The Art of Composting

Wooden Road In Forest
“Everything is a process, even the [farmer].”

– Michael Phillips

Maximizing the soil food web for your farm and garden ecosystems is not only possible, but inevitable. As topsoil continues to be depleted and lost at record rates worldwide, farmers are feeling the pressure to adopt new strategies for ensuring the long-term productivity of the land. The agricultural community at large is becoming more aware of the ways in which plants depend on healthy soil, and the soil food web is coming into the spotlight. Those who treat the soil as a living ecosystem are experiencing breakthrough success, as their farms demonstrate more resilience to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. Farmers and gardeners who treat their soils as a living ecosystem are tasting the results; more vibrant, nutritious, and abundant yields than ever before. And the ecosystem of beneficial insects and pollinators are coming back with authority. (citations)

An increasing number of farmers, gardeners and scientists alike are adopting this new paradigm of “living soil.” It’s not like adopting a child or even a family. When you adopt the living soil paradigm you adopt an entire community; in reality, this shift in understanding is an acknowledgment of an entirely new world. It is changing people’s entire relationship with the process of farming, gardening, and scientific study. The time has come to reform our notions of superiority in the web of life. Nature is not an inanimate resource bank awaiting our plunder. It is an ever-evolving dance of mutuality, collaboration, and adaptation. Time has come to see ourselves as part of this dance, not separate from it. Our roles as participants are many. The integrity and health of the niches that we occupy are largely the result of our attitudes and approaches to management.

Thus, the art of composting has as much to do with your approach as it does your execution. When you approach composting (and farming as a whole) with a sense of reverence and respect, your relationship with the process changes. If you can let go of the assumption that you’re the only intelligent life form on your farm, you can access an even greater ability —a greater sensitivity— to the process. The art of composting is the art of transformation, the art of succession and evolution. If you’re willing, you can begin to tune yourself to that process and become sensitive to the relationships between plants and the living soil. If you’re bold, you might even begin to treat your soil and plants as legitimate business partners and listen to their ideas about how the farm should be.

“Organic gardening is complex and simple, a blend of good science, fact, experience, intuition, experiments, play, speculation.” -Robert Kourik

Please remember that the science of compost, the science of the soil food web, is all metaphor. Cation exchange capacity, the nutrient cycle, carbon to nitrogen ratios – are all metaphors. The reality of the soil food web is something beyond our ability to express in words, which is why plants don’t grow in books. All the information up to this point in the paper, especially in Part 1, has been expressed in linear terms. Nature is not linear; nature is non-linear. The intelligence in the soil food web goes beyond our maps and diagrams, and cannot be explained by our facts and figures. The reality of life (and composting, farming) is not easily predictable. And this is the difference between living soil and dead soil, between an ever-depleted soil from which we extract life, and a regenerative soil that is teeming and overflowing with life. The paradigm of living soil acknowledges the vital interconnectedness between microbes and plants, air and water, sun and people. What we do to the web we do to ourselves, the earth is not a machine. And even the tiniest changes in one place can change everything in ways we wouldn’t expect. Living systems cannot be reduced to their component parts; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is already well-established. This is the glory of natural law; this is the genius of creative intelligence. We are meant to live in abundance, but we need to drop our arrogance and learn how to listen again.

“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
― Masanobu Fukuoka

I understand that if you’re committed enough to have sought out the information in this paper, you probably already consider yourself a natural farmer or gardener. Let this be an appeal not to reason but to intuition. As you take the information, the compost pile recipes, materials lists and instructions, and prepare to apply it to your current operations, do your best to carry yourself more as a midwife than a chef. Realize that with every compost pile you make you’re giving birth to an entire community of new life forms, and your farm will be a stronger community because of it. Like any good community organizer (which you are), you’ll need patience, compassion and understanding, as you already know. Engage in the process of growing more abundant and healthy plants so that you might become more healthy and abundant in spirit. Farm so that you might create more harmony on earth. Your job is not easy and you know it, and it never ends

Exerpt, taken from the full paper: The Art and Science of Compost: Maximizing the Soil Food Web For Your Farm and Garden Ecosystems

“So God Made a Farmer…”

This almost feels like the distant past now, but in the late winter this ad ran as a super bowl commercial. I didn’t actually see it on tv, but when I came upon the commercial on a timemagazine.com web page recapping the best and worst super bowl commercials I watched it, and couldn’t help making a comment on the web page below the video. I knew my comment would most likely stir an adverse reactionary comment, and I was right. Below are a series of comments between myself and an anonymous person, who provided me the opportunity to seek out some valid citations for my point of view. The thread didn’t attract any other commentators, and after my last reply (shown below) there were no further comments by anyone. I decided to put it up on my blog for future reference and to document the conversation. Here is the commercial that started the comments:

JamesSchleppenbach Feb 4, 2013

I live in Rural Iowa. The people in these commercials are my neighbors. They love their families, they work hard, their jobs are thankless. Meanwhile, multinational corporations feed them seeds that are poisoning animals and people, chemicals that poison the water, and plows that send the fertile topsoils into the rivers that end up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing and disrupting ecosystems of the Delta. I love this country. And I am a revolutionary. My revolution is for regenerative agriculture practices that support the growth of soil fertility rather than chemical companies, and the ability to save seed rather than risk patent infringement from the company that owns my seeds. Thank you Dodge for this beautiful ad, which highlights and celebrates real people doing work that has built one of the greatest countries of all time. Yet the ad is sadly ironic because it highlights how ignorant we are of the full-range impact our modern industrial systems have on the health of individuals, families, communities, ecosystems, etc. etc. etc. I understand this conversation is complex, and there are many truths on both sides. So here I make the first comment. This is me: https://jaschlepp.wordpress.com/  This is where I go to school: http://sustainableliving.mum.edu/
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jrobs585 Feb 5, 2013

@JamesSchleppenbach: Who here is ignorant?  Because science says its you.
http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4166
When you have any actual proof or scientific finding to back your claims, maybe I (and other farmers) will listen to you.  Until then, I’ll stick with real science.
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JamesSchleppenbach Feb 5, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbach: Woah, well I’m not gonna take your condescension personally. And you clearly have not done thorough research on this subject. It took me less than 10 minutes to find these:
This article describes a United Nations report based on studies in East Africa that conclude Organic Farming is the recommended way for long-term food security and environmental sustainability:


http://www.rodale.com/organic-farming-and-food-security?siteID=TnL5HPStwNw-4xQBgBc7DKp8Og0fNQ24Pg

“The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term,” write Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of UNCTAD, and Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. “The great technological progress in the past half century has not led to major reductions in hunger and poverty in developing countries.”

Study: Long-term effects of organic and conventional farming on soil erosion
http: //www.nature.com/nature/journal/v330/n6146/abs/330370a0.html
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JamesSchleppenbach Feb 5, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbachAnd have you not taken the time to watch “Food, Inc.”? Because regardless of the scientific debate, do you really think our current dominant food system is good for people and the planet?
http://www.takepart.com/foodinc/film
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jrobs585 Feb 6, 2013

@JamesSchleppenbach@jrobs585: Forgive me for not trusting something from rodale.com as truly scientific.  Can you find me the actual peer-reviewed study, rather than a pro-organic site’s interpretation of the study?  I’d honestly like to read it. If organic farming can bring higher yields, why do they consistently bring in such lower yields in developed countries?  You’d think it’d be easier in a developed country.  Could it be that they’re comparing the ‘higher organic yield’ to the undeveloped country’s original poorly-managed low-yield techniques?

I do appreciate the nature article (though i could only read the abstract), you now have me thinking that soil erosion may be a problem we ought to look into.  But by ‘look into’ I mean do more peer-reviewed studies… Plows have been used for thousands and thousands of years, so I kind of doubt the urgency.  Why haven’t older countries plowed their way down to the bedrock yet?

And no thank you, on Food Inc… I don’t need Hollywood’s “informed” opinion on anything, really.  Give me more peer-reviewed journals, can’t get enough of those.

I get the feeling that you didn’t read my link (or chose not to address any of it) so I doubt you’ll actually look into any of these.  But they are there, peer-reviewed arguments against the claimed benefits of organic food and organic agriculture, for anyone to read.
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http://xa.yimg.com/kq/groups/18208928/1586534823/name/Does+organic+farming+reduce+environmental+impacts%3F+e+A+meta-analysis+of+European+research.pdf
Avery, Alex. The Truth About Organic Foods. St. Louis: Henderson Communications, L.L.C.; 1ST edition (2006), 2006.
Dangour, A., Aikenhead, A., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. “Comparison of Putative Health Effects of Oragnically and Conventionally Produced Foodstuffs: A Systematic Review.” Food Standards Agency. Food Standards Agency, 29 Jul. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/organicreviewreport.pdf>
Hughner, R.S., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Schultz II, C.J., Stanton, J. “Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food.” Journal of Consumer Behavior. 21 May 2007, Volume 6 Issue 2-3: 94-110.
Kristensen, M., Østergaard, L.F., Halekoh, U., Jørgensen, H., Lauridsen, C., Brandt, K., Bu¨gel, S. “Effect of plant cultivation methods on content of major and trace elements in foodstuffs and retention in rats.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 1 Sep. 2008, volume 88, Number 12: 2161-2172.
MacKerron D.K.L. et al. “Organic farming: science and belief.” Individual articles from the 1998/99 Report. Scottish Crop Research Institute, 1 Dec. 1999. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <http://www.scri.ac.uk/scri/file/individualreports/1999/06ORGFAR.PDF>
Mondelaers K., Aertsens J., Van Huylenbroeck G. “A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming.” British Food Journal. 1 Nov. 2009, 111, 10: 1098-1119.
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jrobs585 Feb 6, 2013

@JamesSchleppenbach: We (American farmers) are just sick of being chastised by organiacs like yourself that think that Food Inc is a form of scientific evidence, yet have no real scientific backing for most of your claims, yet you pretend to have our interests at heart.

Don’t think for a minute that any well-managed food company has not already been on the organic bandwagon since it started rolling.  Nearly 100% of organic food in supermarkets comes from a producer owned by one of the major food companies that also sells regular food.   It’s an ironic little secret that the very same corporate food producers taking our money to sell us organic foods are the same ones spending it on the ad agencies to stoke the anticorporate message that drives them.
If you prefer organic foods, that’s fine.  Nobody is campaigning to eliminate organic food, because it doesn’t hurt anybody.  But your money (and more of it) is going to the same companies, regardless of whether you buy organic or not.

If you believe in science, there are no health benefits to eating organic.
You don’t need to believe in science to see that organic agriculture is way less cost-efficient than traditional agriculture.

And if you believe in science, the environmental impact of organic ag is unproven and likely negligible.
If you don’t believe in science, but some transcendental earth life-force stuff, that’s fine too.  But when you’re making extraordinary claims about how society needs to make sweeping changes, you need some very serious backing from the scientific community.  You guys simply don’t have that.
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JamesSchleppenbach Feb 12, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbach
: I’m currently enrolled full time in school and have a job so its taken me a little time to get through the links you posted. I agree about “big organic” industry being essentially just another arm of the big ag industry. Thats why I’d rather buy a vegetable grown locally and sold at the farmers market than by an organic veggie grown in California and trucked to Iowa.
I also agree that its not a good feeling being chastised. Chastising is hardly a productive form of communication, and I’d rather be friends with my neighbors, even if they’re living a lifestyle that I don’t choose. I see the links to the studies and I know the hundreds of millions in scientific research over the years has produced lots of sound science. I also think the smaller pool of available research regarding organic and regenerative (beyond “organic”) practices are reflective of the need for more research funding. I also see in the first link you posted, the author says about the organic industry: “The people promoting it generally have questionable scientific credentials, and they support their claim primarily by pointing out flaws in the norm. These are all characteristic of pseudoscience.” I agree that most people don’t distinguish between science and pseudo science. I agree that marketing in the organic industry plays on people’s fears as much as the news media does about politics and world events.
Also, from the article you posted: “We should choose farming methods that truly address our real concerns — safety and sustainability — not simply methods that satisfy an arbitrary marketing label.” I’m all about it. And I understand that where we go from here is dependent on our different paradigms.You think 1000acre corn and soybean fields, tilled and plowed every year, genetically modified, sprayed with chemicals is just fine, and is good for you and the earth. I don’t. I don’t think we need sweeping changes, I think we need responsible ones. Sweeping changes create instability. This is my last comment on this thread just because I have too much homework to give this the attention it deserves. 

Finally, for you to keep insisting that the science is so one-sided shows me your focus on “organic vs conventional” has given you paradigm blindness. My point has more to do with rethinking and reconsidering the entire notion of annual agriculture. I’m saying we need to consider mimicking forest ecology to create polyculture systems based on perennial plants. This would be a long-term, gradual shift. See Mark Shepard’s work. This is one of the main reasons:

Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University Dr. Rattan Lal has calculated that 476 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon have been emitted from farmland soils due to inappropriate farming and grazing practices (Christine Jones, PhD, http://www.amazingcarbon.com). In contrast, 270 Gt have been emitted over the past 150 years of fossil fuel burning (Jones, http://www.amazingcarbon.com).

In their study, “Carbon Sequestration Potential Estimates with Changes in Land Use and Tillage Practices in Ohio, USA,” Zhengxi Tan and Rattan Lal explain that the conversion of natural ecosystems to those managed agriculturally can reduce the soil organic carbon pool by up to 50% in the top 20 cm of the soil and 25-30% in the top 100 cm depth after 30-50 years of cultivation (Tan, Lal, 2005).

It makes sense that more carbon comes out of the soil being tilled than the carbon released making and running the engine tilling it. For, fossil fuels are mostly buried and compressed landscapes of once living organisms. These fossil organisms are no different from the organisms in our soil still. Destroyed, they release the same kind of carbon that was put there by the same photosynthesis.

All exposed soil will lose this soil-organic-carbon. Inappropriate tillage expands the process exponentially. Today we have realized that inappropriate agriculture has successfully released the carbon of a 30 foot thick organism that once covered the entire Midwest, the topsoil and root system of the tall-grass prairies. Bare soil is potentially a more feasible culprit for global warming than even electricity.
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JamesSchleppenbach Feb 12, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbach: Published in “Science” Journal – published by American Association for the Advancement of Science, full pdf on Google Scholar: “David Pimentel”, et al “Environmental and economic costs of soil erosion and conservation benefits”

Abstract:
Soil erosion is a major environmental threat to the sustainability and productive capacity of agriculture. During the last 40 yeras, nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost by erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more than 10million hectares per year.
From the body: About 80% of the world’s agricultural land suffers moderate to severe erosion. Croplands are the most susceptible to erosion because their soil is repeatedly tilled and left without a protective cover of vegetation.

The U.N. Environmental Programs first “Global Environment Outlook Year Book” was released in 2003. The program executive director, Klaus Toepfer, noted that the dead zone problem was likely to rapidly escalate. He stated that there are 146 dead zones, most of which are in Europe and the east coast of the U.S. The most infamous is at the end of the Mississippi River, due to fertilizer from farm fields of the Midwest.

From the published paper “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems” 
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/321/5891/926.short

Abstract:
Dead zones in the coastal oceans have spread exponentially since the 1960s and have serious consequences for ecosystem functioning. The formation of dead zones has been exacerbated by the increase in primary production and consequent worldwide coastal eutrophication fueled by riverine runoff of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels. Enhanced primary production results in an accumulation of particulate organic matter, which encourages microbial activity and the consumption of dissolved oxygen in bottom waters. Dead zones have now been reported from more than 400 systems, affecting a total area of more than 245,000 square kilometers, and are probably a key stressor on marine ecosystems.
So the conclusion is that my viewpoint has to do with “real science” as well. Please take me out of the “organiac” box. Though I do enjoy hugging trees…

Read more: http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/02/04/the-best-and-worst-super-bowl-commercials-of-2013/slide/ram-trucks/#ixzz2KfZF7AYy

To All Soil Professionals…

(Written by Jacob Krieger)

To all soil professionals,

That means the farmers first and foremost. The stewards of our soils.

There are plenty of silly facts about global warming that don’t change anyone’s mind. Especially in the mid-west. Whether CO2 changes the global temperature or not does not change the fact that we have raised the amount of it in the atmosphere. Two primary ways of raising the CO2 levels have been burning carbon based substances and removing or killing the natural “resources”, or the Earths biota.

We can see the cars and factories for ourselves. We can all see the lack of trees while perusing Google Earth. We can all see millions of acres of exposed soil through vast amounts of the year with a short drive. We pride ourselves at the coffee table on our tidy little barren soil beds being prepped and poisoned for next years synthetic crop. Yum, yum, down on the farm, home grown goodness, eh?

Here is a fact that soil professionals should know when preparing beds of soil.

Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University Dr. Rattan Lal has calculated that 476 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon have been emitted from farmland soils due to inappropriate farming and grazing practices (Christine Jones, PhD, www.amazingcarbon.com). In contrast, 270 Gt have been emitted over the past 150 years of fossil fuel burning (Jones, www.amazingcarbon.com).

In their study, “Carbon Sequestration Potential Estimates with Changes in Land Use and Tillage Practices in Ohio, USA,” Zhengxi Tan and Rattan Lal explain that the conversion of natural ecosystems to those managed agriculturally can reduce the soil organic carbon pool by up to 50% in the top 20 cm of the soil and 25-30% in the top 100 cm depth after 30-50 years of cultivation (Tan, Lal, 2005).

It makes sense that more carbon comes out of the soil being tilled than the carbon released making and running the engine tilling it. For, fossil fuels are mostly buried and compressed landscapes of once living organisms. These fossil organisms are no different from the organisms in our soil still. Destroyed, they release the same kind of carbon that was put there by the same photosynthesis.

All exposed soil will lose this soil-organic-carbon. Inappropriate tillage expands the process exponentially. Today we have realized that inappropriate agriculture has successfully released the carbon of a 30 foot thick organism that once covered the entire Midwest, the topsoil and root system of the tall-grass prairies. Bare soil is potentially a more feasible culprit for global warming than even electricity.

What’s more disturbing is that we now farm fuel despite all the free sources of energy. (Yes, free energy. It’s here and being denied)
Farm soil and keep it covered. For better crops, better health, and a cooler planet. Soil is an organism that cannot be disconnected from the plants that it works with symbiotically. It is a single organism. Plants and soil both die when separated. Hence the need for chemical supplements that further the biological selection and destruction. Stop bare soil and start capturing CO2.

AGRICULTURE COULD BE USED TO BUILD SOIL at rates scientists once believed would take thousands of years.

It is being done in most 1st world countries and has been since the 1950’s. It is a shame we don’t take it seriously here. Carbon farming is a concept that pervades the planet aside from the American discussions. Proper grazing, rotation, soil conditioning, reestablishment of proper biology and biodiversity, and the end of monoculture could curb our global catastrophe in a growing season. No-till is a start, perennial poly-culture is a possible future, there are hundreds of solutions to start improving and expanding upon. Regenerating what we have destroyed is first on the to-do list avoiding the next dust bowl.

Row crops and CAFO’s are two ends of the same goat. Putting the cows back to pasture has fixed over 15,000 acres already by way of Darren Doherty Everyone should know this by now and realize it’s a scam. We are down to a few million farmers who bought out all their former cooperation by just playing the market by the rules. We are mostly farmed by contractors and satellites now. Monopoly is not about calories produced per acre. It is about control. It is extremely important for everyone to produce the same thing for the few to have power over the many.

Stop playing their game. Research regenerative agriculture and help improve it. Help revision. You be the scientist. You change the world. Any lawn or large acreage can be a part of the solution. And there are way more solutions than problems, but it starts with a mind change. Learn what science has discovered about soil in the last 25 years! Even in the last 3 years we have completely re-written the book on soil and how plants grow! Get on it SOIL PROFESSIONALS!

If farmers knew anything about the role they play today and what they can change tomorrow, the world would see a revolution by spring.