The Dish on Dairy Dirt: Ruminations on composted manure
By Helen Krayenhoff
Where does our food come from?”
As organic growers of vegetable plant starts, Peggy and I get to have a hand in helping people with an enthusiastic answer to this oft-repeated question by saying, “It comes from my home garden.”
Increasingly, however, I feel there are deeper levels to the question. What about the origin of the products we use in our gardens? Most commonly grown vegetable plants are annuals, springing from seed to strong mature plants all in one season. That requires a lot of nutrition from the soil, so if we don’t amend those nutrients, the plants will not thrive as we want them to. Adding compost is a good answer, and getting it from our own home compost or worm bins means that we’re keeping a handle on the inputs. However, most urban gardeners also bring in commercially produced compost. As I look at what’s available, I find myself coming back to that question of where it comes from.
But first, what is compost?
“Compost” is a huge and vague term covering many products that appear in the gardening world. In a nutshell, all compost is green matter that has been converted by microbes into elements that plants can take up and put to efficient use.
On one end of the spectrum is the green waste compost we all contribute to with the contents of our municipal waste service green bins. This material is produced very quickly from a myriad of raw ingredients. The general idea is to keep the green waste out of the landfill and return it to the public as quickly as possible, with less focus on creating high nutritive value. Some find the result useful as mulch. Since I don’t know what originally went into it, I keep it out of my veggie bed.
In a home compost pile or worm bin, by contrast, I know what’s been added. A well-managed compost pile can turn out many benefits for the garden, from worm castings to a complex amendment that can improve the soil’s texture and ability to retain water.
Cows take the processing of green matter to a whole new level. Compost made from cow manure adds a unique set of microbes that come from the ruminant’s complex digestive system. That might sound a bit scary to people concerned about E. coli bacteria, but as David Perkins, the Northern California sales manager for Malibu Compost, explains, “The organisms in mature compost are different from those in fresh manure. The reason for composting it is to promote growth and diversity of the beneficial organisms, while reducing disease-causing ones.” It also facilitates the nutrient cycling of minerals and makes them more available to plants. Properly composted manure is a nutrient-rich amendment that smells earthy and wonderful.
So what is proper manure composting? If it’s done right, the microbes from the ruminant’s gut continue to digest the fresh manure and also digest each other, producing a “hot” compost pile where potentially harmful microbes are killed. When the heat stabilizes, the compost is considered mature and safe for use. The process requires a good six to eight months and should be accompanied by rigorous tending and testing to ensure that the manure compost pile completely matures. The operative words are “rigorous tending and testing,” and this is why your source for these products matters.
In the past, I’ve seen composted steer manure from various sources, but the material did not always look well composted and could burn plants. Now that I’ve learned how much of it comes from industrial feedlots, I certainly don’t want it nourishing my plants, given the quality of feed and quantity of pharmaceuticals those animals are subjected to. I also know I don’t want my money supporting any part of that industry.
When I look to other natural amendments available to increase the fertility of my soil I find myself asking if the harvesting of wild kelp or seaweed, or the guano of bats and seabirds has a negative impact on those creatures or their habitats? Cow manure from ethically run local dairies looks like a much better bet on all levels to me.
Lately, there’s been a buzz at our favorite retail nurseries over two new companies that have brought some higher-quality composted manure products to market. The goal of both companies is to provide nutrition to restore garden soil fertility in addition to recycling excess materials.
Point Reyes Compost Company
This composted manure comes from the Robert Giacomini Dairy, home of the beloved Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company Original Blue Cheese. The composted manure products are made by Teddy Stray, son-in-law of Robert (Bob) Giacomini. When Teddy quit the corporate world to spend more time with his family, he was looking for a new career to which he could apply his well-honed business acumen and commitment to social enterprise. He looked around the ranch and found a goldmine of raw material right under his nose—poop—piles and piles of it. He quips, “Lots of guys take crap from their fathers-in-law. How many buy it?!”
At the Giacomini Ranch, methane gas, which emanates from fresh cow poop, is sequestered and used to generate a portion of the power that runs the dairy and cheese-processing plant. Teddy takes the remaining solids and composts them for six to eight months, applying strict scrutiny and testing. When he bags it for retail, he’s “closing the loop on poop” as he phrases it.
The company produces two composted manure products: Bob’s Best cow manure and Double Doody cow/horse blended manure. They are both approved by OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute), which means they can be used in certified organic farming. It’s an inspiring way to get a piece of Point Reyes pasture into your city garden!
(Pictured: Teddy Stray of Point Reyes Compost Company up to his ankles in composted manure.)
Malibu Compost is made using the biodynamic process that was created in the 1920s when farmers in Germany were seeing a decline in yield, quality, and disease-resistance in their crops in the advent of industrial agriculture. Biodynamics was developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), a spiritualistic philosopher/scientist from Austria. Steiner noticed that potatoes didn’t taste as good as they did in his childhood, and suspected that the new industrial model for food production was missing some key elements. He suggested a philosophy and practice that would bring the soil back into balance, which he hoped could lay down a foundation for the renewal of agriculture. Today, biodynamic farming practices are a well-integrated part of food production in many parts of the world, including Europe, India, and New Zealand. They are starting to enter into larger awareness here in the United States, primarily via the wineries that have embraced them. Demeter is the third-party certifying agency for biodynamics in this country.
Malibu Compost Co. was started by eco-friendly landscapers Randy and Denise Ritchie. Denise learned about biodynamic compost and went looking for a Demeter-certified farmer who could provide it. She found Gena Nonini, a fruit and vegetable grower near Fresno. At her Marian Farms, Gena is surrounded by organic dairy farms (including Organic Pastures, one of the state’s largest producers of raw milk), and she makes sure she’s accepting manure that address the biodynamic standards, even if the farms are not certified biodynamic. Her standards require that the animals be very well cared for and that the feed and inputs on the pastures where the cows graze be of impeccable quality. Gena agreed to up her production for the Ritchies, and Malibu Compost Co. was born.
The fresh manure pile is amended with small, concentrated amounts of six herbs: yarrow, chamomile, nettle, oak bark, dandelion, and valerian, which are gathered before they go to seed and pre-composted for a year. These bring in a whole new set of beneficial microbes that help make the elements and minerals of the completed compost more easily available to plants, thereby encouraging plant vitality and disease resistance. Denise Ritchie describes it as a way to restore balance to soil that has been badly treated by modern agriculture and gardening practices. Her company also partners with Organic Pastures in dairy cow rescue, and they have named their compost Bu’s Blend in honor of Bu (pictured above left), their first rescue. Malibu Compost also sells compost tea bags. A cold-water extract of the bags can be used to inoculate the soil with these beneficial microbes and as a foliar feed.
Closing the Loop
The sustainable food producers we support also have the opportunity to turn their waste into useful and healthful products that we can use to enrich our gardens and our lives. Becoming aware of these loops allows us to move into a more sustainable cycle of food and waste. How can we start using what’s at hand to feed our soil and at the same time support local food production? These local companies are showing us the way. And that’s no bullshit!
To learn more about these companies, where to buy their products, and how to use them, check their websites:
Helen Krayenhoff is co-owner of Kassenhoff Growers, a certified organic plant nursery located in Oakland and Alameda. You can find out more about Kassenhoff Growers and where to buy their plants at www.kassenhoffgrowers.com.