Sharing Success with Compost Tea Applications

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Paul Lorrain is a busy man. He runs three businesses in the Kennebunkport, ME area under his “Sunset Farm Organics” business name, each featuring organic plant care. A recently Accredited Organic Landcare Professional, Paul is enthusiastically embracing the concept and use of compost tea for both his turf operations and greenhouse applications. “I ran a traditional lawncare company for 21 years,” said Paul,  “and for the last 15 I thought we were organic because we spread granular organic fertilizer – little did I know!” According to Paul, 95% of his clients transitioned immediately. He noted that 21 of his clients have estates on the ocean and the marshes, with fragile ecosystems that are particularly important to maintain organically.
Organic Salad Mix
Paul also runs a popular organic salad mix business, selling to stores, restaurants and farmers markets. He runs the business from April to October, and is getting ready to spray the  prepared seed beds with actively aerated compost tea before the start of the growing season. He’s looking forward to another successful year with the greens, in part because of the compost tea applications.
His latest business specializes in spraying compost tea on estates with marshes, ponds, lakes, estuaries and oceanfront land.  “I’ve picked up a 100 thousand square feet of turf,” said Paul, “folks are very happy with the results, and I can say I’ve had a 100 percent success rate with the compost tea.” Paul has a manager for both the organic greens business and the landscaping business, and hopes to have a manager in place soon for the compost tea business.
As to the inherent cost differential between going organic and going conventional, Paul says he likes to tell his customers,  “you can buy Folgers, or Green Mountain coffee, it’s your choice. Is it cheaper to pick up a spreader and a bag of cheap fertilizer from Home Depot? Probably. Do you get safe, long lasting, beautiful results? I sure don’t think so. If you go the organic route in your lawncare business, you’ll get your investment back, for sure. People recognize the value of it, and will pay more. It costs more to take care of your children, pets, and your family the right way, but it’s a premium more and more people are ready to pay. There’s definately a buzz about it now.”
His competitors aren’t very happy with him, he says, and as far as he’s concerned, that means something’s working. Paul likens some of the success of his growing businesses to the popularity of the “eat local and buy organic” campaigns of late. “It’s like I’m riding a horse, I’ve been in business most of my life, and now it’s like I am having to hold the reins back. I am very cautious about bringing in too many clients and not being able to offer them exceptional customer service. We are only going to take on a few clients this year, I don’t need to conquer the world”.
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Paul Sachs of North Country Organics

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Organic Matter Key to Healthy Soils
 

 

       

 

 

Paul Sachs

Paul Sachs, owner of North Country Organics

 Recently, we interviewed Paul Sachs of North Country Organics in Bradford Vermont. His company has made high quality natural fertilizers and soil amendments since 1983. He has authored several excellent books. His philosophy is that agriculture and horticulture can be productive, successful, and more profitable without compromising the earth’s delicate eco-system with harmful  chemicals.

As demand has grown for organics, Paul found he simply could not stock enough seasonal products. As an example, last year it took him 5 months to fill the warehouse and only 5 weeks to empty it. He now has three warehouses and is nearing completion on the construction of a fourth warehouse in order to meet the needs of his clients. 

I caught up with Paul recently in Bradford and asked him a few questions while he was loading up the Compostwerks truck.

 Paul, what do you think the soil in this country is lacking?

“The soil”, Paul said, “is substantially lacking in organic matter, particularly in areas that have been developed into commercial or residential sites. Sod has commonly been put down over construction fill, and, not surprisingly, the soil in and around theses areas has little biology to keep it healthy.”

What about adding biology to the soil, will that help?

“Yes, we certainly need to introduce the biology that’s missing, but before we even do that, we need to make sure the organic matter is in place. Even in cases where there is organic matter, much of it is compacted, or treated (often aggressively) with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Good organic matter has a healthy diversity of biology, so it can do what nature intended it to do.”

It is Paul’s conviction that soil biology is such a new and developing field that it is not entirely controllable at this point. “There are too many different variables, and too many different organisms we know little about at this point to micromanage them effectively and with any certainty,” he said. “It’s impossible to duplicate the ecosystem.” Paul feels adding robust organic matter to the soil will increase diversity and add much needed resources. Adding biology should be a second step, not a first.

What are your thoughts on soil testing, do you recommend biological or traditional testing?

Unequivocally Paul says, “Both”. “But a soil test is just a general idea, it really is just a general guideline as to what’s missing and what’s already present in sufficient quantity.  Paul’s advice for testing, other than to have both biological and traditional testing done is to pay attention to the extremes. Both the very low and the very high results are red flags and need to be addressed.

 

 “If you have the wrong plants in the wrong place at the wrong time”, Paul said, “It favors pests and weeds. I see it frequently – someone planting bluegrass will complain that it has brown spots – well, does Bluegrass grow as a native species in New England? No, it doesn’t so it will always be susceptible to various pests and weeds. What does grow successfully here? Clovers, plantains, and native grasses”.

What about dealing with weed and pest pressures?

 

 

What does he think about the new techniques like bio char and EM?

Basically, his advice in this regard is simple. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always the innovator however, Paul states that emerging technologies need to be investigated. “There’s always something being explored”, he said. For instance, Paul’s quite intrigued with a new soil amendment on the market called “Regalia”, actually an extract from the knotweed plant. “What’s so interesting to me about this product is that it’s not used as an herbicide or a pesticide. Supposedly it actually strengthens a plant’s immune system – it doesn’t kill or suppress anything, it just makes the plant it’s applied to stronger”.

Solar Panels on NCO

The solar panels are mounted on the roof of the main warehouse

As a footnote, it should be mentioned that Paul generates his own electricity with an on grid photovoltaic solar power system. In true yankee fashion, Paul is able to sell any surplus energy back to the utility through a process called net metering. Bravo!

North County Organics website can be viewed at www.northcountryorganics.com

Making compost tea specific to your crop

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We are posting part 2 of our interview with Elaine Ingham Ph.D, President and Director of Research at Soil Foodweb Inc.

Dr Elaine Ingham, Ph.D outlines the carbon cycle

According to Elaine,  compost tea should be applied in order to replace missing beneficial organisms on the surfaces of plants so those surfaces will be protected. Those organisms should be present in high quality aerobic compost and given optimal brewing conditions, extracted  into the compost tea. This layer of protection prevents the growth of pathogens that might compromise your plant, either on the roots or above ground.  Generally our purpose is to nurture high numbers of the beneficial organisms that are in the compost, but which will grow in the ambient conditions of the brewing process. Brewing tea specific to the plant’s requirements is wise, since what you apply will be specific to the plant’s root exudates (exudates feed the biology which is associated with the plant).

So Elaine, can we discuss some different ways that we can select for the biology that’s missing from soil?

We commonly recommend employing different methods when producing compost tea so that the biology that’s missing in the soil can be added. First it’s very helpful to be able to test the soil so that you’re not guessing. It’s easy to take a shotgun approach by making a ‘balanced’ compost tea, but whan we do this, we’re just guessing. We run the risk of compromising the desired organisims in our compost tea when using shotgun methodology. That kind of approach can be just fine when dealing with healty plants.

Can you give us some examples of how we can go about growing the organisms that are missing?

If  protozoa (which are critical for nitrogen cycling) aren’t present  in the soil during a period of vegetative growth, plant development is limited.   To correct this, we must first find compost which has high protozoa numbers. Protozoa eat bacteria which are very high in nitrogen. To get high numbers of active protozoa in our compost tea, we must extend the brew cycle to at least 30 to 36 hours.

In the case of adding fungi and bacteria, it’s more a matter of adding specific food resources to the compost tea. If we are missing bacteria in the soil, we’re able to create a compost tea which is skewed in that direction. This is accomplished by adding some simple sugars, like non-sulfured, blackstrap molasses. In the case of increasing fungal biomass, high carbon and protein based foods such as humic acid and grain flours are added as a food resource.

Tell us about adding nematodes. We know that can be a tricky task.

When there are low numbers of beneficial  nematodes in soil, it’s best to first investigate why they’re not present. Commonly, soil compaction, low organic matter and excessive soil disturbance result in a lack of beneficial nematodes. Only the smaller plant feeding nematodes can survive under these conditions. These factors should be corrected before adding nematode inoculum. In order to efficiently add nematodes to the soil, you must first find compost which has high numbers of beneficial nematodes (which means, aerobic compost,  since beneficial nematodes are strict aerobes) and good diversity.

Bacteria Feeding Nematode

A viable method of improving nematode numbers and diversity is through the use of compost extracts. When making compost tea, most of the organisms in the compost are extracted into the compost tea within a few hours. This is known as a compost extract.  Conversely, when making compost tea specifically for the tea itself,  additional time is needed for the bacteria, protozoa and fungi to multiply. When preparing an extract, microbial foods are not normally added. If your goal is to extract nematodes a short extraction cycle of about 4 to 8 hours will allow many more nematodes to survive. A full compost tea brewing cycle can kill many nematodes. This may be a result of adding too many bacterial foods which drive dissolved oxygen levels too low for nematodes to survive the brew cycle. Excessive agitation in the brewer may also kill the nematodes. It should be mentioned that nematodes do not reproduce during the compost tea brewing cycle. If you don’t want to take 24 to 36 hours to make a tea, consider an extract instead. Extractions will extract the organisms of the compost, but no time is needed to let organisms grow up into high numbers or biomass. Typically, extractions require more compost (say 5 to 10 times as much as a tea), but only take 2 to 4 hours to make, certainly not more than 8 hours.

Just make sure the compost you are using has the beneficial organisms that are missing and that they are extracted, and end up in the extract or tea, and on the surfaces of your plants. If the organisms are lost anywhere along the way (lack of oxygen, filtered out in a filter, or killed by a pump), then you won’t see the benefits of improving biology.

Thank you again Elaine, we’ll check back in with you in a few weeks.

Peter Schmidt becomes Certified Soil Foodweb Advisor

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Elaine Ingham PhD, Peter Schmidt, SFW Certified Advisor

I wanted to give everyone an update on the status of my Soil Foodweb advisorship. My travels took me to Corvallis Oregon last week where I joined 12 other students who went through extensive soil biology training. Each of us was responsible for formulating remediation programs specific to projects that we are currently working on.

What struck me was the level of collaboration, information sharing and openness of this diverse group of passionate individuals. Our class was comprised of growers, arborists, landscape designers and people involved with animal agriculture. What surprised me quite a bit was the fact that I was the only person from the east coast.

So why did I decide to become a Certified Soil Foodweb Advisor?

Mainly so I can help others with interpretive analysis and implementation of Soil Foodweb methodology. This assistance, combined with supplying compost specific to your objectives, microbial foods and equipment is a powerful tool which I invite you all to use. This knowledge will also help me roll out

Peter Schmidt helping with the course

information in our workshops and lectures.

Secondly, I felt as though it would be useful for me to hone my microscope skills. As an advisor, I need to be able to perform qualitative assays of compost, soil and compost tea. This will undoubtedly increase my ability to consult with a diverse group of various growers and people within the green industry.

In order to become a Soil Foodweb Advisor, you must successfully complete the series of core workshops which are held periodically and hosted by the Soil Foodweb Oregon. Once this is complete, you are eligible to take the Advisor training. You must demonstrate and present your broad knowledge of soil biology, plant and soil relationships, compost tea and compost production as well as direct microscopy skills.

Soil Foodweb Testing

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A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

Dr. Elaine Ingham, President of Soil Foodweb Inc.

In this blog update, we have posted the first of a three part interview with Dr. Elaine Ingham, President and Director of Research of Soil Foodweb

Compostwerks: Why is it important to have both conventional and biological testing completed on soil and compost

Dr. Ingham:

Traditional testing tells us about the levels of micro and macro elements, cation exchange, organic matter percentage, base saturation and pH. These are fundamental components of plant nutrition, but it’s only one part of the equation. We know that it’s the microbial component of the soil that has a majority of the control over nutrient cycling and sequestration. Conventional testing doesn’t quantify the reserves of nutrients which are tied up in non-available forms, or in the microbes themselves. Simply put, a plant can’t uptake the necessary nutrients unless in an available form. Without the right biology in place, we’re locked into conventional (petro-chemical) methods.

Compostwerks: Which is why you founded Soil Food Web, your soil testing and research lab.

Dr. Ingham: Yes, the Soil Foodweb offers professional lab testing of different organisms found in healthy soil, compost, compost tea, and other soil amendments. Using direct microscope methods, we measure populations of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. We offer specialized testing for mycorrhizal colonization and leaf surface foodweb evaluations. Once we know what microbes are missing or inactive, we have data in order to make further recommendations.

The leaf surface examinations monitor the success of foliar applications of compost tea. We also offer general testing for pH, electrical conductivity and E. coli.  Mycorrhizal colonization analysis quantifies the level of the symbiotic fungal association with plant roots.  We know that benefit to plants that need mycorrhizal fungi begins to occur around 12 to 14% colonization, and reaches full benefit around 40% colonization.

Compostwerks: What type of testing do the assays cover?

Dr. Ingham: Our testing assesses Total Bacteria: (total biomass of all bacteria, active and dormant), Total Fungi: (total biomass of all fungi, active and dormant), Active Bacteria: (biomass of just the metabolically active bacteria), Active Fungi: (biomass of just the metabolically active fungi), Protozoa: (numbers of individual Flagellates, Amoebae, and Ciliates), Nematodes: (numbers of individuals and identification to genus and function), Mycorrhizal Colonization: (percentage of roots colonized by mycorrhizal fungi), Leaf Surface covered by organisms. We also offer general testing for Electrical Conductivity: (high conductivity indicates high salt levels) and pH: Acidity or Alkalinity: (pH is influenced both by the mineral content and the biology in the soil), and Escherichia coli bacteria: (number of Colony Forming Units detected).

Compostwerks: Why are each of these tests important?

Dr. Ingham: Measuring bacterial activity and numbers is important because bacteria promote plant health in many ways. Bacteria, along with fungi, decompose dead plant material into more bacteria, foods for other organisms, and carbon dioxide. Aerobic bacteria build the first step in soil structure, which is the production of “bricks”, the basic building blocks to make air passageways, and hallways to allow water and oxygen to infiltrate into soil. Bacteria take up soil nutrients that plants cannot take up, the first step of converting these nutrients into plant available forms. When too many, or all the bacteria are dormant, their ecosystem services will not provide the full potential benefit to the plants. When too many are active, they may compete with plants for soil nutrients. The right range of activity varies by season in soils. In mature compost, 10% or lower activity is desired so nutrient up-take by bacteria is not so great as to compete with plants.

Measuring fungal activity is important because fungi, along with bacteria, decompose dead plant material into new fungi, foods for other organisms, and carbon dioxide.  Fungi build the second level of soil structure, by binding the micro-aggregates built by bacteria into macro-aggregates, allowing better infiltration of water and oxygen into the soil.   Fungal filaments transport nutrients to where they are most needed. The optimal range of fungal biomass varies according to crop, climate and season. Measuring fungal numbers in a sample is important because fungi recover from disturbance more slowly than bacteria. Excessive tilling of soil, excessive turning of compost, or use of many synthetic chemicals can devastate beneficial fungi. Active fungal biomass in the right range is a good sign of overall soil health. If activity is low and the local environment is free of physical and chemical disturbance, the dormant part of the fungal population may only need feeding.

We measure protozoa because these organisms, along with bacterial-feeding nematodes, eat bacteria and release nutrients, from nitrogen to zinc, in plant available forms, making them essential to healthy plant growth. Flagellates and amoebae nearly always require aerobic conditions to grow, while ciliates prefer anaerobic conditions.  A high ciliate population indicates disease-prone conditions which need to be addressed such as soil compaction and excessive irrigation.

Nematodes are a very large group of very small worms, found everywhere on Earth. Some soil-dwelling species cause crop damage, some prey on other nematodes, and most graze on bacteria and fungi, boosting natural soil fertility. Diverse nematode activity is a sign of healthy soil, and beneficial to any plant because they cycle nitrogen and other nutrients into plant available form.

Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with 90% of all plants on Earth. These fungi increase the nutrient uptake capacity of the plant and protect it against pathogens. They are also sensitive to many toxins in chemical pesticides and inorganic fertilizers, making them a valuable indicator of overall soil health. This test determines what percentage of the plant roots are colonized, and can also detect signs of disease and other damage

The Leaf Surface Foodweb test determines the effective coverage of organisms on the leaf surface, very useful for before and after comparisons of foliar applications of Compost Tea. Adequate coverage of leaf surfaces with beneficial bacteria and fungi helps to reduce disease and pests.

Many growers and consumers are rightfully concerned with disease organisms. We evaluate the number of Colony Forming Units (CFU’s) of E. Coli per gram of compost or milliliter of compost tea, to let you know if these indicators of disease-prone conditions are within or above accepted limits for agricultural fertilizers. These common intestinal bacteria have some disease-causing strains, and indicate other harmful bacteria may be present.

Compostwerks: Thank you so much for your time Elaine.

Examples of Soil Foodweb bio assays can be found on our website by clicking here.

Look for part two of our interview with Dr. Ingham the second week of November.