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A Royal Compost Adventure Report

Some of you may have heard that this April 15th I gave a speech in England at the invitation of HRH Prince Charles. The event was a celebration of the gardens and farm he has been developing for 35 years.

Highgrove Gardens is a fabulous demonstration center the Prince has built to embody the best of energy efficiency, endangered species restoration, rare breed conservation and many other aspects of sustainability.

The Garden was opened to visitors and high-profile speakers volunteered their time to help raise funds for the Prince’s Charities. Many of them were BBC TV program hosts. Because this was a charity event, there was no compensation. So we went to Go Fund Me to host a crowd funded campaign (details and posts, here) to gather the funds that were needed for the trip. 130 friends and family donated over $8,000 to make the trip possible.

'The Alchemy of Composting'

The speech was titled The Alchemy of Composting- How 2=2=9, if you let it. The 35 people who almost filled the room were very pleased and enthusiastic about the message. Section 2 of the speech is included below. The full text of the speech is here.

The second of these alchemies is amazing versatility.

Our bacterial friends are busy these days. Though our use of them goes back as far as the history of fermentation, today we are utilizing our knowledge of composting organisms in amazing ways. From turning corn stalks into automotive fuel to cleaning up toxic waste, one of the hottest trends on the planet is the use of bacteria.

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle, co-authors of The Hidden Half of Nature, call the knowledge revolution happening now the ascendancy of the micro-biome of the soil and of the gut, the most profound scientific change since we learned that the earth revolves around the sun.

Composting could mean saving food scraps and feeding a bin full of worms. This is not a silly idea. One cubic yard of worm castings sells for $1,400.

Composting and Animal Agriculture

It could be the processing of mortalities from animal agriculture. A large chicken facility with 30,000 chickens can easily have 200 mortalities a day. Wood chips are laid in a 2-foot-high pile then a 1-foot-high layer of dead chickens, followed by a foot of wood chips. I tell you folks in about three days you have the best, slow-roasted.

No really, in three weeks you have nothing but a few beaks and claws. The same process is used for pigs, cows and horses. It features no water or air pollution and compost ready for the using at the end of the process.

In Dodge City, Kansas, the packing plants slaughter 6,000 cattle per day. Every cow has bushel of paunch manure in the intestines. This material is half way through the process of digestion and has characteristics of both wet grass and manure. The answer to this massive problem, of course, is composting.

It could be using bacteria to digest the contents of spray paint cans - propane propellant and hydrocarbon paint or a semi-trailer load of spoiled Pizza dough. Imagine a semi-trailer and three black SUVs pull into the compost facility. Black-suited agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms with bulletproof vests stand guard while workers slowly open and pour out bottle after bottle of over-age Chevas-Regal scotch. It’s a scene to make a grown man cry, but our bacterial buddies are up to the challenge.

Compost Tea and Beneficial Bacteria

Compost can neutralize both strong alkaline or acidic feedstocks and leave a neutral pH. It contains enzymes to separate the strong inorganic bonds and organic ions that render them harmless.

Compost teas are a powerful way to influence crops. Spraying a mixture of a compost tea and molasses is a tried and true technique in organic farming. Very specialized strains of bacterial inoculants are even capable of giving a crop a systemically acquired resistance to a pest.

In California, Ray Helland was making special blends of bacterially active topsoil for playing fields. The weather forced him to leave some of his special soil on an asphalt parking lot for 6 months. When he returned to remove the compost, the bacteria had eaten all the asphalt, leaving the just the clean rocks. He collected some of the bottom layer of the compost and started culturing compost tea from it.

From the initial 5,600 species of bacteria, he mixed 12 strains into an affordable compost tea spray. 300 species in his blend are previously unknown to science. 5 species in his blend have DNA so strange that they can’t even be placed in a phylum. His product was tested against the anti-nematode products from agro-chemical giants, Monsanto and Syngenta.

One thousand strawberries plants were treated in each plot. Both the agro-giants plots lost 600 of the 1,000 to nematode pests. Our hero’s plot lost six plants out of 1,000 to the nematodes.

Though these strains of bacteria are naturally occurring, it’s finders-keepers when it comes to the most promising products, with fortunes in the balance for the finders. To date, this gentleman has built a robust business selling his product and has turned down some very large offers to sell out.

Natur-Tech compost system in operation. Photo by Jim McNelly.

Future Compost Trends

Even the way we compost is changing greatly. My friend Jim McNelly, a fouder of the US Compost Council, has invented the Natur-Tech composting system based on shipping containers. He loads the containers with a special mix of materials, computer controls the oxygen and temperature levels and uses finished compost to absorb the odors as a biofilter.

He can process completed batches in only a few weeks with no turning necessary. With precise control of the ingredients and the process, Jim makes “designer compost” to meet his client’s standards. He was the first to produce enriched compost with an NPK analysis of 4-1-1. Normal compost has an analysis of 1-1-1 and is not considered a fertilizer.

The intended effect of the speech is to let people know that we have the tools we need to reverse climate change, restore diversity and health to our ecosystems and ourselves…and that it amounts to going into a respectful partnership with the creatures of Middle Earth-the bacteria and friends who inhabit the soil beneath our feet and the chambers of our intestines.

The full text of this speech is on my website, Compost Education.

Stan Slaughter is a presenter providing waste reduction/composting programs in schools and for adults in cities, counties and states. He has visited more than 1,000 schools and 100,000 students in Kansas. He is also active in the U.S. Composting Council, presenting workshops entitled Best Practices in Compost Education at the annual conference. He was the first winner of the Missouri Environmental Educator of the Year award in 1995. Read all of Stan’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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