Making compost at Sol Feliz

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Today we completed an annual project which is cleaning out the chicken coop to make compost.  The wheelbarrow above is one of about 5 that we removed from the chicken coop.  This mixture of sawdust and chicken manure has been in the works for almost a year inside the coop.  The sawdust originates from a local saw mill, Olguin’s, that sells and sometimes donates a truckload from their milling operations.  After the coop was cleaned out, we replaced it will fresh sawdust, 4 wheelbarrows full to start.  The sawdust gives the chickens something to scratch around in and mixes and drys out their manure so that it is not so much of an issue in terms of stench or tracking it around on our shoes.

The process we use to make a compost pile is to make alternating layers of manure, compost, dry weeds, green weeds, sawdust, food scraps, and the like.  It is important to start out with a coarse layer of dry carbon materials on the bottom layer (on top of the ground about 18 inches thick) so that air can circulate through.  Carbon materials are usually dry, brown, or tan like dry weeds, sawdust, and wood chips.  Nitrogen-like materials are usually wet, green, and maybe stinky like freshly cut weeds or grass, manure, or other food scraps.  A bunch of experts in composting have different ratios and methods, and while that is informative, the art of compost making is up to the artist knowing that if you monitor the temperature, a hot pile (above 135 degrees F, more or less) has too much nitrogen and a pile with too much carbon won’t generate heat.  Moisture also plays in to where too much moisture can create anaerobic conditions (no oxygen) and result in a putrid pile.  Moisture should be to the amount of a wrung-out sponge.  So the mix is carbon, nitrogen, moisture, and air.  The balance required in compost is like the same type of art form that the grandmas around here have who make tortillas without a measuring cup.  You just try it, feel it, do it, know it, and try it again…

If you look at the top of the pile above you can see some pieces of biochar, or charcoal, that we are incorporating into the compost pile.  The biochar creates structure, air space, micro sites for fungi, bacteria, and other microscopic beneficial organisms.  It also absorbs moisture and delays its drying out.  We are looking to biochar for sustainable soil management and encourage other farmers and gardeners to try it out as well, as it seems like a sustainable path to long term soil fertility.  We make biochar in our horno mud oven as well as in a little chamber that goes in the wood stove in the winter.  We are looking into other methods as well but are mostly interested in the generation of biochar that can happen incidentally as we are already making fires for heating and cooking.  We have some research going to see if the biochar has a positive effect on yields after one year when compared to plots without biochar.  More on that later…

So now our pile is built and will require a turning with some moisture incorporated before the winter.  We will then let it do its thing until next years’ growing season at which time we will likely turn it again and distribute it in the soil where our maize grows.  This year we put 18 wheelbarrows of compost in our corn patch and had some of the nicest, tallest looking maiz in years despite the drought…

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About Miguel

Miguel Santistevan is a researcher, educator, and advocate for traditional agriculture crops and systems.
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