From poo to production
We've been committed to sustainable agricultural practices for a long time. When we took over this farm in 2003, we weren't sure how we could make it "real" on a large scale with a "crop" that took YEARS before harvest. We only knew we didn't want to dump chemicals all over the ground.
We've been backyard composters for years, even when stationed overseas in Okinawa and Hawaii. So we started with what we knew. From collecting some manure from our horse-owning neighbors and adding our kitchen scraps, we began experimenting with compost production a few years ago. It was pretty modest -- just some horse manure, leaves (we have a LOT of leaves each fall) and kitchen scraps.
For ingredients, we collect horse manure with bedding from three local horse boarding farms and several smaller farms, non-marketable produce from our neighbor produce farms, all our fall leaves, coffee grounds from work (and wherever else we can find them) and, of course, our good old kitchen scraps, aged wood chips and newspaper.
From Poo to Production -- a 3-month Journey (usually)
Composting starts with the collection of the raw materials. Like other composters, we refer to this as assembling the ingredients for our "recipe." When you cook, you collect the ingredients for your recipes with a shopping cart. We use a 14-yard dump truck. We routinely collect 2-3 truck loads of raw material a month -- horse manure mixed with urine-soaked saw dust. Yum!
The photo also illustrates another aspect of our operation we are proud of -- our Veteran focus. The tractor operator is a former Marine rifleman (Afghanistan Veteran). The truck driver is a former Marine (Beirut Veteran). Other members of our operation include an Army Desert Storm Kiowa Warrior pilot and two retired Navy Vets -- one an F-18 pilot and the other is a retired H-60 pilot.
Once we collect the main ingredient and get it home, the next step is forming the raw compost into windrows. During this stage, we also mix in some aged woodchips as a bulking agent to help keep the compost aerated -- lots of oxygen is critical to get the process started! The optimal mix is 30 parts carbon to one part nitrogen.
The sawdust in the horse barn cleanings makes up the bulk of the carbon, but we also add leaves, straw and hay bales.
The nitrogen comes in the form of urea (from the horse urine in the barn cleanings) and from the used coffee grounds that John collects at work and other places.
Another great source of nitrogen is "green manure" in the form of plant material (grass clippings, kitchen scraps, egg shells and waste vegetables from our produce-farming neighbors).
Forming the Windrows
Because all that carbon in the windrow is pretty dry (the wood material, straw/hay and paper), the newly formed mix will be short of another critical element -- moisture! Not only is moisture critical to the good processes that need to take place, but moisture is also a good vehicle to get oxygen into the middle of the pile where the heart of the process is. Without oxygen and moisture, the pile will go anaerobic -- It just burns and turns to ash. So we try to maintain at least a 65 percent moisture content. We measure that with the ole "Grab and squeeze" method!
Rain isn't always enough, so we get 65 percent by using one of our favorite farm tools -- the fire truck! With its "pump and roll" capability and a 1,000-gallon tank, we can pump lots of water -- which, during the hot summer months, is weekly.
In your kitchen, you probably use a hand held device to mix your cooking ingredients. In our compost kitchen, we use a tractor-powered mixer!
Once the windrows are assembled, the ingredients added, and the moisture content is adjusted to optimal levels, we have to mix it all together to get the processes going. All that mix is heavy! (It may look somewhat like light, fluffy potting soil - but it isn't!)
When the ingredients are processing correctly, the interior of the piles run about 140 degrees. That tells us everything is in order and breaking down precisely. If the temps run higher, it usually means the process is going anaerobic and we need to get some moisture/oxygen into the pile; or there is too much nitrogen and we need to add more carbon material.
Turning the Windrows
If the temps fall below 120, it means the processes are completing and we need to mix everything around to get them going again. Either way, it means we have to hook up the turner and stirs things up! We usually do this several times a week to keeps things humming.
The other main reason for maintaining 140 degrees in the windrow is to "cook off" any weed seeds contained in the mix -- whether they be from the vegetables or the plant material. Five days at 140 degrees does the trick!
Turning the Windrows
Once the windrow temperatures fall to ambient temperature and stay there, even after turning the pile, the composting is complete. When you grab a handfull of the mix, it doesn't look like horse poo mixed with sawdust and melon rinds anymore -- it looks, and smells, like good, rich earth. So, when you mix this with some soil, that is what it will be!
Once the processing is complete, we move the material out of the windrow and form a big, consolidated pile. This frees up the windrow space to start the next batch and makes it easy to load from the pile to apply it somewhere. It also allows for any final processing to take place.
We apply the finished product several ways. We can replenish the soil in existing tree rows by "top dressing" -- simply adding two inches of compost on top of the soil in the root zones of the trees, somewhat like a mulch. Rain and worms will take care of the rest (working the nutrients into the soil).
With new rows (as in the photo at left), we begin by running a "sub soiler" down the rows to break up the hard pan (compacted soil). That loosens the soil up to about 18 inches. We then add a four inch layer of compost down the row and finish by tilling it in.
For transplanting seedlings out of the Seedling Bed into existing rows, we mix the compost in liberally with the transplants to give them a good start as well as to replenish the surrounding soil.
Our long-range goal is to have the farm's soil completely revitalized over the next 10 years.
Copyright 2017 Friendship Forest
Friendship Forest Christmas Tree Farm
41370 Friendship Ct.
Mechanicsville, MD 20659