Compost Happens at Someday Farm

By Maria Buteux Reade / First appeared in Edible Green Mountains March 2014

This piece won the 2015 Eddy Award for “Best Farm/Garden Writing,” a national contest.

It’s early March and I’m working in the greenhouse, surrounded by thousands of tender plants. The rich dark soil and lime-green seedlings contrast starkly with the white snow piled up against the plastic walls. A fire crackles in the woodstove, helping to warm this enormous space. Outside the temperature is 18°; in here, a tropical 75. Who needs the Caribbean?

After a winter of wearing mittens during the twice-daily round of chores, my hands are back in soil, the antithesis of snow. Already my fingernails are lined with the familiar brown. We have been seeding these beds since mid-February, marking the official start of the 2014 growing season here at Someday Farm in East Dorset.

Well, that’s not actually true. The season began last summer as I tended my long windrows of compost, adding new material each week and turning them with the tractor bucket. In early November, I brought several dump truck loads of finished compost into the greenhouse, where it sat patiently through the winter months. It froze, it thawed, and now that compost has kick-started the new season. Spinach, kale, chard and mesclun greens thrive in the back half of the 124-foot-long greenhouse, protected from the cruel vagaries of a New England spring. Baby carrots and beets are underway in another greenhouse.

Someday Farm functions as a closed loop system, which means we produce and recycle the vast majority of our farm inputs and residuals. We do order seeds every January, but we do not buy soil or amendments. All of our plants grow in the compost I make.

So how did an English teacher/administrator wind up as a farmer/composter? Last June, I stepped away from a 27-year career at a boarding school and moved north to my home in southern Vermont. I became a working partner at Scout Proft’s Someday Farm. Scout and I share the same energy and values. I now manage the compost operation in addition to helping with, well, everything else. I had volunteered for several years at farms around Vermont, doing whatever the farmers needed: seeding, transplanting, bed preparation, harvesting, you name it. The practical experience lured me out of my office and into the fields.

Then in 2008, I learned to drive a tractor. And that changed my life. Soon I was moving earth with either a plow or my tractor bucket. One farmer tasked me with turning an enormous mountain of compost. I spent a day shifting that material, which gave me opportunity to reflect on its nature. Here’s a bit of what I have learned since that fateful October day.

So what is compost?

I’ve always been struck that compost has the same origin as the French word compote, which means mixture. Envisioning fruit compote, I blend various ingredients into my 100-foot piles. Compost is a mixture of decomposed organic matter, broken down by the trio of microbes, oxygen and time. The end product returns fertility to the garden and improves the soil’s tilth, or its structure and ability to both hold and shed moisture. Compost also suppresses plant diseases and pests, eliminates the dependence on chemical fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides, and reduces storm water runoff and erosion. Healthy soil should be able to absorb water.

Like compost, soil should be rich and brown, with a crumbly moist texture and a pleasant earthy smell. Alive soil looks appealing; dead soil is dry, lifeless, dusty, pale, with a texture that is either compacted or unable to hold together. Dead soil looks depleted but can be revived over time with compost.

At Someday Farm, we always feed the soil. Every time we plant in the gardens, fields or greenhouses, we add compost to replenish the nutrients that the previous crop consumed.

Why should I compost?

Some 30% to 40% of the food we buy ends up in the landfill. A typical household wastes about 475 pounds of food each year. That same food could be composted, recycled or fed to animals. Composting helps reduce the pressure on landfills and reclaims nutrients that would otherwise be wasted. When my husband, Ned, and I started composting 25 years ago, we reduced our household waste significantly. We could go the entire summer and fill maybe two plastic garbage bags. Now, with improved recycling initiatives, our trash has decreased even more.

Vermont has enacted Act 148, a universal recycling law that mandates the diversion of organic wastes and recyclable materials from ending up in landfills. By 2020, all food scraps, leaf and yard debris, and recyclables from households and institutions alike must be diverted to a certified facility that will compost or process them. This initiative takes bold steps to educate our citizens and protect our natural resources.

Compost is nature’s way of recycling. From the earth, back to the earth. Or as one of my students marveled, “So these salad greens I’m putting in the compost pile will become soil?” Yup. Salad to soil to salad.

Is compost stinky or messy?

Only if you mismanage the materials. There’s a world of difference between compost, which should ultimately have a pleasant aroma and a crumbly texture, and toxic sludge, which is sloppy, gloppy and smelly. Finished compost beckons whereas toxic sludge repels. Sludge generally results from too many wet kitchen scraps and not enough absorbent material such as dried leaves or dried grass clippings, sawdust or shredded newspaper. The good news is that you can remedy wet smelly material by balancing it out with some of the dry elements just listed.

What are the most important factors?

Achieving the proper balance of materials for efficient breakdown, managing moisture, paying attention to temperature and aerating the pile through structure and turning. Active decomposition occurs in those small porous spaces where material, moisture and oxygen meet. That activity generates heat, which kills potential pathogens and weed seeds. Treat compost like a living product and make sure it breathes.

Finished compost should have the moisture of a damp—not wet—sponge. Do the squeeze test: Grab a handful of compost and squeeze your hand around it. If it holds its shape and leaves a trace of dampness on your palm, you have the right moisture content. If it clumps up and liquid trickles through your fingers, it’s too wet. If it doesn’t hold together, too dry.
You know your pile is hot enough when you open a small hole and recoil when your hand reaches the core. That’s when you learn what 130° to 150° feels like, the temperature that begins to kill pathogens and weed seeds.

Turning depends on the type of pile and how you manage it. I usually advise using your senses. Does the pile look overly dry or wet? What did the squeeze test reveal? Is there an unpleasant odor of ammonia? Reach for the pitchfork or pointed garden spade and work the ingredients. Some people like to turn their pile on a schedule. Others prefer to let nature take its slower course. Find an approach that best fits your style: obsessive, observant or laissez faire.

The blending stimulates further breakdown, allowing air and moisture to work their magic on the ingredients. When you turn your pile, you should see worm or bug activity. Sadly, you won’t see the true heroes, those hungry bacteria and mycelia (thread-like members of the fungi family) that help decompose the organic compounds in your compost.

Basically, use your senses: eyes, smell, touch. Taste? That’s up to you.

Explain “browns and greens.”

In composting lingo, “brown” refers to carbonaceous material and “green” to nitrogenous. Carbon and nitrogen, along with oxygen and moisture, are the key elements in compost. Think of carbon as the fuel and nitrogen as the fire. Together, they “combust.” Therefore compost needs more browns than greens. The ratio is three parts brown/carbon to one part green/nitrogen. Use whatever units of measure you have available: five-gallon pail, tractor bucket, shovel. For example, three pails of brown components should accompany one pail of green.

Common carbon materials include dried leaves, sawdust, dried grass clippings, hay or straw, shredded paper or cardboard, aged horse or cow manure. Common nitrogen materials include kitchen or food scraps, coffee grounds (despite their brown color…), fresh grass clippings and garden trimmings, fresh cow or chicken manure.

If your pile appears too dry? Too much brown. Too wet or smells of ammonia? Too much green. Balance out with the proper ratio of the other component.

Any tips for storing kitchen compostables?

Most people keep a small covered container on the counter. Lining the lid with newspaper helps deter fruit flies and gnats from entering the bin. Another trick is to keep a stock of mulched dry leaves, dried grass clippings, sawdust or finished compost next to your pile outside and layer that over the incoming materials. This step caps the pile and adds crucial browns.

Does it matter how I construct my pile?

Time for the cooking metaphor: Think lasagna! Carefully layering the materials allows for ventilation and maintains the optimum moisture content. Alternate layers of browns (absorbent) with greens (moist). Always start with an absorbent bottom layer, such as straw, wood shavings, sawdust or animal bedding. Leaves don’t work well as a base because they mat more than absorb. Consider how much moisture your green materials will release as they decompose. That liquid will leach into the layers below. Your top layer should be straw/hay, dried leaves, sawdust, shavings, animal bedding. Once you start to turn your pile, anywhere from 10 to 14 days, you will lose your lasagna effect.

Can i add animal manure?

Of course. That’s a bonus element because animal manure contains both nitrogen (the excrement) and carbon (the bedding—shavings, sawdust, hay or straw). Animal manure contributes digestive enzymes and bacteria that heat up a pile. I would avoid adding manure from house pets and stick to chicken, rabbit, pig, cow and horse. That being said, human urine is garnering attention as a potential source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro is doing extensive testing of this omnipresent resource. The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins also offers worthwhile insight.

How long until I have a finished batch?

Compost can take from six months to a year to be finished. It all depends on the materials, their particle size, the heat of your pile and how often you turn it. Finished compost can still contain some clumps because those chunks will break down as they feed the soil.

How much compost should I add to my garden, and how often?

Spread a few inches on top of your garden beds in early spring. You can leave it on top because it acts as a mulch layer and deters weed seed germination. Or you can fork or till it into the soil. Then at the end of the growing season in fall, you should add another load so it has all winter to work into the soil and replace the nutrients that went into the summer plants.

Any suggested readings or resources?

The Internet is filled with websites on composting. Just Google your question and you will find a plethora of information. In terms of books, try Let It Rot—The Gardener’s Guide to Composting by Stu Campbell, Holy Shit—Managing Manure to Save Mankind by Gene Logsdon, and Compost, Vermicompost and Compost Tea by Grace Gershuny. Highfields Center for Composting in northern Vermont offers excellent guidance for all scales of composting.

Meanwhile, back at the farm…

At Someday Farm, in addition to growing vegetables on five acres and in four greenhouses, we raise thousands of meat chickens, laying hens, pheasants, turkeys, ducks and geese. We also have a small herd of cows. We compost all the animal manures and bedding. Our team (Scout, her son Eben, Mara Hearst and I) processes the poultry from June through late December, and it’s my job to deal with the processing residuals: feathers, organs, blood and bones. By incorporating those rich materials with the aged animal manures, I can produce nutrient-dense compost. Nitrogen from animal manures and blood meal for green growth; phosphorus from bones for root growth; calcium from feathers and bones for stem growth; potassium from wood ash for flower and fruit growth; and micronutrients from general organisms found within the aging compost.

Moreover, our compost is a true community effort. We collect lunch compostables from two local schools and shredded paper from the Vermont Country Store corporate office, which we then bring to the laying hens that break it down further. I feel like a rock star every time I carry the big bags of lunch scraps into the layers’ house: They run to me en masse, a shin-high tsunami of feathers. I add chaff from Vermont Coffee Co. along with spent coffee grounds and filters from the Maplefields convenience store in town. Area tree care specialists drop off woodchips at my compost site, and local landscapers deliver mountains of dried leaves come fall. Wood shavings come from a local company that specializes in kiln-dried firewood. These contractors are my heroes! I often wonder what they think when they see me, a 50-year-old former schoolteacher, turning piles with the tractor or in my muck boots adding sloppy buckets of poultry residuals to my windrows.

And that’s the beauty of compost. It’s both an art and a science. You can throw a bunch of organic materials in a pile and leave it alone for a year or more and let nature take its course. Or you can take those same elements, spend a little time and effort managing them, and in several months you will be rewarded with a load of rich humus ready to enhance your soil.

Compost happens … with a little help.

Can I Compost this at Home? 

•    Vegetable and fruit scraps (chop thick peels and rinds for faster breakdown)
•    Anything made out of flour (bread, pasta, etc.)
•    Grains
•    Coffee grounds and filters, tea bags
•    Eggshells
•    Corn cobs can be composted but they take a long time…
•    Paper towels, shredded newspaper, office paper and corrugated cardboard
•    Dried leaves, dried grass clippings, garden trimmings
•    Sawdust, straw, hay

•    Meat and fish (no flesh or bones)
•    Dairy products (milk, butter, cream, cheese, etc.)
•    Fats, oils, grease (known as “FOG”)

* Large-scale or farm composting operations do compost the above ingredient because their piles get hot enough to break down those components which would attract maggots and rodents in smaller home piles. See if there is a farm or larger-scale composter in your area who would be willing to accept such products.