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Bio-char pile on the cannabis and veggie farm in Mendocino
Bio-char pile on the cannabis and veggie farm in Mendocino

There are inevitable tradeoffs to growing production crops; we must mitigate as many of them as possible. As a farmer, how do I produce high quality crops and what inputs should I use? These are age-old questions that I don’t have the answer to, just more questions. A person can rationalize anything. My goal is to lay out as much as possible the arguments of both sides so that you can choose.

Featured photo: Bio-char pile on a cannabis and veggie farm in Mendocino.

As a year-round vegetable producer and farmer, I understand how much work it takes because I don’t have the capacity to produce many of the things I eat. It takes a tremendous amount of calories to support a human being; in our modern age of supermarkets, we don’t think about how much work it takes to maintain each of us.

The reason I bring this up stems from a fascinating meeting I attended discussing the benefits and drawbacks to various types of fertilizer regimens. As a proponent of the local Cold Creek Compost made from a variety of agricultural wastes from around the region (along with green wastes from curb drop-offs and a number of other input sources), I found myself in a heated discussion about the potentials for chemical/poison residues and heavy metals in the compost.

I’m sitting there thinking “I’m no science major, I’m out of my league.” How do we communicate the deep soil science to farmers who often lack the background in chemistry? As a culture, we need to build on the natural intuitive understanding of farmers by providing the educational support that will help us thrive. I left that meeting feeling like the poor dumb Rube; we need more education for farmers, and more support. We also need more understanding of the actual work required to produce food on a scale that feeds a community.

Fertilizer, Tradeoffs and A Farmer’s Duty

Where do nutrients come from? How do we get them? There are inevitable compromises that must be addressed. In a world passing peak petroleum, we have a human duty to access fertility with the fewest miles on it. There are inevitable compromises, one of which becomes economic. How much money can/should we spend to buy what we want? Are the tradeoffs worth it? Should we use the waste products of an industrial society to create fertilizers for our food?

Bio-char inoculated on farm with cold creek compost and amendments.
Bio-char inoculated on farm with Cold Creek Compost and amendments.

Previous discussions with chemists led me to the belief that the 3 months of above-temp composting (federal law requires five days) would break down chemicals and that the inclusion of so many different agricultural wastes and old wood product wastes would dilute heavy metals enough to make them an acceptable risk considering the fertility benefits to be gained from the high-nutrient source. I do not know that I am correct in my interpretation, and I hope to interface further with folks who are working on these questions.

As a farmer and producer of nourishment for my community, I devoted to my duty as steward of my land and am in constant search of better practices. In my limited ability to assess latent consequences, it seems to me that Cold Creek Compost is a win because it creates a playing field for much greater production of local vegetables. I look forward to learning more about this subject.

Compost from Ag Waste Can Transform Soil

A large-scale compost operation keeps agricultural and other waste products from entering landfills and creates a rich source of fertility for farms. In this discussion, the crucial point is the special processes the facility uses. I took a field trip to check it out myself. Various inputs are cross-processed into a 2-acre pile aerated by 2” PVC run through the bottom. The pile is built on one side and removed from the other after sitting for several months. This extra-long time period, massive size of pile, multiple rotations, aeration and variety of inputs creates the potential for quality compost.

It’s all a question of balance. My argument is that there’s never been a source of such high-quality fertility available to farmers as such a low cost. A few questions remain on my mind. Can the process dilute the inevitable heavy metals that come in with the inputs to acceptable levels? What are acceptable levels? Is this type of compost viable for small farms in the long run?

We tested our soil last year and there were no negatives reported. We’ll do so again this year and see what the results have to say. I CAN say that our soil is rich and alive, black and crumbly where once it was airless orange clay and rock. I attribute much of this change to the compost from Cold Creek in Potter Valley.

A bioregion is an ecologically and geographically defined area that is smaller than an ecozone, but larger than an ecoregion and an ecosystem. Via Wikipedia.

As a farmer, I need access to quality fertilizer, and it has to be at a price that doesn’t break the bank. It has to come from my bioregion because on a world scale we can’t afford to truck things more than necessary. We must utilize our waste streams as much as possible to maintain the health and potential of our future. I could spend a significant amount of time making my own compost and fertilizing crops that I would eat with my family, or I could purchase compost and use it to grow food for the community. A balance must be achieved.

I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place; my desire is to produce nourishment for my community but I come up against the inherent issue of fertility. Where does it come from, how do we maintain it and maximize its’ potential for plant growth? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but as a representative of my people I seek them in earnest.

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