Alfred Reed Bishop and Doris William Butler

The picture above is the very tap root of Bishop's Homegrown/Face Of The Earth Seed. My grandparents shortly after moving to Pekin Indiana from Greensburg KY in 1947 where they purchased the farm that is now Bishop's Homegrown. This picture was taken in Pekin in front of the old co-op next to the old railroad depot, neither of which exist today.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Composting as alchemy (thermophilic composting systems, the advantages, and how they apply to vermicomposting)

It's funny sometimes, the way that my career in agriculture mirrors what I learned about music. The very best ideas are not original but stolen, great artists steal while the mediocre only borrow! Of course just like in music everybody has their idea about what "works" and what doesn't "work", most of the time you've just got to develop your own unique modifications and apply them to well known theories and systems and then your on to something that sets you apart from others.

Not too long ago I had shunned the idea of creating a thermophilic composting system here on the farm, it just sounded like to much work and it seemed like every time I read an in depth article on composting I needed to have a masters degree in chemistry to understand the what's and how to's of composting. I often find that is indeed the problem in the Organic Gardening, Plant Breeding, and Sustainable Agriculture world of the Internet, people over speak and the reader misses a lot or is led to believe that a simple issue is impossibly difficult to master. I myself never pursued a college education, I'm sure at times that probably reflects in my writing or dictation skill, perhaps even in my farming skills, but I cam to the realization as a teenager that my view of the world and mainstream societies view of the world were two separate entities, I found myself saying a lot that 90% of the skills I needed to know in life I had already learned from my grandparents and that indeed when put to use in a practical system that they could and would create a career for me, so far that's worked out pretty well, even if the occasional snob would look down on me.

Anyhow, back to the composting. I have been vermicomposting now for three years and the results have been terrific, we have had a few late blight outbreaks here and there, most particularly from not being nearly careful enough about what we add to the worm bins, but for the most part all has gone well, of course with the exception of the 8,000 vegetable seeds that seem to sprout every time I use my compost in the garden or the greenhouse. Are you aware just how invasive tomato plants are? I am fully aware of this myself now, thanks in part to my cold composting vermiculture operation.

With late blight and unwanted seed germination problems in mind I set out to research systems of thermophilic (hot) composting that could at least kill a large percentage of plant and animal pathogens as well as active living seeds in my compost bins in order to yield a much better quality organic material. What I found out is that in more than one way, composting is much like Alchemy. Your changing one, presumably worthless material into another high value material, but that the process is very little understood and even less well explained to potential explorers of self sufficient gardening.

I basically set out to find a number of wooden pallets in order to make some compost corals, living in a rural area with a ton of hardware as well as feed and seed stores this was no problem whatsoever, each of my new composting corrals had to have three walls, a gate, and a floor, of course they were to be connected together (using wood screws) in series of threes so I didn't need one pallet for each and every wall since once the middle box was done, you had the inside wall for each of the outside two boxes already in place. I choose pallets because they were free and because they allow the necessary airflow needed for aerobic composting will also allowing material to be held into a confined space with minimum spillage. We also place a pallet on the ground for a floor in order to raise the compost off of the ground (these are outside where rain can absorb so they are also covered with pieces of sheet metal weighted down with rebar to deflect rain) and to also allow the necessary airflow.

Thus far the system has worked out well for us, we really haven't formulated a real "compost recipe" if you will as we are still experimenting with materials, mixing, layering, and with the amount of water needed without making the pile "wet", if you will. Among the success that we have had so far is composting the bedding/manure from the chicken coop and yards along with waste produce, plant trimmings, and table scraps. We also use worm castings to inoculate the pile with the necessary bacteria and thermites to break the material down (though you can use soil, whatever you do, don't pay for compost incubator, all you need is in good garden soil, about a hand full of it will more than do. I also managed to come across another infinitely valuable resource for creating compost, a friend who runs a convenience store has been buying day old bread as a special item for his store, of course he can't sell it all until it is no longer acceptable for consumption, as such I pick up the bread from him and use it to feed the chickens and what I term The Compost Monster (the compost corrals that were aforementioned). This week alone we have composted close to five hundred (yes, that is 500) loaves of bread.

Currently our basic composting program consists of mixing Green (nitrogen based) materials with Brown (carbon base materials) at a one to two/three ratio, adding enough water to make moist (like a rung out sponge), in the middle of the pile we add our inoculate (worm castings, soil), we then allow the compost to set for two weeks (it will be up to temperature in a day or so, we check with a soil thermometer and often find the temp at 120 degrees Fahrenheit) after two weeks we flip the compost from one bin to the next using a pitch fork, add a bit more water (if needed, if material is wet we mix in more brown and dry material) and allow the material to once again heat, after two weeks we flip one more time into another bin (usually back to the original) allow to set for two more weeks and then we feed it to the red wiggler worms.

When I first started raising worms I was often told not to use chicken manure for feed or bedding because of the acidity/pH issue, however after composting and with a liberal spreading of dolomite lime, this does not appear to be an issue whatsoever.

Currently we have harvested four corrals full of material and added them to the worms to finish off the composting and fortification of the material, as I write all 9 of our corrals are empty, waiting for Monday of next week when they will be re-filled with a fresh mix of organic cow manure (from our neighbor) and bedding straw (12-14 tons of manure/straw), hopefully this compost will be the first batch to be fed to the worms in the soon to come, previously described, and much larger wormery.

I will be updating this blog from time to time with more Composting as Alchemy blogs.

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