of the fittest. Without the colonizers feeding and protecting the plant, it falls victim to the natural laws. Weakened plants are attacked by all kinds of pests below and above ground. Nature wants the weak and sick plants to be destroyed. But man interferes. He uses his arsenal of pesticides to keep the unfit plants alive. Then he eats from the poisoned sick plants — and wonders why he gets sick.

The beneficial soil life can perform its job only if we do our part in following six important rules when growing plants.


  1. Use the best adapted varieties for each environment.
  2. Plant in preferred season.
  3. Balance the mineral content of the soil.
  4. Build and maintain the soil organic content – humus.
  5. Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life.
  6. Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules having been violated.

Of the above rules, number 4 is the most important. It is the law of recycle and return. When practiced, it supports the other five rules and makes them less important. Because of rules 4 and 6 being ignored or not understood, the big use of pesticide became necessary. As a result, 1.9 billion pounds of pesticide are sold each year in this country.

We recognized and followed these rules on both of our farms. The first farm had a fruit orchard, an acre-and-half garden, and the rest was covered with pecan trees under which we grazed our milk cow and other farm animals. One day Dr. Sam Cotner, the vegetable specialist of Texas A&M, came for a visit. After looking around he said, “Beck, your farm is beautiful. Are you sure you are not using any modern farm chemicals?” I told him our little farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, as I made my living working on the railroad. As an experiment, we kept the farm all organic. He replied, “This is nice but it is not practical on large acreage. We have to feed the world.”

The more I thought of Dr. Cotner’s statement the more I realized a new challenge. We soon sold the little eleven-acre place and moved onto a much larger farm where we learned that the larger the area over which you have control, the easier organic farming becomes. You have more different environments to use, more room for rotation, and no close neighbors upsetting the natural balance with toxic sprays.

There are large farms all over the United States that have turned toward a more natural way of growing. And more are changing daily. Many are certified organic, following strict rules and using absolutely no harmful agricultural chemicals of any kind. The certified farms have a niche market and usually get better prices for their products.

In my travels around the country, and because of our business, I get a chance to visit with many farmers and ranchers that are changing or have changed to more natural, organic ways. When I ask what made them decide to change, the answer is always the same: “I was going broke following the modern, conventional ways.”

Modern conventional farming is not all bad. It gives a lot of attention to NPK and other minerals needed to grow crops. But not enough importance is put on the soil life. Many agricultural pesticides and herbicides — and even some of the fertilizers — are harmful to soil life, especially when there isn’t enough organic matter in the soil to supply the energy microbes and earthworms need.

Without this needed energy, the soil life can’t properly process the applied minerals. The minerals may become imbalanced and toxic to the plants. The plants become weak. Then they can’t feed the beneficial root colonizers. The colonizers can’t furnish nutrients or protection to the roots. The plants get sicker. Nature wants to get rid of the sick plants and sends pests to attack and destroy them. Then the farmer is told to use toxic rescue chemistry. The environment, the farmer, and the consumer suffer. It is a vicious cycle. All become losers because of a lack of organic matter in the soil.

Organic materials from sewer plants, landfills, dumps, factories, feedlots and other sources become waste materials only after we have wasted them. In Nature nothing is wasted, she has no waste. When we recycle an organic product, it immediately becomes a natural resource. When organic resources are recycled back into the life stream, the whole environment comes out a winner. There are no losers. The soil life, plant life and animal life all gain tremendously. And all contribute to man’s well-being so he wins the greatest.

Editor’s Note: This was an excerpt from Part I of The Secret Life of Compost by Malcolm Beck. Buy this book, and other titles by Malcolm Beck, at

The Secret Life of Compost
The Secret Life of Compost by Malcolm Beck


Introductory paragraph about compost

Continue to learn about compost: