We find ourselves in a unique position. We hold in our hands a product that was previously unavailable to us. An inoculum of such great potential it is beyond our understanding. We can gain the knowledge to reproduce these microbes infinitely. Now that this material exists, many questions come up pertaining to the possibilities and limits of its use. Many of these questions have not been answered yet. There is no one who can tell us what to do to create change. We can acquire the tools, the skills, and the material to put trials in place gather data and try to begin to work WITH the microbes to accomplish our goals.
What makes you feel passionate and motivated when you think of soil regeneration? Improving the food system, grasslands, land scape, wild forest areas? It is up to you to write yourself into the story, we are here to support you during the process in any way we can. It is important to be able to take ownership of projects and to be proud of what you are doing, to be able to have some space to create a reality you can be satisfied with.
Below are the procedures we use to find quality materials, suitable to help microorganisms reproduce. Familiarize yourself with these ideas before beginning to source the input materials for composting.
Collecting Organic Materials (OM)
The quality of our organic materials is what sets us up for success or failure. We must strive to obtain the plant materials which still have native microbes present in their ecosystem. Plants grown in microbial rich soils are superior in nutrient content and will provide the most sustenance for our microbes.
The way we can insure this is by gathering materials from areas which we have been treated with biology or tested with a microscope prior to the collection. The next best it to allocate materials from brushy wild areas where humans do not usually frequent, although spray from crops can enter these dense areas, they have not been sprayed with harsh chemical themselves.
Plant material that has been sprayed with fungicides, herbicides, nematicides, or really any “icides” will harm our microbes. These chemicals were created to kill plants and micro-organisms and they do not distinguish between “good” and “bad”. We must always be in the mind of working towards this goal of clean input materials though often we are forced by the lack of sources for clean materials to use OM which may give us unpredictable results.
Your job is to always be working toward defining processes which promote healthier and easier ways to source OM. Below I will list many of the ingredients we use on a regular basis and try to convey how we gather, store, and re-hydrate them.
- Manure: This is a high nitrogen input. The fresher the manure, the more power for heat in the compost.
- Animal manure must be obtained from farmers who will communicate with us about when they administer de wormer or antibiotics.
- Manure should not be used within 4 weeks of the animal being fed anti-microbial compounds.
- The tools used to collect and move manure ie; shovels, pitchforks, buckets, or trucks, must be cleaned before use on compost.
- The animals should be pastured and not fed grain as their main source of food.
- The manure should be as fresh as possible, if it needs to be stored for later use you have to spread it out in the shade and dry it. The sun will damage the quality of the manure and make it less high nitrogen. It cannot be stored in a large pile or it will go anaerobic and will not heat up the pile sufficiently.
- Dry manure must be soaked, in water, to raise its moisture to 50% before being composted.
- Any type of animal manure can be used for the high nitrogen component of the compost pile. Always make sure that the animals have had a healthy diet and have not been fed a lot of high salt foods like grains.
- Use as much diversity of manure as possible. By adding multiple (manure) food resources we can feed and reproduce a larger variety of microorganisms.
- Grains: Are a VERY high nitrogen element. If they have been cooked, like brewers waste they will generate less heat than a whole grain seed like wheat or rice.
- Seeds of any kind can be used. Larger variety of seed the better. Seeds are often expensive, but are only needed in small amounts. Seeds must be securely stored from animals.
- Spent brewers waste is usually free. It comes to us wet and in an anaerobic state. We must either use them immediately, or spread them out on a tarp as thin as we possibly can in the sun to dry them. It takes a few days in the sun for the grains to dry. You have to rake them around and fluff them to make sure that you aerate the anaerobic pockets underneath. The local animals will try to take a share of the grains, we dry them as quickly as possible and get them into dry storage. Storage must have secure lids to keep animals out.
- If we are lucky, sometime we can find stores of grain that are imperfect for some reason. They could be broken kernels from processing, seeds still mixed with chaff from processing, or grain which has gotten old. Inexpensive seed is something to always be searching for.
- Wood chips– This is the carbon portion of the pile. It is the majority of our total inputs and the place where we can get the most diversity. It is our fungal food and the thing that keeps structure in the windrows.
- To use wood chips fresh, they have to be non-coniferous or eucalyptus, if it has a strong smell it most likely has antimicrobial oil in the wood that needs to dissipate before use. If we get a hold of pine, cedar, eucalyptus, or any other really smelly wood like that we have to let it volatilize off all the anti-microbial compounds. To help the process along faster we have to form the chips into long windrows and aerate them. When we work by hand this does not make sense.
- Aged woodchips are always the favorite because they are already colonized by microorganisms and bring diversity to out compost.
- Woodchips can be stored in the weather; they do not need to be covered.
- Until we have access to a chipper, this will have to be cut by hand with machete. The woody pieces must be small to make hand turning easy. Less than a hands size is best.
- Cardboard- This is also contributing to the carbon content of the pie.
- Cardboard should be chopped up or ripped apart.
- This material is the easiest to find, the hardest to use, but a really beneficial food for our fungus.
- While working on ripping the cardboard into chunks try to imagine a dream where we have a machine which does this for you. Then, try with all you have to make that dream a reality. A machine that shreds big pieces of cardboard would be very useful.
- Dry leaves– These are another carbon source for our compost.
- Store under a roof keep dry.
- Use as much diversity as possible, dried leaves are often already covered in beneficial fungi.
- Greens- we can grow almost all of our own green materials on site. The challenge is to cut and keep them green without large scale mowing equipment.
- We treat our growing areas with extracts to try to improve the quality of the product. Ideally extracts will be done biannually as the rainy season starts and just before it ends.
- We treat the soil the greens grow in with microbes, this makes certain that the material is the highest quality possible.
- We cut the greens when the height is below waist high, before it goes to seed. We need the greens to be chopped up to no longer than 2 hands long to make sure turning the compost by hand is easy.
- Greens must be dried in the shade to maintain their color, this will preserve their nutrient.
- We use fresh greens in addition to the dried green in our windrows. Grass should be cut and harvested the day before or the day of pile build to maintain freshness.
- We use garden waste. It should be used fresh or dried in the shade. Notes should be taken on the percentages of green vs brown in the mixed materials. The woody brown leaves and stems will be considered carbon.
- Mother Pile– This is a part of the carbon portion of our compost. She is our secret weapon, a solution that inspires diversity and growth. We add a small amount of every compost pile we make back to the mother pile, increasing her diversity with each new windrow and fresh batch of diverse local microbes. While out in nature deep in the forest, which we often are, we may stop to notice a particularly handsome bit of fungal strand at the base of a tree or in a thick pile of leaves. If we feel compelled to take a small offering from that forest ecosystem, we would bring that to work and deposit it into the middle of Mother Pile. Going out into the wild is regeneration for the soul, your constant vigilance in collecting samples is regeneration to or soils. Stay sane. Go outside. Bring us the microbes.
- Mother pile must be maintained like any other windrow, she is a vermicompost bed and the worms like it wet, so keep it at 50-60% moisture.
- Keep her covered.
- We turn her occasionally if temperatures come up above 100F.
- This is a static pile, only turned when it is needed.
High Nitrogen-10-20% Manure or seeds- Bacterial food- Gets the pile hot quick!!
Green- 20-30%- anything green-leaves grass-plants- long holding bacterial food- that maintains the pile temperature.
Carbon-50-60%- woody materials-fungal food-creates structure in the pile by not breaking down quickly-chunks make spaces for air and water to pass
All materials must he brought up in moisture before we build the pile. Each material holds water in a different way and excepts water in a different way so we have to think about this whenever were wetting materials down.
- During the dry season or windy season, wood chips get very dry and hard to keep moist. You must prepare the day before by putting a sprinkler on the wood chips and soaking them thoroughly. Take time to make sure that the water runoff does not go into driving areas or composting areas but into an place it can be useful.
- Cardboard should be soaked in totes or barrels. They hold water very well and can compensate on water if another material is very dry.
- Dried leaves and garden waste can be soaked in tubs or soaked with the sprinkler depending on the amount of the resource.
- Grains can be wet creatively in barrels or buckets; they accept water easily and hold it well.
- Use a sprinkler to water manure, we always use a massive amount so it is the only way. Manure does not hold water easily; it must be compensated for by another ingredient.
- Fresh grass leaves or garden scraps are at 80% moisture, they can make up for dryer ingredients such as wood chips or manure or hay.
- Water can be added via hose as the pile is being built.
The Team preparing for building day
On the days we build piles, 3- 4 people must be present to work.; the organizer, the pile builders and the water bearer.
- The organizer and pile builders work together to assess what materials we have on hand and what proportions they will be used in; they will document the plan on a data entry sheet and file it in the properly numbered space in “The Black Book”.
- The organizer has knowledge of the compost process and how each material is supposed to react, they are helping with all aspects of the pile build but mostly overseeing the process to ensure all parts are functioning correctly.
- The pile builders’ job is to carefully and evenly distribute the OM over the windrow.
- The water bearer, bringer of all life, fluid and graceful, must never leave your hose unattended or let your guard down while watering. This position takes time to master. As you engage in trying to understand exactly how much water is needed to fulfill the thirst of trillions of living creatures existing in a giant ecosystem that we have created; try to be observant, stay calm and honor the squeeze test as your simple and only tie to understanding. Even and constant distribution of water over the windrow is your mission. Others should not engage with the water bearer. Distractions lead to uneven moisture, which leads to anaerobic or dry conditions, which leads to the untimely death of many innocent lives. All of this stress rests on your shoulders water bearer, we must all assist you in any way we can as your mission is the most important.
- All materials are in place on the day we build.
- Water bearer has communicated with the pile builders and the organizer to understand which materials must be hydrated. They began soaking materials that are difficult to rehydrate the day before and are attending to the moisture level of all materials prior to pile build.
Building the windrows
- Find a standard unit of measurement, totes, bins or piles of a certain size. I use twenty 15-gallon totes, or at large scale a 1-yard bucket. We will need to assume percentages to develop our recipe.
- 60% of our total materials are carbon. Start the windrow by laying down 1/3 of that material. This is our base.
- All other materials will be wet down and measure out. As you build try and mix everything as you go so you do not have to “mix” turn by hand.
- Add water as you build with a hose. Use the “squeeze test” to define where your moisture content is. You want the pile at 50-55% moisture.
Squeeze test-squeeze materials as hard as you can. If you can get the water to pool in between your fingers, that is about 50% moisture. If you can squeeze more than a drop it is too much. If you see no water pooling up at all it is too dry.
- Walk on the pile to help make contact between organic materials.
- Put a cover on the pile.
Temperatures, Turning, and moisture maintenance-
- Check temperatures every 10-12 hours and record what you observe. We need to hold these specific temperatures for these amounts of time to kill seeds and pathogens. The beneficial microorganisms are not hurt by these high temperatures.
- Turn when the pile has reached the appropriate temperature for the right amount of time.
- You start counting when the pile reaches 131F. *If the pile is not reaching those temperatures within two days then 1st try turning the pile, sometimes it just needs to be mixed up better. 2nd check moisture, if a pile is too dry it will have a hard time heating up. 3rd if the other actions do not work, it is most likely that your high nitrogen was not powerful enough. The pile must be at or above 131F for a full 72 hours before you turn.
- If you got your materials correct you will see temps rise up. Once they hit 150F they need to be there for 48 hours before you turn.
- Temperatures above 160 F stay for a full 24 hours before turn.
- If you see temperatures at 168 to 170+ F you must turn immediately!!!
- 170+ is SCARY! Alcohol will be produced in anaerobic conditions and when oxygen is added the pile can catch on fire. These fires are VERY hard to put out. Spontaneous combustion is the biggest problem to watch out for in composting.
- There are a few reasons to turn the pile besides temperatures being met.
- You encounter bad smells. Ammonia, vomit smell, or any foul smell indicates anaerobic conditions. Turn the pile to get air in.
- Wet piles at over 60% moisture can be turned to dry them down a bit, especially if you encounter bad smells with excessive moisture.
- Very dry piles can be turned with water spraying, this helps get moisture to the inside. Sometimes when you lose temperatures it is due to low moisture content.
- You will try to turn the piles 3-5 times. This will ensure that all seeds are dead and al pathogens cooked away.
- If the pile only reaches temperatures for 2 or 3 turns it means you need a greener material, or more green material. It is the material that holds our temperatures over time.
The cooldown phase-
- When the pile cools down to below 131F, we still monitor moisture, temperatures, and smells. Record everything.
- Biological assessments with the microscope can be performed at this time. We check numbers every few weeks until we reach our goals.
- When the pile is at ambient temperature, we assess moisture and biological numbers. If we see diverse microorganisms the material can be used.
- This is at least an 8-week process, sometimes 14 week. It depends on the recipe used.