Does Composting Make Sense for the Market Farmer? Part 2; Composing your Compost

 In Market Farm Development

In case you missed the first blog

In the last blog piece Compositing for the Market Farmer we went through the basic soil science principles and National Organic Association guidelines for compost safety. In this piece we examine the different components of compost that can enhance soil life and nutrient flow to crops. I’ll remind you that the type of composting we are exploring is thermophilic (hot) aerobic digestion (oxygen dependent bacteria) compost for mixed use farms (animal and plant waste accessible). I will also detail sourcing and current average pricing of materials for the best and most available resources for premium compost. In the next blog we will talk about methods for building different compost piles and maintenance to encourage thermophilic breakdown at necessary temperatures.

Establishing a baseline for success

The first step in establishing which materials are essential for your compost composition is a soil test. Acidic or alkaline soils can be adjusted through balancing your compost one way or the other, and specialty materials can be sourced to add essential nutrients lacking in your soil profile like potassium obtained from hardwood ashes. However, the main goal in establishing compost is balancing the carbon/nitrogen ratio. In my research and prior experience landscaping I have found a ratio that not only balances the ratio for proper breakdown of organic matter but also will allow you to spend little to no money to source. Remember that the end goal here isn’t simply to fertilize soil, it’s to build a healthy soil bacteria and invertebrate decomposer biome to benefit your above ground vegetative production for years to come.

Composing your compost for a healthy compost pile

Here is a list of materials and amounts to establish a healthy compost system, in the notes column I’ll talk about sourcing each individual item in your local community. Afterwards we’ll talk about properly mixing materials.

Base Materials for Hot Compost:

C:N Ratio Notes:
Leaves (Fresh) 40/1 In and around your homestead/farm
Grass Clippings (Lawn)* 31/1 Around your homestead/farm
Cow Manure* 25/1 Farm animals/ Many farms allow free pickup and advertise online (Craigslist/ Facebook Marketplace)
Horse Manure 20/1 Farm animals/ Many farms allow free pickup and advertise online (Craigslist/ Facebook Marketplace)
Sheep Manure 15/1 Farm animals/ Many farms allow free pickup and advertise online (Craigslist/ Facebook Marketplace)


High Carbon Materials:

C:N Ratio Notes:
Saw Dust* 325:1 Tree trimming businesses/ Local wood shops (furniture/lumber yards/Home Depot/ Lowes)
Tree Bark 200:1 Around your property/ Lumber yards
Newspaper (Shredded) 175:1 Municipal paper recycling bins/ Recycling centers (avoid glossy advertisement pages)
Wheat Straw 80:1 Straw is available bulk farm/feed stores and is inexpensive
Pine Needles* 80:1 Around your property/ Tree farms/ Lumber yards
Corn Stover (Materials left in field) 60:1 After corn has been harvested for the last time (anytime after August) Many farmers just let the corn stalks lay fallow over winter, establishing a barter system might allow sourcing in exchange for clearing them out.)
Leaves (Dry) 50:1 Bags left curbside by residential neighborhoods in fall/ Landfill


High Nitrogen Materials:

C:N Ratio Notes:
Used Coffee Grounds* 20:1 Leave buckets (or if room leave 50 gal. plastic bin by dumpster) with Cafe’s around town with contact information and establish a pick up schedule to pick up/ switch out buckets
Sunflower Seed Shells 15:1 Not only is establishing bird feeders around the property good for migrating and over winter bird populations, they are an effective pest insect control and the fallen seeds can be a good compost addition.
Food Waste 12:1 Independent food services for universities/ local vegetarian restaurants (as to avoid extra work for the business separating out dairy/meat/bread)
Swine Manure 12:1 Farm animals/ Many farms allow free pickup and advertise online (Craigslist/ Facebook Marketplace)
Egg Shells* 10:1 Local breakfast restaurants, make sure to grind eggshells as fine as possible to gain the most benefit, has lots of potential calcium/ phosphorus.
Chicken Manure* 7:1 Farm animals/ Many farms allow free pickup and advertise online (Craigslist/ Facebook Marketplace)

*Prime materials for breakdown rate/ added benefits/ ease of sourcing

Getting your ratios right

In composing your pile start with a bedding of high carbon materials approximately 2” deep, this will attract any surface level decomposers up into the bottom profile of your pile. Also remember that the smaller each individual part is the more surface area is present to breakdown. The goal is to end up with a C:N ratio of 25:1-40:1, the underlying reasoning behind this ratio is to avoid mineralization or leeching. Mineralization occurs when the C:N ratio is too high >40:1 and results in minerals tightly binding to an excess of carbon and leaching occurs when the C:N ratio is too low <25:1 with nutrients washing out of the compost into the ground because they are not tightly bound.

The trick to the right ratio is knowing the signs of mineralization and leaching. We see evidence of mineralization as an indicator by lack of change in the pile over time. The materials retain the characteristics they enter the pile with. Gooey wet piles and rancid smells indicate not enough carbon. This is an easy fix that we address with sawdust additions. At this point we recommend composure of 50% Base Material 35% High Nitrogen Materials and 15% High Carbon Materials. Don’t feel it necessary to include every item off of each list. Tailor your compost pile to the most accessible materials. If you just follow the percentage recommendations, you’ll be on your way to free fertilizer and a healthy soil biome.

About James 

James Robert Sears Wirth was born and raised in an agriculturally rich area of Northern Utah in the United States. During his undergraduate degree in Sustainable Agriculture Systems degree at Utah State University James worked as a Sustainable Food Specialist. Because of his educational emphasis, he has experience on all sides of modern and traditional agricultural production. James has worked in production systems from planning and inspections on a greenhouse, to invasive pest and beneficial insect monitoring.

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compost for the market farmer