Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Dirty Side of Things

Now that I have shocked you with my Post regarding "Scat", I thought I would move right on into the really dirty side of things.  As a Natural Gardener, I would say Organic, but by law I am not allowed to say that my produce is Organic because I am not Certified Organic.  Does that make any sense?  I follow Organic practices, but can only call my produce Naturally Grown.  That is what happens when you get Government involved in things, then we don't understand what we are talking about.  Anyway, as a Natural Gardener, I believe that the best way to have great produce is to feed the soil and then let the soil feed the plant.  That is about as far away as you can get from conventional farming.  Conventional farmers will just use as much chemical fertilizer as possible and try to feed the plant directly and bypass taking care of the soil.  I could really get on my soap box regarding these differences, but that would greatly de-rail this story, so I will refrain for now.

One of the greatest things I can do for my soil is to add compost.  Compost can be made of various different things.  Most people think of a compost pile or bin that they have in their backyard, and then they add grass clippings, shrub and tree trimmings, old vegetation that has been pulled up at the end of a growing season, and food scraps.  This is a great product once it has rotted down and turned into something amazing.  Pretty much all you need to do is turn it occasionally and water it every so often.  Slowly it will turn into something wonderful that smells like rich soil.  This is the easy side of compost, and everyone should have one of these.  If managed correctly, they do not smell and they do not attract flies.  There are wonderful books available at the CrossRoad Farm Store, located at the bottom of this page, or I am certain that you can find articles available for free on the Internet.  Basically the rule is:  Don't add dairy or meat.  Those two items will cause it to smell and will attract animals to the pile.  Then once it has rotted down sufficiently, the final product can be used to prepare beds with or you can even use it as a mulch that will have added benefits.

Now if that is the easy side of compost, then there has to be a hard side of compost, and there definitely is.  It comes when you decide to use manure in your compost.  You can use various different kinds of manure, and generally cow manure is the best to use, but for the black, clay soil that we live in, horse manure is actually more beneficial to the soil.  That is a very good thing to know since I have an abundance of that natural product.  It seems that for every time you feed your horses, they give you back about the same quantity in manure.  It is a vicious cycle that we live in.  Of course it is mixed with pine shavings, and you end up with a pile like this:

Now I have two options when it comes to dealing with this pile.

1. I can leave this alone and let it sit for a year, and then it will be sufficiently cooked down and in a form that is safe to use in my garden.

2. I can turn it, add sugar (in various forms), water it and cook it faster.

The goal with composting manure is to heat it to the point that you kill any pathogens that may be present, and that it kills most weed seeds.  Remember the recall we had on Baby Spinach a few years ago.  The spinach was fertilized with manure that was not properly handled, and on top of that their facilities for washing the spinach before packaging were not adequate.  The latter bit of information was not public knowledge, but I happen to have an inside track into the Food Manufacturing Industry that shared the fact that he had been to tour one of these facilities, and while they were washing the spinach, they were using the same water over and over again.  We should all be washing our produce, even if it is packaged as pre-washed.  You may also remember the recall we had on tomatoes that were contaminated with ecoli?  They couldn't figure out if it was the tomatoes or the jalapenos, but I think they were linking it to salsa that was made somewhere?  The same situation took place there, the manure used to fertilize those crops was not handled properly.  So, you can see why I think it is important to get this part right. 

The National Organic Program (NOP) states that you have to have a carbon/nitrogen ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1, temperatures between 131 degrees F and 170 degrees F must be sustained for 3 days using an in-vessel or static aerated pile system, or temperatures between 131 degrees F and 170 degrees F must be sustained for 15 days using a windrow composting system, during which period the materials must be turned a minimum of five times.

Now that's specific.

Now what I find even more interesting is that the NOP also states that uncomposted animal manure may be applied 90 days prior to harvest for crops whose edible portions do not come in contact with the soil, and 120 days prior to harvest of crops whose edible portions do come in contact with the soil.  I am not sure how that is possible?  I mean, what happens to the possible pathogens and weed seeds in the absence of the heat? 

The other thing that has me confused is that I have had a pile of manure sitting since the end of May, I turned it twice, and then added it to my new garden area in the beginning of September.  That Manure was 90 days old at that time.  Does that qualify as the 90 days prior to harvest for crops whose edible portions do not touch the ground?  Better yet, find someone that you can ask that question to.  I have decided to forgo risking that it is ready, and I have decided to change my plans and only plant a cover crop there, and then plant this area in the spring.

The fact that I am trying to figure out how to best manage the rest of my manure pile, has put a damper on the progress of my expansions and the progress of my fall plantings.  In my desperation to figure this all out, I made a call to the King of Compost, Malcolm Beck, of The Garden-Ville Method (Lessons in Nature), he is touted as one of the most knowledgeable people on organics in the country and he is located in San Antonio, Texas.  I probably didn't talk to the man himself, but the nice gentleman that answered the phone was very helpful.  Garden-ville products are readily available at most garden centers in their organic sections.  The guy said to add sugar, that could be in many different forms, like dried molasses, liquid molasses, regular sugar, flat soda, you name it.  Apparently the microbes needed to heat up a pile of manure are sugar addicts like me.  He also said to add water, and turn it once a week, then it should be ready in about a month.  I have added dried molasses and turned this separate pile twice, I have also been checking the temperatures, and they started at 94 degrees F, and went up to 154 degrees F.  Slowly the temperatures have come back down, and when I checked it this morning, it looked like this:

The temperature was 132 degrees F, and if you notice the pile is a little darker in color, and no that is not because I have added molasses, it is also about 2/3 its original size, which is an indication that it is cooking down.  I am 2 and a half weeks into this pile, and we will see if it is ready in a month.  The best indication that a compost pile is ready, is when the components of the pile are no longer identifiable.

This is my explanation for the delay in my fall plans and for the beds that I hadn't prepared properly.  I really feel like I have to get this step right before I can proceed.  My plan is that one day, when I grow up, I can have an efficient way of managing my daily manure collection and turning it into a valuable resource for my soil, all within a reasonable amount of time.  The added benefits to this plan are that I won't have a huge pile of manure hanging around, and I will be able to take advantage of huge economic savings due to the cost of buying ready made compost.  Not to mention that I will end up with a great set of arms and abs.  I do all of this turning manually and let me tell you it is a workout. 

Oh, wait! 

I know! 

I will add personal trainer to my list of job titles, and people will pay me to turn my manure pile! 

As funny as it sounds, there is a group of people somewhere in this world that would definitely sign up.

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