By Monique Bosch

I took a visit to a composting business that prides itself on utilizing local food waste to create a special blend of highly nutritious compost. ‘Diverting food waste’ and ‘highly nutritious’ were key words for me, so I jumped in the car to check it out. Driving into an unassuming backyard along a residential street in Danbury, I was surprised to see the orderly piles of compost and mulch, along with heavy equipment, neatly organized.

Below: Jeff stands in front of his composting facility, neatly tucked away, with no smell or mess.

 

I met Jeff, taking a break from moving piles and loading trucks. First question; “how did all this come about?”

“I was working in the landscaping industry when I met Don Taylor from Taylor farm, the property I’m on right now. He had woodchips, logs, and brush and I had a desire to compost. I cleaned up the site, brought in leaves, and started producing a high carbon, wood-based compost. Then the horse manure started coming in.”

In 2014, Connecticut’s legislature enacted a law that requires businesses that produce 1 ton or more of food waste to recycle it, if they’re within 20 miles of a facility that’s licensed to handle it. This new law made it feasible for Jeff to alter his permit to include food waste.

Jeff then took the formula further, adding other waste products that were locally available.

“There are some unique feedstocks out there that make for unique compost,” Jeff explained. He increased his inputs to include waste from several local businesses:  Bigelow Tea (tea and botanical waste), Ideal Fish in Waterbury (whole fish, fish manure), Sunset Hill Farm (horse manure) and Lesser Evil Snack (organic popcorn). The end result was a high-quality compost product with diverse and complex sets of nutrients.

 

Jeff makes his compost in small batches, with great attention to detail and quality. His Thermophilic compost system is unique in that it uses a 100% solar-powered aeration system. Jeff mixes his feedstocks to correct ratios, then places the mixture on perforated pipes. Using a 1½ horsepower blower, he runs air under the rows, 2 minutes on, 28 minutes off, for 30 days. He can tweak the amount of time the blower is on, depending on the density of the pile, and temperature. This control over air and temperature ensures that the rows never go ‘anaerobic’, which leads to a higher quality finished compost.

 

Below: Jeff stands beside perforated pipes ready for the next load of waste materials.

The thermometer is visible in the active pile to the right, solar panels generating energy to run the aeration system on the left.

 

Jeff keeps the row temperature at 140-150 degrees for 30 days.

After 30 days he’ll flip the row and put it back on the air for an additional 14 days, to guarantee pathogen/weed/parasite destruction. He’ll then cure the pile for 90-120 days.

The most satisfying aspect of composting all of these local waste products is the knowledge that all of these feedstocks were destined for either landfill or would have been burned at a waste incineration plant. Instead, they are part of a unique recipe that makes Jeff’s New England Compost product highly nutritious for plants. We took a look under the microscope to examine the life in the compost:

 

Below: Video of finished New England Compost. Plenty of diverse bacteria & soil aggregates.

Jeff is starting to see more people wanting to do their own composting, but says the biggest stumbling block is keeping the food waste free of contaminants.

“Those who are saving food waste for pickup should lookout to produce ‘stickers’ and bags.  Keep in mind ‘if you can eat it, I can compost it’.” Haulers are educating consumers on best practices and it’s starting to be evident in the food waste Jeff receives from households. “4 years ago the volume of contamination meant that I just couldn’t use it. It was too expensive to cleanout. Now more people are gardening and thinking about compost as a key ingredient in their garden soil. The importance of high-quality compost is starting to be noticed and appreciated.”

Take a good look at the living biology of soil under a microscope is a key skill in building soil carbon and healthy plants.

NOFA has teamed up with the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, (River COG) to offer an in-depth course in soil health.  In particular, the course teachers farmers about the ways in which vermicompost can enhance soil health and be critical player in a no-till growing system.

From experienced growers like Craig Floyd of Coogan Farms to new farmers, this course draws a diverse and engaged group of practitioners together to learn soil health – the basic building block of any organic farming system.

 

 

An update from NOFA’s technical consultant and “embedded” reporter, Monique Bosch

During this ‘dormant’ time of year, it’s refreshing to see cold season crops flourishing in high tunnels across the state. Some of the healthiest food we’ve seen this winter have been in high tunnels that are practicing ‘no-till.’  Let’s take a tour together above, and below ground, to see what’s living.

First stop; The Hickories in Ridgefield CT.

Farm manager Jaci Slattery gives us a look inside her high tunnel, where delicious chard, spinach, and romaine are growing well.

This high tunnel has been no-till since it was built, about 5 years ago. Broad-fork and surface rake have been the only tools used. Keeping plants growing year-round ensures the biology thrives. The space goes through several iterations through the year; propagation house in spring, followed by salad mix, summer tomatoes then winter crops. This particular high tunnel is on a slope. Jaci has found that keeping roots of plants such as tomatoes in the ground to decay helps stop erosion during heavy rains.  This past year Jaci added two new inputs; beneficial nematodes, to help with flea beetles, and compost tea. We found one of the nematodes when viewing a soil sample under the microscope:

 

Jaci spoke about some of the challenges of no-till:  “Weed control is the biggest challenge. We manage it with frequent surface tillage and some hand-weeding. This coming Spring, when tables are above the beds holding seedling trays, we are considering a cover crop below. We think buckwheat might be a good choice, with little regrowth and excellent residue after cutting to act as mulch.”


 Next stop; Massaro Community Farm in Woodbridge CT.

Farm Manager Steve Munno and Executive Director Caty Poole gave us a tour of their high tunnels, producing delicious winter crops with no-till methods.

We took a soil sample from the high tunnel growing a cover crop of peas/vetch/oats. It had been mowed the day before. The plan is to open the high tunnel doors as outdoor temperatures drop, resulting in a ‘winter kill’ that will speed up decomposition. The ground should be ready for sowing in early March.

Like butter, the soil lifted without a fuss, releasing a luxurious forest smell

 

Under the microscope the sample proved to be just as rich, with aggregates full of bacteria, a nice balance of fungi and plenty of flagellates consuming the bacteria:

Growing food year-round in the high tunnel is an optimal environment for no-till. Under these controlled conditions leaving the soil undisturbed has several advantages:

  • promotes a healthy soil food web
  • fewer pests, due to the healthy micro-ecosystem in and above the soil
  • reduces weed populations:
    • bacteria/fungi balance is maintained
    • less exposure of dormant seeds

Andrew Mefferd has traveled around the world to connect with farmers and researchers about no-till farming and soil conservation. In his book he talks about growing no-till in high tunnels: “We can grow nutrient-dense foods, reduce and eliminate inputs and consequent negative outputs, and pull carbon out of the atmosphere while reinvigorating the hydrological cycle that has been so disrupted by thousands of years of over tilling, overgrazing, deforestation, and soil compaction.”

For many farmers ‘no-till’ sounds like a daunting experiment.  John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture (https://www.advancingecoag.com/john), doesn’t think it has to be an ‘all or nothing’ approach: “We need to change the conversation. Instead of ’tillage’, we might consider ‘soil particle management’.  Finding ways to nurture the soil and the microbes who inhabit it will produce resilient plants, healthier food and as a result, benefit us all.

Join us for a fall field day focused on no-till and cover crop methods, to include a presentation by Julie Fine of Johnny Selected Seeds as well as field demonstrations of no-till equipment, and a farm tour of Sub Edge Farm. We’ll also analyze soil samples with Monique Bosch and Justin Hawrysh of Wiggle Room. Lunch is provided, followed by networking and a USDA NRCS rainwater simulator demo.

Rodger has been farming in Connecticut for 14 years. Along with his wife, Isabelle, he operates Sub Edge Farm, a diversified 300-acre certified organic farm growing fruits, flowers vegetables, culinary herbs as well as pasture raised meats and eggs. The farm has a CSA program and a farm-shop open most days of the week.

The goal at Sub Edge is to always strive for improved soil health; they are experimenting now with a no-till drill and roller crimper they hope to use for growing squash and tomatoes this year.

From NOFA’s technical consultant and “embedded” reporter, Monique Bosch

Under the Microscope at Assawaga Farm


We visited Assawaga Farm in late September to take a peak at how microbes are handling the ‘no-till’ environment up there. For the past 2

years Yoko and Alex have worked tirelessly on their 2 acre intensive farm to ‘push the envelope’ on no-till farming techniques. They are growing a wide assortment of vegetables, incorporating no-till with succession planting, cover crops and holistic farming practices to grow the healthiest food possible.

We took a look at their soil under the microscope and discovered excellent microbial life and soil structure. Below is a movie showing microscopy from one of their beds, growing a cover crop of field peas and oats in a bed that has not been tilled for the past 2 years…

Notice the amount of aggregates, large dark bundles of bacteria, resulting in excellent soil structure.

 

Yoko and Alex both felt that the microscopy gave them a much better understanding of what is going on inside their soil. They now have a

new set of eyes for soil, and have a greater appreciation for the life therein. Yoko explained how this will change the way they farm:  “This will certainly make us think harder about how to treat the microbes, like keeping the soil covered at all times and have as much growing through the year as possible. We’re going to interplant around our main crops, to add diversity and cover as much soil as possible with living plants.”

No-till allows the soil to establish communities of fungal networks, aggregates of bacteria, and a constant stream of nutrient cycling between

plants and microbes. Alex talked about some of the challenges they face with no-till:

“We have a  paperpot transplanter that does a great job planting seedlings. When we have residue of, tomatoes and peppers it’s difficult to get the planter through there. It’s much easier to have a newly tilled bed, but the rewards of leaving the roots to slowly decompose and add organic matter and food for the microbes gives us a much healthier next crop, so its worth the extra effort.”

We took another look at soil that was probably the least disturbed over the past two years, the garden bed growing ginger. Amazing how many fungal hyphae have developed in that short amount of time. See this for yourself below:

 

Fungal hyphae dominate this sample, and  fungal dominant soil is preferred by ginger so it’s a perfect pairing of “right crop, right soil biology”.

 

Alex and Yoko shared with me a photo of one their success stories that came from no-till farming. These basil plants were planted at the same time. The right bed had been bare for about a year, the left bed had residue of celery with basil interplanted between the harvested crop:

The takeaway from our visit to Assawaga is that no-till is working in ways that the microscope can show:

  • better soil structure
  • more diverse life in the soil
  • balance of fungi to bacteria

 

Our deepest thanks and appreciation for innovations in organic agriculture go to our partners at Assawaga Farm, as we at NOFA continue to explore ways to grow the healthiest food possible.

Connecticut NOFA is proud to participate in a partnership with Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont NOFAs in launching a three-year study of no-till organic farming across 12 organic farms in the Northeast.  Here in Connecticut, our research partners are:

Assawaga Farm,

Massaro Community Farm

SubEdge Farm

We chose our partner farmers (Alex Carpenter and Yoko Takemura of Assawaga, Steve Munno of Massaro Farm, and Rodger Philips of Sub Edge Farm) because they are each engaged in certified organic no-till and low-till work on their farms, and we wanted to represent a small, midsize, and larger scale farm working on the same challenge through differing approaches.  Visit our Carbon Farming Initiatives Page to follow the research as it unfolds and learn more about soil health and the power of organic agriculture in climate change resilience.

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram for live-time coverage of this crucial work.