Jane Kuhn - Dec 19, 2016

The Compost Conundrum

Weatherbury Farm in Avella, Pennsylvania

As the bumper sticker reads "compost happens." It sure does! The magical microbial breakdown process will happen regardless of particle size, moisture content, greens and browns ratio, number of turns, or temperature reads. And while a thoughtful recipe and diligent execution will make beautiful and speedy compost, such meticulous monitoring often requires far too much labor for the small-scale production farmer.  Food waste inevitably accumulates and the common kludge approach of stashing it in an unmonitored, far removed corner of the property will result in a sloppy anaerobic mess...not to mention make for a very welcoming rodent habitat. There are a variety of compost turning implements on the market, but starting costs often begin at $30,000. So what do you do if you’re farming at production scale but don’t have the implement for making your own compost?

The most common answer I received when asking small production scale produce farmers what they do was… “feed it to the pigs!” A convenient solution, but not without a catch, as pigs will also require some dietary supplementation. Alex Vaughn, of The Farm School, notes that pigs will virtually eat everything, likely making this the easiest strategy if animals are already in your system. However, “it's not really feasible to recover that material in the form of usable manure” Alex identifies. Not to mention that when manure is involved you’ll have to make sure it passes as certified organic, which is no easy feat.

Mechanically Make-Do
For those interested in a lower cost mechanical compost turner, Nigel Tudor of Weatherbury Farm has shared the plans he constructed to build your own for about $12,500 if you have hydrostatic drive, the proper tools, and ample time.

Another creative option is to use a manure spreader to shred, mix, and aerate a pile. “The Soul of Soil” by Grace Gershuny and Joe Smillie, discusses this technique while noting that although it’s relatively easy, it does take some time to master. Essentially, piles of material are placed parallel to the projected windrow location. With the manure spreader running, a bucket loader dumps appropriate proportions of each material into the spreader. As material exits the spreader and begins to pile up, the manure spreader inches forward. This process is repeated until the material is used up and the windrow complete. Gershuny and Smillie note that “while this is not an unnatural job for the manure spreader, it is intensive, so lots of grease and oil should be used on the chains and gears” (95).

An even more accessible alternative is to use a bucket loader for all steps. Your pile is likely to be on the sloppy side and may not progress quite as quickly, but as we know...compost happens. This is one of the methods used at The Farm School, where Alex says he turns the pile about once a month with the bucket loader. You can avoid an anaerobic mess, “if you have enough hay or straw to cover the packing shed material...or mix it around” each time you add food scraps to the pile. Increased aeration can be achieved by a bucket that also has long teeth.

What do you do?
There seems to be a bit of a compost conundrum for the diversified production farmer. While options for addressing food scraps do exist, they all require a notable amount of time and/or money.

I’m curious as to what you do with food scraps that accumulate in your farm system:

How much do you accumulate? And, are there ways to reduce waste accumulation?
How often do you add to your pile or get rid of the collection?
Are there ways for local small farms to collaborate on this in a time effective way?

Share your techniques and questions in the comments section below!

Gershuny, Grace, and Joseph Smillie. The Soul of Soil: A Soil-building Guide for Master Gardeners and Farmers. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 1999. Print.

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Jane works as a Field Production Specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where her days are filled with tractor work, irrigation coordination, orchard care, and educating apprentices and interns. Her favorite way to end a long day's work in the sun, is running down the hill to Mitchell's Cove and jumping in the Pacific.


Jane Kuhn

Jan 3, 2017 at 8:37 PM

Check it out! The folks at Foothill Roots Farm shared this great idea with me for a static composting system: https://www.nofany.org/blog/cheap-diy-static-pile-composting-on-a-farm-scale

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