Jason here. I’m what Heidi calls our “resident soil nerd.” And she’s not wrong: I think about compost. A lot.
We’re always trying to stay up on the latest science behind ecological sustainability and regenerative agriculture. At the end of the day, it all comes down to resource management. As farmers, how can we take what we have and convert it into the best use? What we have is heaps and heaps of turkey waste, but this is some good sh!t.
How can we apply it to build something regenerative, forward-looking, and which offers a myriad of benefits?
The answer is compost. Beautiful, rich, smelly compost. And because I’d bet rupees to refuse you don’t spend anything close to as much time thinking about it as I do, let’s talk about what (good) compost is, how it works, and the benefits of using it.
First and foremost: what makes compost… compost?
I’m going to hazard a guess that you already know compost is decayed organic matter (even if you might not have said it like that). But what you might not know is that compost has three legs. In order of importance:
- Structure: Compost is made up of long-chain polymer carbons called humus (not hummus) that provide the house, air, and water space for microbes to live and thrive.
- Microbes: Thriving microbes are the transport mechanism for the plants and allow them to get the nutrients they need, when they need them.
- Nutrients: Plants can get nutrients from up to five feet away thanks to those transport chains of microbes.
Structure is the part of compost that people overlook most often. Which is too bad, because it’s critical to how compost works.
Compost actually changes the structure of the soil.
When you put compost on top of soil, the soil looks up and says, “Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to look like” and it starts to change. So that structure starts multiplying and becoming optimized. How’s that for a role model?
When the soil structure is optimized, it holds onto more water. When you hold onto water in your soil, you can grow microbes. When you can grow microbes, you can get nutrients to your plants.
Water is, of course, a huge topic in farming on its own.
If we can grow more crops with less water, that’s a huge gain for conservation.
When you start improving the soil’s water retention, it has the further benefit of reducing soil temperature so that plants can grow in a cooler root zone. This, in turn, decreases other problems. Plus: you need less water! Some friends of ours were able to use our compost to reduce their water usage by about 50%. And they improved their yield to boot. To review: compost can quickly change soil structure to increase water/microbes/nutrients, which in turn decreases problems and increases yields.
As if that weren’t amazing enough, it also impacts the nutrient density of your food.
I’ll never forget sitting in a seminar listening to Amish Mennonites talking about soil fertility. They were saying, “We’ve got these two apples—they look identical, but they’re not. This one has 30% more nutrients in it, and you wouldn’t know it by looking, but it’s true.”
The way we look at agricultural commodities is by volume—pounds—and we’ve hybridized for higher starch varieties. Starch has increased in our food system, and protein has decreased. In other words, we’re growing bulkier, less nutrient-dense food because that’s what our agricultural system values.
If we ever started measuring our food in terms of nutrient density rather than by weight, there’d be a huge interest in natural systems. The cells of our food are much more complex and rich in micronutrients when grown with natural systems.
So if we know compost can do all of these amazing things, why isn’t composting more common?
Simply put: it’s hard. You can’t automate it. It is art meets science: especially if you’re making really quality compost. At any scale, it’s tough on equipment and it’s expensive, which is why it’s so hard to get composting outside of your home.
There is a lot of compost happening, but mostly at the city waste-hauler level. But not all compost is created equal. Their goal is to meet the minimum standards to get rid of the stuff as quickly as they can. It’s a commodity type project.
Furthermore, most colleges teach conventional methods over organic ones.
And why invest in a costly organic method when it’s so easy to “take a pill” and add tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that give you instant results? (Well, because it’s bad for the environment, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not regenerative, but we aren’t exactly the norm here at Diestel Family Ranch.)
Which brings us back to compost.
(And if you’ve made it this far, you now get Heidi’s nickname for me.)
Here’s the skinny: Quality compost can reverse decades of damage in just a few short years. It’s a natural system and it works really well. It’s a bright spot that gives me hope, but more farmers have to make the choice to do it. And consumers have to know why it’s important, too.
Hopefully you now also understand a bit more about compost and why I love it. It’s an incredibly powerful, natural system that can heal our soils to:
- Grow more nutrient dense foods
- Use less water
- And use fewer harmful petrochemicals
And I didn’t even get into carbon sequestration. How can you capture more carbon? Rich soil. How can you get rich soil? Composting. Something to keep thinking about for my next post…
– Jason Diestel