Thursday, May 13, 2010

Composting 101

Part science, part cooking class, composting is central to any organic farming operation - especially a farm like ours whose soils have no history of cultivation. Recent soil tests confirmed that we had only a modest organic content (2.5%) so composting would be the quickest way to supplement existing organic matter and support the young hop plants. After some quick calculations, we realized that we needed A LOT of compost to cover the 15 rows of the one acre hopyard.  So, where to start? As it turns out, it's not that complicated. However, there are a number of factors that will influence the rate at which your raw material will break down. The most important consideration is obtaining an optimal Carbon:Nitrogen ratio. There are a number of compost calculators online to help you estimate this ratio using a suite of raw materials.

We opted for simplicity on our first attempt with alfalfa hay (carbon source) and horse manure (nitrogen source) as the sole ingredients. We sourced the hay from Texas Creek Ranch and have to thank Ekhard for graciously donating some old, broken down bails and the manure came from our neighbour who boards horses and had accumulated quite a bit over the winter.

Like making the world's largest lasagna, we spread thin layers of hay with scoops of manure, trying to water the layers along the way until we ran out of ingredients. Oh, I forgot to mention that Tim collected a dozen garbage bags of oak leaves he stole from a local Vancouver park near his house - he seemed to think the mold on the leaves would inoculate the pile to initiate the composting process. After covering the massive pile with tarps, we let microbiology take over.
After the first week, we discovered some surprises underneath the tarp...

Aside from being knee deep in animal excrement, my favourite part of the composting process is the stirring. For those of you who know me, this is also why I can't make rice but CAN make a mean stir fry.
Compost piles of such epic proportions, require mixing tongs of the hydraulic variety so when we were installing the poles, we took a moment to have Jason stir the stinking pile.

Of course, we recorded the temperature of the pile periodically over the 5 week period to ensure that weed seed would not germinate, kill pathogens, and to comply with the standards with certified organic protocols.

Temps after the first week. Looks like we need a thermometer a higher scale...temps regularly reached above 135 F in subsequent weeks.


  1. Hi Sam, my name is Shawn and I am building towards starting a small scale organic hop farm on my friends family farm in the Columbia Valley, Cultus Lake area. I am only armed with a passion for fine beer, a puzzling love of hops and an appreciation for farm life(probably a city life repression thing). I would love the chance to visit your farm some weekend this summer to check out your set up and pick your brain, in exchange for some hard work of course. Not having a background in farming is making this seem a bit overwhelming, so I am trying to form some good relationships and examples to help me get started soon than later. Please let me know if you would be interested in some free labour.

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