[Author’s note: I am borrowing the Dear Ma format from my personal blog site letters2ma.com and adapting it to the farm site. Henceforth, since I don’t have time to write blogs, I will post letters to Ma.]
I wrote this at the end of winter, but now it’s almost the end of summer. Time flies when it has wings and there are not enough hours in a 24-hour day. Winter and now summer was mostly about the chickens, but not all about the chickens. It was also about vegetables. And trees. And compost.
We realized last year that we did not have enough compost. Our vegetable crops are dependent on compost. It’s what our plants eat. Indirectly, it’s what we eat. Compost can’t be made--at least not without some innovation--in the winter because the microorganisms that do the work can’t function at cold temperatures because they don't have gloves and jackets, but compost piles can be made. And we made many. The contents of the piles remained frozen and idle until late spring, when the composting process began.
Compost starts with materials. Higher-carbon stuff like dried leaves, which I collected from curbsides at every opportunity last fall. I probably collected more leaves in October and November than most of you have raked and bagged in a decade. We also use wood chips as a carbon source. Wood chips are more plentiful, but they take a longer to decompose.
We layer the leaves or wood chips with high-nitrogen materials like vegetable scraps (known to some as vegetable treasure) and coffee grounds. Animal manure is a nitrogen source as well, but we don’t have as much of that. Yet. Acquisition of high-nitrogen components takes a little work, but I am cultivating sources. The produce manager at a local grocery store let’s me take its waste vegetables. I pick up at least five times a week, and boxes weigh 25-50 pounds. I also collect buckets of coffee grounds from four coffee shops and one restaurant. We divert 500 to 700 pounds of food waste from landfill each week. That's more than a ton every month. And that’s a tiny fraction of what’s available.
Once the loaded compost pile warms up, bacteria and fungi digest the
materials. In many of our piles, composting worms hasten and finish the process. In the process of digesting waste materials the worms produce--yes, by pooping--a high-value fertilizer. If you have never smelled worm castings you should try it some time. It’s the smell of rich vital soil.
Is it weird to covet that which other people throw out? Well, not as weird as coveting worm poop. But changing waste to resource is also logical, at least if we believe our resources are finite. There is satisfaction in taking even a little part of a badly broken food system and making something good of it. Yes, I mean the food system where bananas and oranges and lettuce and melons journey from the far reaches of the earth only to be disqualified from human consumption by the slightest blemish, then tossed unceremoniously into the dumpster, then moved to the landfill, where they turn to methane gas, which makes me imagine one great big giant fart.
Learning to see resources where none seem to exist may also be good practice. For what? Who knows? History tells us that times of excess always end, or at least they always have so far. Considering the rate at which we waste things--food, water, medicine, fuel--why would we not expect shortages? It’s easy not to think about it, but practicing for the possibility is not as hard as you might think, and some of us oddballs even think it's fun.
Our composting operation is but one example of what a speaker at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Conference called mutualism--systems of sharing between of organisms for the mutual benefit of each. “What mutualism exists on your farms?” she asked. It did not take long to come up with examples.
Chickens provide meat, eggs and manure in exchange for food, habitat and protection from predators.
Mushrooms--food in exchange for food and habitat.
Worms--fertilizer (castings) in exchange for food and habitat.
Worms--food source for chickens.
Humans--wood chips (compost substrate) for free waste disposal.
Humans--waste vegetables and fruit (compost substrate) in exchange for free waste disposal.
Humans--coffee grounds (compost substrate) in exchange for free waste disposal.
Trees and plants--food for people and animals and improve the soil.
Trees and plants--food for beneficial insects, which pollinate the trees and plants and provide pest control.
Humans--income, labor, social interaction in exchange for food and income.
I remember a time when we didn’t quite know the purpose of this farm. Hard to believe that was just three years ago. I suppose in the course of raising plants and animals and healing an ailing lang that it is really mutualism we cultivate. It would not have to be that way, but I like that it is so.
Hope you are well.
Farm Son Steve