As summer winds to a close and cooler air moves in, farmers often admire their compost piles with steam rising off of them in the early hours of the morning. This steam is the result of microorganisms eating and digesting organic material within the compost and the result is gaseous release and heat. This weeks Tom Talk is a crash course in all things compost!
Compost is beneficial for the land in a number of ways. It creates organic matter which helps fertilize the soil, attracts worms and other beneficial soil bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates. Compost prevents erosion, and utilizes waste material keeping waste on farm!
At Wolfe’s Neck Farm we produce mass quantities of compostable material. From the manure from the dairy, to all the leaf litter and grass clippings from Recompence Campground, and of course all the plant matter from up at the garden, the pile certainly builds up quickly. The key to creating rich compost is harnessing the right cocktail of these ingredients and combining and storing them properly. Effective compost has 4 key ingredients:
Carbon: Helps produce energy and heat through microbial oxidation. Materials high in carbon tend to be brown and dry. Examples include leaf litter, wood chips, sawdust.
Nitrogen: Helps grow and reproduce or microorganisms which aid in the oxidation of carbon. Materials high in nitrogen tend to be green colorful and wet, including food waste, garden plant matter, and rotten fruit.
Oxygen: A KEY ingredient for oxidizing the carbon essential for the process of decomposition.
Water: In correct amounts, helps to aid decomposition.
A compost pile should get up to a temperature of 135-160 degrees at its core. This is essential to ensuring that the bacteria and other microorganisms are breaking down all materials effectively. This temperature would also explain the morning steam. Up at the Wolfe’s Neck garden, we are planning to rework our composting system. Currently we have a three-bay system, in which raw materials go into bay number one, and as they break down they are shifted to bay number 2, and finally into number 3 in which the composting product should be finished. The problem with our system currently is that it is too small for the volume of plant material being added. A larger pile will create more heat and better decomposition. This will allow us to add dairy manure for a richer, more nitrogen-rich compost and turn the pile with the tractor bucket more easily. Turning the pile and mixing it up once a week is important because it forces oxygen into the pile while also releasing gases. This speeds the process. In the future we hope to close the loop and use only our own compost as fertilizer. This will create a more sustainable and self-reliant system.
Tom is the Production Intern for the Teen Ag Crew. His educational insights, Tom’s Talks, are published each week in the Teen Ag CSA Newsletter.