Christophe's Compost Corner

  • This a busy time on the farm and so this blog will be short and sweet
  • More fungal tea was applied in the orchard this week
  • One of our windrows (N-6) has a higher bacterial component and is destined for one of our vegetable fields. We are behind schedule in applying this compost. This windrow has been turned 5 times every time it reached 130 F or more. However, we turned it one more time after temperatures dropped significantly to make sure it was less active/stable. After the last turn, several hotspots (130-135 F) developed and we have to wait for N-6 to cool down to make sure it can be applied safely to a vegetable field.
  • We ran into a major problem with tomato and pepper seedlings that were started earlier this year. We are trying to find out what the problem is and there may be more information on this issue in a future blog.
  • On Wednesday Farmer Al and I attended the California Climate and Agriculture Summit hosted by the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN). This a coalition of organic and sustainable agriculture organizations and their allies (scientists etc…) who have come together out of concern for climate change impacts on California agriculture. The conference was very well organized and a lot of interesting information was presented. The next blog will deal with some of the issues raised during this summit.
  • Author: Christophe Kreis MLF Soil Consulting PhD, Molecular Biology/Developmental Biology, University of British Columbia, Canada. Christophe is co-founder of MLF Soil Consulting with his wife Monique. He started his career in basic medical research and after various positions in academia and industry Christophe slowly returned to his first passion Soil Ecology and Microbiology. It is his belief that human health is tied intimately to soil health through the production of healthy food. For this reason MLF Soil Consulting is committed to help farmers improve the management of their soil through composting, vermicomposting and biological analysis of microbial soil life.

  • The last time we connected via this blog, we were discussing soil organic matter (SOM). This topic is very interesting and very dear to me. However, it is a complicated topic and at this time I realized that I am not conveying clearly to the general public the importance and complexity of this topic. My science is very good but my blogs on this topic lack clarity. For the time being, we will put aside SOM and return to it at a more opportune time.
  • We are focusing on spreading as much compost as possible because we have many windrows and we have too much wood chips. Most of the windrows have been composting for three months or less. We still have three windrows that were started in November and have only recently reached high temperatures. They are being monitored closely and I think they contained some substance that was difficult to decompose by the microbes in the compost foodweb. The high temperatures indicate that the microbes in the compost ecosystem have finally adapted to the compost conditions and are metabolizing the unknown compound that is causing problems. After the temperature of these windrows drops to acceptable levels, samples will be analyzed for the biology, the micro-nutrient content and a bioassay will be performed using beans or peas as the test vegetable (using the right controls we should be able to determine if the compost is good or bad).
  • An 89 foot windrow labeled N-6 is destined to be spread on the McKinney field (about 1 acre) where Marlene and Kristin will be planting peppers and tomatoes. This windrow was constructed so as to be dominated by bacteria (the ratio of bacteria to fungi should be higher than in the fungal dominated windrows). N-6 was started on 19 January and this week the temperatures in this windrow have dropped to acceptable levels. The windrow will be turned and watered one more time to make sure that the windrow is cooling. The windrow will be analyzed for the biology and for various nutrients. In the mean time, a bacterial tea is being applied to the McKinney field to speed up the rehabilitation of this field which last year did not perform very well (yields and health of various vegetables was not spectacular).
  • Farmer Al has been concentrating a lot of energy on applying compost tea to apricots and peaches due to the weather conditions (cool nights, warm days, a little bit of humidity). Two diseases (brown rot and mildew) are of major concern and we have been preparing compost tea with a fungal dominance (the beneficial fungi in the tea are there to outcompete/suppress the non-beneficial fungi).
  • More bacterial teas have been used to water the various seedlings that Marlene and Kristin are preparing for the McKinney field. The idea is to create a healthy soil foodweb in the seedling pots and to suppress any potential diseases.
  • The rates at which compost and compost tea are applied can be very different depending on the final outcome that is needed. Farmer Al has thousands of trees on 140 acres of land. He has to apply as much of his on-site produced compost as he can get his hands on and he can never have too much compost (we will do a calculation in a future blog to prove this point). Farmer Al also use compost tea to suppress diseases and he also can use as much tea as regulations permit (C.C.O.F.). The vegetable farmers are starting seedlings in pots that contain compost. I have recommended that the seedlings should only be watered 3 times with compost tea before they are planted in the McKinney field. The reason is that the compost and vermicompost should contain a healthy foodweb and watering with tea should be done just an initial enhancement of the biology. Too frequent watering in a closed environment (pots) is redundant and may cause problems. On the other hand, Jennifer (CSA coordinator) and Pearl (marketing director) have started  their vegetable gardens and mini-orchards. Jennifer has a vegetable garden and a sandy soil. Her ecosystem needs as much compost and beneficial microbes as possible to create structure. Pearl has planted two fruit trees (Frog Hollow trees) in her back yard. Odds are that her soil needs remediation and can use in the short term as much compost and compost tea as is practical. Three different groups of people three different uses of compost.
  • Author: Christophe Kreis MLF Soil Consulting PhD, Molecular Biology/Developmental Biology, University of British Columbia, Canada. Christophe is co-founder of MLF Soil Consulting with his wife Monique. He started his career in basic medical research and after various positions in academia and industry Christophe slowly returned to his first passion Soil Ecology and Microbiology. It is his belief that human health is tied intimately to soil health through the production of healthy food. For this reason MLF Soil Consulting is committed to help farmers improve the management of their soil through composting, vermicomposting and biological analysis of microbial soil life.

     

     

    •We had a fair amount of rain last week and this means that it was not possible to turn the thermophilic compost windrows as scheduled. It was difficult at times to measure the temperatures because of the muddy condition of the soil around the windrows, which was due to the fact that the local landscapers/arborists had to bring their woody material to Frog Hollow in spite of the rain. One of our windrows, which was constructed on August 27, has an average temperature of 117 F (28 readings) but still has about 5 hotspots ranging from 130 F-140 F. It looks like this will continue composting for four months and maybe beyond. As we discussed before, this windrow must have been constructed with a nitrogen rich material that was added in excess. The biology is being analyzed in this windrow and a chemical analysis is also being performed. Another windrow, which was constructed on September 19, will probably be ready before the end of the year for spreading (about three months of composting): the average temperature of this windrow is 117 F with only two hotspots at 130 F. Another three windrows that were started in October (10-14 October) look like they will be ready for application in early January.

    •The outdoor vermicompost beds did not get too wet after the rains. The moisture in the beds has remained at the right levels. The worms did not leave the beds in spite of the high rainfall. In the indoor beds, I am using some of the beds to produce worms that are fatter. Some of the beds are used to increase worm breeding rates by the addition of oatmeal discards from the Frog Hollow Café (Ferry Building in San Francisco).

    •When I discuss composting or the nature of soil organic matter or soil organic carbon or humus with people on the farm and off the farm, I realize that a lot of misconceptions concerning these terms are due to the fact that a lot of the products that are sold to farmers and gardeners are not defined properly by the manufacturers. I have discussed humus and soil organic matter briefly in previous blogs but I will start this discussion again but in more detail in subsequent blogs. Because of the enormous amount of carbon stored in soil organic matter, soil management and composting play not only an important role in agroecology but may be important factors in affecting/moderating the global greenhouse effect.

    •What is soil organic matter? SOM is composed of all the living organisms that reside in soil (the soil foodweb) including the living roots of plants, dead tissue (remnants of microbes, roots, leaves etc.), and non-living non-tissue (humus and non-humic substances). Let’s reflect upon this definition and we will continue this discussion in the next blog.

    Author: Christophe Kreis  MLF Soil Consulting PhD, Molecular Biology/Developmental Biology, University of British Columbia, Canada. Christophe is co-founder of MLF Soil Consulting with his wife Monique. He started his career in basic medical research and after various positions in academia and industry Christophe slowly returned to his first passion Soil Ecology and Microbiology. It is his belief that human health is tied intimately to soil health through the production of healthy food. For this reason MLF Soil Consulting is committed to help farmers improve the management of their soil through composting, vermicomposting and biological analysis of microbial soil life.

    • As soon as the rains stop and the ground dries, we will start filling the 700 tree holes that will be replanted with new trees with thermophilic compost. This is part of our program to start concentrating on re-plant areas and on problem trees. The biology and the chemical composition (in terms of nutrients available to tree roots in the rhizosphere) of the compost will be analyzed before application. The thermophilic compost will be overlaid with worms (Eisenia fetida) and vermicompost enclosed in a “sock” that is made of a synthetic mesh-like porous material that drains well but at the same time retains proper moisture and can be exposed to the elements. Small molecules such as sugars, nitrogen etc…, microbes and immature worms and microarthopods can cross the mesh but adult worms cannot. Since the sock is porous, it can treated with compost teas. These socks will provide an almost continuous supply of worms next to the trees and also a continuous supply of nutrients which will be present in the compost teas and also made by the worms. The compost teas will be tailored to the soil based on periodic biological and chemical analyses of the soil. Since the socks will be short in length, the initial inoculum of worms inside the sock will be small and this will limit expenses. We have tested the socks in preliminary experiments. We will use the following controls: some trees will receive only thermophilic compost, some trees will receive only vermicompost socks. Because we have already established that our thermophilic compost is beneficial, we will forego a control with no composts.

    • Last March, Frog Hollow Marketing director, Pearl Driver, organized Frog Hollow Farm’s participation in the “This way to sustainability conference” organized by Chico State University (CSU, Chico is in an elite group of schools across the country singled out for their exemplary environmental programs and policies). Farmer Al presented a very well-attended slide show on sustainable farming at Frog Hollow and was assisted in the question and answer period by Monique and Christophe. We attended a seminar on carbon footprints and we learned about the Climate Registry. The mission of the registry is to provide collaboration between various North American governments, educational institutions and business entities to set consistent standards to calculate green house gas emissions and publicly report them. Members receive access to specialized software and training. Members not only publicly report their green house gas emissions but also identify and manage their strong points and weak points in terms of green house gas emissions. Monique and Al will be joining the registry and will be analyzing the green house gas emissions at Frog Hollow.

    Author: Christophe Kreis  MLF Soil Consulting PhD, Molecular Biology/Developmental Biology, University of British Columbia, Canada. Christophe is co-founder of MLF Soil Consulting with his wife Monique. He started his career in basic medical research and after various positions in academia and industry Christophe slowly returned to his first passion Soil Ecology and Microbiology. It is his belief that human health is tied intimately to soil health through the production of healthy food. For this reason MLF Soil Consulting is committed to help farmers improve the management of their soil through composting, vermicomposting and biological analysis of microbial soil life.

    •Our “oldest” windrow which was constructed in August is still “hot” with an average temperature of 120 F and areas (hotspots) that are at 135 F. we are waiting for the temperatures to drop to 110 F or less so that the compost can be spread in the orchard as soon as possible. This windrow has been composting for slightly over 3 months. We are trying to limit composting time to under 3 months. However, this is not easy to achieve because the woody materials and green manure (leaves) that are brought to the farm by local arborists are not identical (different trees, different plants) and contain natural substances that have different decomposition rates (some longer, some shorter). However, this windrow looks like it is very fungal because several varieties of fungi are growing on top of it and it is rich in mycelial mats. This will be confirmed as soon as possible by a biological and chemical analysis. We had a fair amount of rain recently and the windrow will have to be turned one more time before it is used in the orchard because there are potentially anaerobic pockets here and there, due to the added weight of the water.

    •As soon as we have the next dry period, we will build a windrow that should produce compost that is less fungal than the compost used around the fruit trees. This compost will be used for the various vegetable gardens that are being started at Frog Hollow. We will attempt to tailor this compost to various different vegetables by using appropriate starting materials and applying a tailored compost tea to the windrow.

    •In spite of the fair amount of rain we received recently, the worms did not get flooded out of their composting beds. It looks like it will take much more water to completely soak the worm beds to the point of affecting the worms (they could try to leave the beds or drown). It also suggests than the water holding capacity of the partially decomposed material in the worm beds is pretty high (due to the action of the worms).

    •In the last blog, it was mentioned that we have to prepare planting holes for about 700 new trees (that were removed over the summer). The holes will be filled with thermophilic compost and worms (Eisenia fetida) will be added to these holes. We are repeating an approach we used earlier this year on a bigger scale and with more controls (to be described in a later blog). Compost (thermophilic and vermicomposts) have well documented impacts on soil and plant associated microbial communities. We hope that well managed/processed compost and vermicompost (biologically active) will influence the performance of Frog Hollow fruit trees and their associated microbial communities. There is some evidence that shows that compost derived communities persist for long periods of time in association with plants. For example, a recent study on tomato seed germination, showed that greenhouse germination followed by transplantation in soil followed by crop performance in the field was strongly affected by the choice of organic amendments. Germination and growth of the tomato plants was strongly affected by composts (thermophilic and vermicompost): seedling germination rates were above 90%, biomass at transplantation was higher than with other amendments and vermicompost amended plants had unique rhizosphere communities. Using our limited results and the hypothesis developed in this tomato study, we will continue our approach and described it in more detail in a subsequent blog.
    • When is a compost windrow (thermophilic compost) or a vermicompost ready to be applied in the orchard at Frog Hollow? Thermophilic composts have to reach a temperature of 130 F or more for three days and then have to be turned. This cycle continues for 15 days and the goal is to make sure that all parts of a windrow have been exposed to a temperature of 130 F or more. This is a way of killing most weed seeds, plant pathogens and human pathogens. On average the thermophilic compost at Frog Hollow is ready for application after 3 months of composting. After the heating cycles have subsided, there are several options to assess compost stability and readiness for application. First and foremost the windrow temperatures are checked to ensure that they are at 110 F or less (ambient temperatures are perfect), ammonia and carbon dioxide emissions are checked using colorimetric kits. Finally, the most important test is a biological analysis of a sample for the presence of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. If the total biomass of these microbes reaches certain levels (indicating diversity), if the active part of the microbial biomass is at 10% or less (indicating stability), I conclude that the compost is stable and can be applied in the orchard. The colorimetric chemical tests for ammonia and carbon dioxide are used to confirm the biological analysis. I use the same tests (except for temperature measurements) to analyze vermicompost maturity.

    •Applying immature compost can cause several problems. When the temperatures in a compost windrow are higher than 110 F, this is an indication that the microbes have not finished decomposing all the materials in the compost and consequently this compost will not immediately supply nitrogen and other nutrients to the roots of plants (at this time of the year the roots are storing energy reserves for the spring). If this immature compost contains a lot of carbon material (wood, cardboard, brown leaves), the microbes will scavenge soil nitrogen in order to decompose the woody material and this can cause nitrogen starvation in roots. Immature compost may contain phytoxins that can negatively affect root metabolism; phytoxins (such as very high ammonia levels) are produced naturally in a compost but have to be given time to be degraded. Immature compost does not have the ideal ratios of the various microbes because the metabolic activity is too high and will not be beneficial to the tree roots when applied. If the microbial activity is too high, roots can become starved of oxygen and this can promote the growth of pathogenic anaerobic organisms in the rhizosphere (region of soil where roots and microorganisms directly interact). Immature compost does not have an immediate effect on tree roots but can cause rapid phytoxic reactions in vegetable crops.

    •No single parameter can give a sure indication of the stability of a compost. However, biological analysis coupled with temperature measurements is one of the best indicators of a good and stable compost.

    •A new vegetable block will be planted in December and we are waiting for a compost windrow that was started on August 27th to cool down to 110 F or less. It looks like this compost will be down to 110 F at exactly 3 months.

    •Next month planting holes have to be prepared for 700 new trees. The holes will be filled with compost and worms prior to planting. We have to estimate how many worms are presently available in our vermicompost beds. We also have to plan for the future and start breeding more worms (more on this in future blogs). During the summer months, the compost worms produce three cocoons per week. Each cocoon (can be compared to an egg) produces three hatchlings or 9 hatchlings per week per worm. I estimate that each cocoon takes 5-6 weeks in the summer at Frog Hollow Farm to mature and hatch. In 6 weeks, 54 hatchlings are produced per worm. In the winter, it probably takes 12 weeks to produce that many hatchlings. Next week we will have an estimate of how many worms we presently have at Frog Hollow. This number will probably be 2-3 million worms.
    •A new vegetable garden called the McKinney block (about 5 acres) will be soon prepared for late winter and early spring planting at Frog Hollow. Barley will be planted in December while in the spring other vegetables will be on the agenda (notably tomatoes). Compost from a thermophilic windrow will be applied hopefully by next week to the barley area and this will be followed by an application of vermicompost. Applications of solid compost will be followed by one or two soil drenches of coffee ground based vermicompost tea. The same approach will be used for the later spring planting. The McKinney block is rented from a neighboring farmer and it requires some work in terms of the soil foodweb. Finally, let’s hope we get more rain so that the microbes in the soil foodweb remain active over the winter.

    •The McKinney block and the orchard trees will require as many compost applications as possible this winter and we are hoping that the thermophilic compost windrows will finish composting under three months if we keep turning them consistently and if they remain moist. As mentioned in a previous blog, starting next week the chopped woody material used in the compost will be inoculated with mushrooms in order to speed decomposition of the woody component.

    •Since we need as much thermophilic compost as possible, a lot of time is spent measuring temperatures of the windrows (4 measurements are taken for each 25 feet of a windrow pile) followed by moisture measurements and turning. So far, vermicomposting continues under almost perfect conditions: the worms are not drowning because of heavy rains and the daytime/nighttime temperatures are almost perfect.

    •As described in a previous blog, some of the plants in the Winter garden were treated by Kristin and Marlene with mycorrhizal propagules. Mycorrhizae benefit plants by conveying water and nutrients (phosphorus, calcium aand nitrogen) to their roots. This is a healthy association especially in times of drought (in the past soil fungi were considered harmful to plants because very few fungi and molds had been but studied; it turns out that the majority of soil fungi are beneficial to plants). When some of the lettuce and fava bean roots were analyzed for mycorrhizal colonization, it turned out that no fungus was detected. It is possible that the soil contains too much phosphorus and this inhibits the growth of the mycorrhizal spores. We will keep monitoring the Winter garden plants for the presence of mycorrhizal colonization and , I guess, for the moment we will not grow any truffles at Frog Hollow (the delicious and highly prized fungi called truffles that grow around beech and oak trees).
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