Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is there such a thing as organic compost

A friend of mine wanted me to address a question she fielded one day: "Is there really such a thing as organic compost?"

There are two kinds of organic: one is biological, one is a fabricated label. The former refers to  the carbon content of a material, the latter refers to the  method and the level of chemicals used in the growing process.

In terms of the biological sense, ALL compost is organic. It is the accelerated biological process by which microbes physically break down the biologically organic aspects of a material. But, as all things are a mixture of organic compounds and inorganic compounds (water for example is inorganic---it has no carbon; a tree is made of carbon, water, nitrogen, and minerals) there are inorganic residues in all composts. In the industry, we use  a test called the "organic matter" test to determine what percentage of the finished product is organic, what percentage is inorganic (minerals, i.e., "soil"--in other words, little particles of sand silt and clay.) so for this reason, NO composts are completely organic.

Confused yet?

As for the other type of organic, the one subject to labels and laws, there are certainly many ways to achieve that level of certification. It is the same process by which you certify your tomatoes--know the origin of everything you put into it. That means verify the "organic-ness" of  the feed for the animals that contribute the manure, verify the carbon source. In extreme cases, insist that the chainsaws used to cut the tree branches use organic vegetable oils rather than petroleum based oils. There are some materials that are specifically banned in "organic" composts--biosolids mainly but also construction glues and paint.  You then have to document it and submit those documents to the certifying organization for approval.

I think the bigger question should be directed towards the quality of the compost. It is well documented that compost is an excellent bio-remediator. It is used to clean contaminated soil, it is used to increase the infiltration properties of soil, it is used to increase the bio-diversity of the topsoil layer. But that same remediation property also pertains to the materials that go into it. The  microbes present in the compost pile don't care if the carbon they are eating is a carbon from a certified organic tree or from petro-carbons (diesel fuel). If a pile is fully composted and cured and managed properly (the specifics of its ingredients were taken into account and the recipe tweaked accordingly) there will be every benefit to the soil, whether the initial ingredients were certified organic or not. By the same token, if a pile is built using only certified organic ingredients but mismanaged, not fully composted, nor cured, it could  prove temporarily detrimental to your over all project.

The decompostion of organic matter is going happen regardless of whether we want it to. Some areas of the world have the right environmental conditions to make this rapidly occur naturally. The southwest does not. Until we collectively reach a good balance of organic material in our soils, I think our time and energy should be spent correcting that imbalance. The semantics of whether it's organic can come later

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Rain Ruminations

So I got a little bit of rain last night at my house. It was all the things that rain in the desert are: cooling, aromatic, tempestuous. Rain in the desert is also strengthening, alleviating, and magical. Rain has some effect on us that opens the creative spirit. Of all the things rain in the desert may be, substantial it is not.

 I awoke thinking how unbelievable it is to me how many calls I get this time of year from people putting in lawns. I appreciate a small lawn for the kids to play on, or even one to create a comfortable place to entertain. But the calls I get aren’t for these types of lawns; a small lawn doesn’t cover 2500 square feet. I almost always bite my tongue and walk them through what I think they should do to maximize their efforts. But sometimes I lose it. When someone calls and says that they plant a lawn “every year and it always dies”, I lose it. I don’t think I’ve ever called a customer an idiot (out loud). I‘d like to think that I’ve changed a couple of minds through conversation. I’m pretty sure that after talking (what I call) sense, a customer has hung up and called me some harsh words. 

 One definition of insanity is doing the same thing repetitively while expecting different results. Another definition might well be planting a lawn in the desert without an irrigation system installed. Or planting sod over the shallow thirsty roots of a mulberry tree. Or planting seed but not keeping the dogs or the kids off it for a year. Or sowing seed and forgetting to water it. Or planting a lawn and later blaming everything else for its failure except the fact that THERE ISN’T ENOUGH WATER HERE TO SUSTAIN A LAWN!

I then got to thinking that there are so many environmental variables in this climate, that it surprises me we aren’t all insane. Consider what it takes to grow a tomato… sun, water, soil. That’s pretty much it. In the rest of the world, we provide the tomato, and nature provides the rest. Not here. Here, we have too much sun so we have to shade our tomatoes (the nursery tag says “full sun” because they were grown in Arkansas or California or some such),  or there’s not enough sun to ward off the late May  freezes ( I used to have neighbor who swore she “had snow here on the fourth of July). There is never enough water, but when it does rain, it comes with such force as to physically damage the plant. Our soils aren’t that bad, but everybody swears it’s the source of ills. I’ve heard “crappy Albuquerque sand”, and “that really compacted sandy dirt.” So they tinker with it, adding all sorts of non-sense until the whole web of micro-biota is sent out of whack. Then the accusations start flying. 

But I digress…

My favorite word is petrachor. Look it up. I’m fairly certain it’s a real word.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Chemical vs. Biological

Last week I attended the annual Organic Farmers Conference held at the Marriott Albuquerque Pyramid. The conference offers a chance for me to see and thank the many local farmers that support us year 'round. I always feel humbled when farmers who, in my eyes, are rock stars, go out of their way to thank us and tell us how much they appreciate what we are doing. There is always plenty of good coffee and amazing snacks. This year we had fresh local organic bread with local organic fruit jams and jellies. Someone at the NMDA likes us because their placement of our table always ensures high traffic volume. And, I always strike up a fast friendship with the occupants of adjacent tables. Over the years, lots of faces come and go, but there are those steady few that, year after year, plug away, doing what they love to do and, thus doing well. If you don't think your dollar spent at the farmer's markets is appreciated, I strongly suggest that you go to the conference next year and listen to their comments. everyone is grateful for the opportunity provide the community with fresh healthy food. This year I found myself in the middle of a conversation with the director of the Rio Grande Community Farm. He is quite the experimenter; I first became involved with them when he was implementing a large scale no-till program at the farm. He is currently researching the benefits of high quality compost tea. I have known intuitively and seen anecdotally, through my professional career and personal endeavors, the benefits of compost tea and compost extract. For those that don't know, a "tea" is a living, oxygenated brew of various ingredients, while an "extract" is not living, no longer oxygenated. One is a biological product, one is a chemical product. Most gardeners and farmers are concerned with the chemical makeup of the soil. Does it have sufficient nitrogen levels, what's the pH, EC? These are chemical questions that can be chemically addressed. Not to be confused necessarily with chemicals, but rather the chemistry of the soil make up. Very important, to be sure, but not the only aspect of soil health and, I would argue, not the most important. Organic farmers are, generally, more concerned with a healthy soil ("A healthy soil grows healthy plants") then are conventional farmers, but both are constantly analyzing, adjusting, and amending the chemical content of their soil. But when you talk of compost tea, you find that there is a strong biological aspect to the health of a crop. Each plant has a coating of protective microorganisms just as every human is covered with billions of germs. Each germ is keeping other germs in check. When our germ count is out of whack, we are sick. Same is true for the plants and soils. When we address biological issues with a chemical remedy, we find ourselves exacerbating the problem. "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly..." She eventually end up swallowing a horse? and who-knows-what-else? in order to ameliorate a simple fly problem! I read in a recent New Yorker that the scientific world is starting to map germs. They are finding that the intestines of humans have very specific populations of germs. When an anti-biotic is prescribed, that balanced population is thrown into turmoil and it often takes weeks or months to recover. If we use those examples and apply them to food crops, the same holds true: a broad application of a general pesticide kills more beneficial micro-organisms than detrimental ones. Destructive micro-organisms always seem to be more opportunistic; the sudden absence of beneficial micro-organisms allows them to reproduce rapidly thus exacerbating the problem...