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Cheap DIY Static Pile Composting on a Farm Scale

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by Guest Blogger Tracy Frisch

It’s always fun to be surprised by a new solution to an old problem. That’s what happened at the popular half-day workshop on Reduced Tillage in Vegetables at NOFA-NY’s 2016 Winter Conference. Healthy soil acts like a sponge for moisture and nutrients, but plowing and other forms of aggressive tillage destroy soil structure and organic matter. Untilled soil does a much better job of sequestering carbon (and reducing the greenhouse gas CO2 in the atmosphere) as well.

As you can imagine, managing weeds was high on this workshop’s agenda because with minimum tillage and no chemicals, other effective approaches are required. When Jay Armour of Four Winds Farm took his turn presenting, he said he became a no-till organic vegetable grower as a defense against overwhelming weed pressure early on. “Someone convinced me that if we didn’t till the soil, we wouldn’t have weeds,” he recalled. They advised covering the soil in compost and planting into it. It worked so well that the Armours sold their plow and rototiller and 15 years ago expanded to several acres in production.

 

One thing this system absolutely requires is good weed seed-free compost. Over the years, this has been a challenge. A nearby source of free farm-made compost dried up. Trucking costs for McEnroe organic compost (45 miles away) were prohibitive. In bringing materials to the farm and making his own in windrows, he couldn’t consistently achieve a high enough temperature to meet the definition of compost under the Organic Rule. He had to spread this “non-compost compost” in the fall, 120 days before harvest.

Clearly he needed a better way. Since static composting systems on the market cost far too much, Jay cobbled together his own. In his barn, Jay found an old squirrel cage fan that moves a lot of air. He took the square opening and tapered it into a smaller, round opening. With a $64 timer he set the fan to run 3 minutes on/20 minutes off. For $130 he bought septic leach field, perforated drainpipe and made an assembly with four legs, each 30 feet long. Over the pipes he spreads a layer of wood chips. High on top he piles raw compost materials (in the correct carbon-nitrogen ratio). The fan cycles on and off, aerating the pile. A thermometer in the pile shows that the temperature rises quickly. He can control the temperature by adjusting the amount of oxygen delivered to the pile. He increases aeration if it gets too hot and reduces it if the pile’s too cool. It’s been easy to reach 150 degrees necessary to kill weed seed.

Jay keeps the fan in a “doghouse” atop a pallet. When he’s ready to make a new static pile, he moves them together with a tractor. The wood chips alert him of the location of the pipes, so he doesn’t drive over them or destroy them when moving finished compost. The only other investment Jay made is a UV resistant semi-impermeable fabric from Compostwerks to manage moisture in the compost pile. It sheds rainwater and releases steam. A 180’ roll costs $800 and may last 10 years, he said.

Thrilled at how well his simple static composting design performs, Jay is pleased to see other farmers adopting it. He also is very satisfied with his no-till vegetable system and shared his soil analysis to bring home how it benefits soil health.

no till Four Winds FarmHis soil test results show 8 to 10% organic matter.  Jay writes, “You can never get those kind of numbers in a till based operation.  I have heard that the till-based American farming model is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  Not to mention that the soil is void of nutrients and the food harvested from those soils have no nutritional value.  The pH column is also interesting.  I haven't had to lime my fields since we stopped tilling.  I'm no scientist.  I don't know why this approach works. But I do know that my customers say my vegetables taste so much better than any one else’s.  And when the veggies taste better, I can sell them for more money and pay my workers a decent salary. Customers stay healthy, soil stays healthy, workers are happy.  It is almost a perfect world.”

soil sample results

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