Friday, December 17, 2010

This shit is looking more and more like gold...

This article from The Atlantic caught my eye the other day, and I just had to share it. Anything called 'Why Farmers are Flocking to Manure' is sure to catch my eye... Gene Logsdon, who wrote the article says:

Fertilizer machines reporting for doodie...
"In 2009, with no assurance that grain prices would be high enough to cover the high cost of manufactured fertilizers, farmers lined up at animal confinement operations willing to fork over good hard cash for the manure, since it seems to be cheaper (depending on how you jigger the figures) than commercial fertilizers for farms close by."

He even describes how a friend of his is considering starting a cattle operation next to his corn/soy fields just so he can have access to the manure produced there.

Microbe-inoculated organic fertilizer!
What this article shows me is that farmers are starting to really want alternatives to chemical fertilizers. While the move to source manure from CAFOs is not my favorite, I do see it as a perceptual step in the right direction. Now, if we can get farmers to recognize that the real valuable stuff will be the fully composted form of that manure, we are on the right track. Heck, even better, if we can get farmers to realize that giving their fields a period of rest, wherein they are holisitically grazed, they can cut out the whole process of buying/producing and then applying the manure to the fields.

Does this sound to anyone else like a step toward the good-old-days when farms integrated multiple species of animals into the farm both as a cash crop and as a system of resource generation? Personally, I like it. Turnin shit to gold...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Not all Compost is created Equal

I received some good feedback from my post about compost tea, so I decided to do a similar informational post about compost...

Not all compost is created equal. I find myself, much to my surprise, spending lots of time explaining to people that 'compost' is not a blanket term for a single thing. Some compost is good, and some compost is bad, depending on what you are trying to do with it. Let me start out by defining what I mean by compost.

Since compost is no more than organic matter, and the microbes that devour it, the quality of a compost can be measured through the same lens. As far as inputs go, while the end product will differ based on the inputs, equally important is the way the compost is managed during the break-down process. Those organisms we want in our composts, our soils, and in relation with our plants are almost entirely 'aerobic,' meaning 'oxygen-breathing.' Just like us, beneficial microbes generally need oxygen to survive. What this means for compost is that I will want to keep my pile aerobic for as much of the process as possible. The general threshold for aerobic organisms is about 6% dissolve oxygen (DO), or 6 parts per million (ppm). When our piles drop below 6% DO, which they do as a result of the aerobic organisms using up all the available O2, the 'anaerobic,' of non-oxygen-breathing organisms wake up. These are the microbes that make our piles stinky (which by the way, is no more than our vital plant nutrients like nitrogen being volatilized out of the compost and blowing away in the wind), and they are the organisms that can give us and our plants diseases.

Compost can be made in a variety of ways.
-The most familiar is the thermal compost process, in which we make a pile of organic matter, it heats up due to microbial activity, and the materials break down and are consumed/transformed by the microbes.

Thermal Composting
-The most practiced is probably the cold-pile process, wherein a person continues to add materials (like food scraps, lawn waste, etc) to the top of the compost pile, and then leaves it to it's business. The microbes break down this material without as much ferocity and vigor, so it is a slower process, and generally, the oxygen levels deep in the pile are below our aerobic threshold.

-A third familiar practice is called vermi- or worm-composting. In this practice, a community of red worms (aka Eisenia fetida) are responsible for consuming the material, and transforming it into worm-castings. This method produces a fairly consistent product, mostly aerobic, and is also a cold-process.

Fungal Composting - about halfway done
-One method gaining popularity is a cold-process for creating fungal compost. This method involves assembling a large amount of high-carbon material (woodchips, straw, etc) in a shallow, but broad pile, inoculating it with a compost or humus known to have a high fungal diversity, and covering the pile with a breathable material like cardboard or compost fabric. This method produces a highly fungal compost, is a cold process, and takes as much as 2-3 years to make the final product.

And those are just the most popular ways to make this stuff. Maybe you can start to see how one name just isn't adequate for all these different products...

Now, most of the time, when we talk about compost in agriculture, we are talking about Thermal Compost. The interesting thing about thermal compost is that it is an intensively fast breakdown of the organic material provided, so to keep it aerobic requires a fair amount of monitoring and input. Most commercial compost operations just make big piles and leave them for 30 days until they turn them. This means that in the center of those piles, where air isn't able to easily penetrate, the material is spending a large portion of those thirty days below the aerobic threshold, so the organisms being bred are the anaerobic ones. This can lead to some unhealthy consequences... for example, one of my area's main compost producers actually had one of their piles spontaneously combust last summer. This is what happens when the anaerobic organisms, who can produce byproducts like methane, alcohol, and formaldehyde in their process of decomposition, are left unchecked. Once these systems reach a high enough temperature, those anaerobic byproducts ignite.

I consider it safe to say that I don't want alcohol-producing organisms to be sharing the soil with my food... and as a result, I don't feel okay about putting composts in my garden that come from questionable sources.

So how does one find a genuinely 'good' compost? Here are my 3 rules to live by when it comes to selecting a compost for yourself:

1) Compost should smell good. Healthy soil organisms produce byproducts like water and CO2. Their shit don't stink, and it'll help my plants grow. A good compost smells like rich earth.

2) Compost should be the color of 70% dark chocolate. If you don't know what color that is, go buy a bar and check it out before you eat it. Its not true that darker compost is better compost. High heat, by means of anaerobic decomposition, can actually burn compost, turning it black.

3) Compost producers should know a lot about their compost. A good compost producer will be able to tell you just what goes into their compost, and in what proportions. They also will have data to show you proving, via some third party, that they have a quality product. Chemical testing is good, residue testing is better, and biological testing is best.

Following those rules, while making it a little more challenging to find the right source, has made the difference for my garden, and it can do the same for yours.

Don't be fooled. Not all compost is created equal. Until we catch up with countries like Germany, where there are actually certification bodies for composts, we consumers have to do the research ourselves. The quality of your compost will contribute to the quality of your soil, and none of us want unhealthy soil, so why buy unhealthy compost?

Hope this post has been helpful to anyone looking for information on this topic. Please leave me a comment if you have any further questions or comments!

Friday, December 3, 2010

S 510 and you. What does food safety modernization mean?

So some big news from this past week, the US Senate approved a bill called the Food Safety Modernization Act. That's right, our government, while being stymied by the childish insistence of the GOP to reinstate the Bush-era taxcuts for businesses over $200,000, has actually done something! The Senate voted 73 to 25 to approve of S 510 this past week, a major move in the food industry. I know this may come as a bit of a shock, but I'm totally thrilled! Yippee! I'm excited about something the government has done in the food industry!

Basically, the bill gives the FDA more power over assessing and controlling the safety standards of our foods. Should the bill pass all the way through, the FDA will have the power to force food recalls on private companies, instead of waiting for the producer to do it themselves. Based on how much I trust our nation's biggest industrial food producers (see my post on the recent nationwide egg recall), I am completely in support of letting the government impose safety regulations on these folk, make them write out full safety plans, and inspect their facilities more than once (if that) per year!

There has been significant outcry against this bill. As a matter of fact, I myself called up my congresspeople to express my concern that this bill could be potentially devastating to my small local farmers, farmer's markets, roadside stands, etc. Much to my delight, there is a provision in the bill that says that these rules and restrictions only apply to producers who have more than $500,000 in sales every year. Here is a direct excerpt from the text of the bill showing this.

Somehow, I still hear conservative pundits claiming that S 510 is in essence, the government taking control of our food. The way I see it, S 510 is a great motivator for small local farmers. Doesn't seem a little like a food-system that supports the small, local farmer/producer is actually a way to encourage us to take our food back into our own hands?

Our Nation's history does not demonstrate that the markets are very good at regulating food safety. Again, I refer to Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, and while I'm on the topic of history, lets consider that the FDA, officially founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, was specifically focused on food producers who were providing 'adulterated' food (meaning things like they used dye to make the meat look fresher, they used fillers to increase the weight of their products, and they used "filthy, decomposed, or putrid substances" in their products). Reading this out of context, one might think, 'Gee, its great that we've come so far since then,' when in reality, the only things that have changed are the names. Today, our food is 'adulterated' by E. Coli (which lives in chicken shit), and excessive amounts of rBGH (aka chemically induced overproduction).

I say its about time someone stepped in to ensure that our food is safe, and that we can comfortably call it 'food.' In response to those who are crying out that the government is taking control of our food, I say I'd rather have the feds in charge than the producers. I trust my government more than I trust the market. Or is there even any difference nowadays anyway?

However, amidst all the celebrating, leave it to the government to mess it up. Apparently, the Senate made some changes to the bill that would add some taxes somewhere, and constitutionally, only the House is allowed to write taxes into bills. Sadly, S 510 is going to have to run its course again. Maybe it'll make it through twice, who knows...

In conclusion, I recommend that we, as eaters, keep ourselves informed about this bill. There is a lot of uproar about this bill, and I'm not completely sold on it just yet. There is a part of me that is concerned about certain parts of the bill, like where it says that the feds have the right to impose martial law on an area where there has been some kind of contamination and where they perceive a risk that the contaminant might spread... and of course, the conspiracy theorists are having a ball with all of the Orwelian implications that can be inferred from this bill.

Fortunately for me, I will be able to continue buying fresh, local, organic food with or without this bill. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled and my fingers crossed for the rest of us.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What is Compost Tea anyway?

I get asked this question a lot. So much in fact, that I hesitate to even use the term 'compost tea' because everyone's understanding of what this is seems to be different. Often times nowadays I'll talk about 'compost extract' of 'actively aerated compost extract,' just to avoid the confusion that comes whenever I say 'compost tea.' In my experience, people have told me that compost tea is anything from a burlap sack filled with horse-poo steeped in water for three days in a closed container, to the smelly liquid that seeps out the bottom of your compost or worm bins. These definitions make me cringe. It feels to me like someone saying that making bread is no more than some flour and water. Similarly, the reductionist understanding of compost tea often leads people who might be expecting a 'loaf of bread' to be disappointed by the tasteless lump of dough they pulled out of the oven.
A slight dated photo of me next to my compost tea brewer

In my search for how to amend this, I went to the source (or at least the most popular source of relevant information in today's modern age), Wikipedia. According to the general masses:

"Compost tea is a liquid solution or suspension made by steeping compost in water. It is used as both a fertilizer and in attempts to prevent plant diseases.[15] The liquid is applied as a spray to non-edible plant parts, or as a soil-drench (root dip), such as seedlings, or as a surface spray to reduce incidence of harmful phytopathogenic fungi in the phyllosphere.[16] "

While this definition certainly seems to reflect the general attitude, it is a big source of frustration for me. The very most basic premise is spot-on. Compost tea is a combination of compost and water, and yet it is really so much more.

Compost Tea Equipment from my company BioLogic Systems
What irks me about this definition is the lack of recognition that compost is much more than a fertilizer. In so many ways, we are still approaching farming and gardening from a very conventional NPK perspective. I will often see compost branded as a fertilizer, and while it is true that compost does have a nutritive chemical component, that chemistry is all a result of, and dependent on, the microbiology that really makes compost what it is.

My own definition of compost is: "Organic matter, and the microorganisms that eat it." I find this to be a simple and accurate description of what compost really is, and why it is so important. As an example, one teaspoon of healthy compost will contain around 33,000 different species of bacteria and fungi. That isn't even counting how many of each species there are... Without the microbes, nothing would compost. The process of composting is almost entirely a biological process, not a chemical one, and though there are certainly chemical reactions happening within a compost pile, most of those take place in the guts of microorganisms.

Therefore, compost tea is much less a fertilizer, and much more a biological inoculant. I recently spoke with a agricultural extension agent who told me that the farmers using biological inoculants are a fringe group within organic farmers. I asked him how many farmers use compost, to which he replied that most, if not all of them do. I didn't dare correct him in the moment, but in my mind I was shouting "That means everyone uses bio-inoculants!"

A photo (through a microscope) of my own Compost Tea
So, in my efforts to dispel the myth that compost is an inert fertilizer, similar in some way to the synthetically produced fertilizers we all know and love, here is my definition of compost tea:

"Compost tea is a liquid suspension of compost-dwelling microorganisms, the organic matter on which they feed, sometimes with the addition of specific ingredients to further feed those microorganisms. The liquid is actively aerated (brewed) until the organisms have reached a peak in their population levels at which time the liquid is applied foliarly and as a root drench for plants."

While it may be true that my definition is not necessarily better than wikipedia's, it feels to me to be more accurate. It is one of my deeply held beliefs that if we can start to recognize the living nature of our compost, compost teas, and soils, we would change the way we manage land, grow food, and treat our soil.

More information on this topic in a recent post of mine about resources!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Healthy GMO Debate

photo courtesy of
This week, is hosting a debate around GMO plants. The debate is around the statement that

"This house believes that biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary, not contradictory." 

 The invitation is to either agree or disagree with this statement. The opposing sides are being led by Pamela Ronald, Plant Pathology prof at UC Davis (representing the 'defending the statement' side) and Charles Benbrook, chief scientist for the Organic Center (representing the 'against the motion' side).

The debate is open all the way till friday, and there is space for anyone to participate. This is a hot topic these days, considerably more so in light of the recent ordeal with 'roundup ready' sugar beets. Interestingly, the majority opinion has been moving back and forth a bit, starting out with almost 80% of people agreeing with the motion that biotech and sustainable agriculture are complimentary. Soon after, the opinion swayed and 60% of participants disagreed. Today it seems to be balancing out a little more.

I thought I might take the opportunity to add my 2 cents.

Recognizing that we, as a species, have been modifying the genetics of plants for thousands of years to our benefit, it seems like this next step may be just that, another step in the evolution of our relationship with plants. We have long selected the seeds from our crops that bear the healthiest, biggest products, and replanted them. This has long been the way for us to manipulate the plants we grow to better serve us as people.

Here is where I get to my stance on the issue. This is also where I see a crucial distinction in the debate. Biotechnology has for a long time served us. Currently, the way we use biotech has made me question who the manipulation really serves.

Possibly our most famous BioTech company is Monsanto, who has given us such wonder-substances as DDT (see Silent Spring), rGBH, terminator seeds, 'RoundUp' (and the gmo plants to withstand the toxic effects of it), and more.

My question, or rather my contention here is about what biotech has become for agriculture. It seems to me that instead of engineering plants that are higher yielding, healthier, and support the farmers, they are creating ways to contribute to Monsanto's net income.

Terminator seeds, while protecting against the risk of the modified genes from spreading (which clearly hasn't worked all that well considering the amount of farmers being sued for having their crops pollinated by GMO plants), also creates a dependence on a single source for farmer's seeds. They've taken away the ability for farmers to inexpensively produce their own genetic stock for the following year.

The recent fiasco around sugar beets was specific to the Monsanto brand of 'roundup ready' seeds. These plants have been engineered to be able to withstand fatal levels of the herbicides glyphosate (aka RoundUp). What strikes me here is that farmers a) have to buy the seeds from the company, b) then have to buy the herbicide from the company as well, and c) since weeds are evolving resistances to this poison, farmers have to be continually applying more and more of this chemical to their lands. This seems suspiciously to me like a way to create a dependence on a company... especially considering the amount of farmers who are in debt to Monsanto, and who likely won't be able to pay off that debt in their lifetimes.

My basic point here is that biotech has been around for a long time. It is a TOOL we have used as a species to support our continued subsistence on this earth. Just like any tool, biotech can be used in ways that benefit the most people, or in ways that are destructive to some and highly beneficial to a choice few. The way we are using biotech today is in support of a petroleum-dependent form of agriculture which is not only unsustainable, but is already (after about 50 years) showing diminishing returns. Pests and weeds are developing resistances to the chemicals, yields aren't what they used to be, costs of chemicals are generally rising, and the food produced is shown to be inferior in taste and nutrition.

Biotech today is contradictory to sustainable agriculture. As long as the focus of biotech is on supporting the current chemical-based land management paradigm, it will continue to contradict a model of agriculture that would genuinely sustain us for generations to come.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A little political... WA Chooses Soda over Health and Education

A highlight this year for me was the implementation of a tax here in Washington State on soda and candy. As far as unhealthy items of consumption go, soda and candy are major contributors to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other major (and costly) concerns for which we taxpayers often foot the bill. The proposal to tax those items (by roughly $.02 per can of soda) would have generated an estimated $107 million in the first year to go to health and education programs (or at least to prevent budget cuts in health and education).

[Creative Commons photo by Kevin Wong]
Today I've been reminded of the massive power that 'Big Food' wields. The American Beverage Association (which represents the Soda industry) spent $17 million dollars to squelch this tax. They paid for the signatures to be collected to get the measure on the ballot, they spent millions of dollars in advertisements making it seem like this tax would put people out of jobs, threaten our farmers (what? and just how many sodas use any fruit?), and be unfair to tax this food and not others. Hold on, did they say food? Really? So to be clear, a bottle containing water, corn syrup, and flavorings qualifies as food? Now I know my perception on food might be a little swayed thanks to Michael Pollan, but really? Soda and candy are food? A substance that 7 PhDs and MDs recently stated in the New England Journal of Medicine is significantly contributing to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (download the full pdf here) is a FOOD!? I'm not even sure if I should be writing about this topic, since in my estimation, these substances fall more under the 'drugs and other intoxicating substances that somehow in a very abstract way resemble food' category.

So, based on millions of dollars in corporate spending, Washington state's voters have decided to repeal this tax. The fat cats of big soda and big candy are patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves not only for defeating a meager tax which would have done way more good than ill, but for something else as well. Following the footsteps of the other mega-players in the food industry, Big Soda has now also established that they are willing to spend whatever it takes to keep their profit margins the highest, even if it means contributing to a national health epidemic. Once again has the monetary influence of large corporations proving that they actually wield the power in our country. Even on a measure that would give opportunities to our children and our sick, they have the ability to convince the masses into seeing things their way, even if it is through manipulative half-truths or outright 'pants-on-fire' false statements.

Blech. This post leaves a bad, sugary, HFCS taste in my mouth, but then again, so do many of the results of yesterday's voting.

I hope that this can become a cause for people to rally around, to recognize what corporations are doing to manipulate our perspectives and beliefs in order to advance their own quarterly profits. THEY DON'T CARE ABOUT US! So lets stop caring about them and their propaganda. Lets start listening to our doctors and scientists, and stop listening to the multi-billion dollar industry spokespeople. Please?

Friday, October 29, 2010