Composting dilemmas

Maybe it’s time to write something about practical farm issues for a change, and what could be more practical than compost? In principle, compost is one of those ‘what’s not to like’ phenomena. You pile up unwanted organic matter that otherwise requires disposal, mix it with a bit of air and water and, hey presto, you end up with a magical substance that feeds your next crop and builds your soil. Compost is foundational to the organic farming idea of building beneficial biological cycles into farming practice.

But the practicalities of composting raise quite a number of dilemmas. Here are five:

  • on anything much more than a small garden scale, there is a considerable labour or energy cost to moving all that bulky organic matter to and from the compost heap – so much so that, before you know it, the energy advantage over buying in synthetic fertiliser is cancelled out, especially if you start trucking in manure from other people’s holdings
  •  if you don’t build your compost heap expertly – and to do so is a time consuming business – parts of it will go anaerobic and start emitting methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas
  • likewise, if you toss in any old organic matter from the garden and don’t build a professional-grade hot heap your compost will be absolutely full of weed seeds which you will then distribute around your garden
  • unless you build a compost heap resembling Fort Knox, it will be a magnet for rats to build a cosy retreat from which they will sally forth all winter and make a terrible nuisance of themselves
  • if you use animal manure in your heap – particularly imported farmyard manure – the likelihood is that you’re basing your ‘organic’ farming on a synthetics-dependent and unsustainable livestock agriculture. You also risk importing all sorts of nasties into your soil, including various pathogens, antibiotic residues, aminopyralid herbicides that will kill your plants and – in my experience – quite often an assortment of terrible crap like old spark plugs and broken glass.

So, what is to be done? If I were running a small domestic garden, I think these problems would be manageable. And if I were running a large farm I’d use a big tractor and other energy-intensive kit to develop a decent composting system. It probably wouldn’t surmount the energy issue, but then nothing really does on a large farm. On the small farm, however, as with many things you get caught between two stools.

Steve Savage, a persistent critic of organic farming, decries its use of compost for similar reasons to those outlined above and advocates the use of anaerobic digestion instead. Such critics often forget that good old composted farmyard manure is widely used in conventional farming too, though perhaps only in those areas which have thankfully managed to retain a bit of mixed arable and pastoral land use and haven’t yet succumbed completely to the depressing uber-specialisation wrought by big agri where soluble synthetic fertiliser is king. Still, Savage has a point – in an ideal world, a digester is probably the best way to go. But then the argument tends to drift in favour of massive dairy farms or feedlots with ‘efficient’ industrial-scale digester facilities. I don’t know if there are any good energy lifecycle analyses of such facilities, or of large-scale mechanised farming machinery powered by methane, biodiesel or renewable electricity but if anyone could point to me to some, I’d be grateful. My feeling is that the whole-life energy costs, including building these big plants and then trucking the raw materials around, would be pretty high. Likewise with the opportunity cost of a fossil fuel-free industrial-mechanical agriculture would be high. But I’d like to see some good data. As I’ve suggested before, there are many other external costs of large-scale agriculture that suggest to me the wisdom of small-scale farming solutions, but I don’t deny that compost and fertility cycling is a problem for farming of all kinds which isn’t simply banished by scale.

One alternative for the small farm is a small-scale, backyard digester of the sort pioneered in China. My worry there is that if the facility isn’t very well built the chances are it’ll leak methane and lose its advantage, and to build it well may take more time and money than the average small farmer can really afford. But it’s a technology I’d like to keep my eye on. Some people coming from a vegan perspective are excited by such technologies as a means to turn grass into something useful without livestock. Call me old-fashioned, but personally I prefer to see ruminants on grass in mixed farming systems, though again it’s an intriguing idea and it would be worth seeing a good lifecycle energy or emissions analysis.

Anyway, the compromise strategy we’re currently pursuing at Vallis Veg is a much lower tech one. It has the following components:

Sheet compost

  • most of the fertility for the field crops comes from clover-rich leys, supplemented with a bit of manure from the livestock on the holding. The leys are tilled in as part of a tillage-minimising rotation
  • weed-free crop residues are added to the newest ley in the rotation as a kind of sheet mulch, with the aim of it breaking down slowly and aerobically over the 2-3 year life of the ley (see photo)
  • Cordelia uses our volunteers to build beautiful compost heaps which she polices terrifyingly in order to ensure that they’re weed free and nicely aerobic
  • nasty seedy-weedy stuff is either tossed callously into the field margins or put into a modified water butt to produce liquid compost
  •  the only stuff we routinely bring in from offsite is woodchips from local tree surgeons and a little reclaimed (not mined) peat. As I discussed previously the peat is used for our soil block transplants and I think is a tolerable compromise in sustainability, but in the longer term we’d like to minimise its use and make seed compost out of the wood chips, as Tolly does on his amazing site. We also plan to mix the urine from our compost toilets with the woodchips to make some handy, weed-free compost. Our rationale for the woodchip is that the tree surgeons are driving around with it anyway trying to find somewhere to dump it, so they may as well dump it on our site where we can make good use of it. It requires a bit of turning with a front loader or mini digger once in a while, but that doesn’t use too much diesel in my opinion. With its high carbon content it also takes a long time to compost down into something useful, but hey I ain’t going anywhere in a hurry.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I can currently think of. As always, I’d welcome any comments.

Vegetable Experiment – First Report

I thought I’d post an update on my vegetable growing experiment, if only to prove I do occasionally get out and do some growing rather than just sitting at my computer composing angry screeds about the state of the world.

It’s way too early to present any results from the experiment, which will be some years in the coming if indeed they ever do. But I’m aiming to offer a running commentary as time goes on about how it’s going. I’d welcome any thoughts on what I’m doing, and what I might do better.

So I’ve now pretty much got thirty 10x1m beds in various stages of establishment. Charles Dowding told me that it would be a lot to take on, but having previously being cultivating over an acre I was inclined to disregard him. I must have forgotten the horror of it all, because all of a sudden I fear he was right, and I’m feeling overwhelmed at what I’ve taken on…

Anyway, I chose an area tucked away in an upland corner of my holding for the experiment, reserving the established market garden plots for a time when hopefully they’ll be in full production again. The topsoil is a bit thinner where I’ve established the experimental plots, and the subsoil is chock full of rubbly limestone. Actually, that’s not quite true – there seems to be a band of seriously rubbly subsoil a few metres wide running across one of my two rows of 15 beds, with the rest of the area rather less stony. It’ll be interesting to see if there are any yield or other differences associated with the rubble. Still, at least I’ll be rotating across the plots so it shouldn’t compromise the comparative results too much. It’s probably not the greatest land for growing veg on, and I’m probably not the greatest grower either. At least this way the kind of yield figures I’m likely to get will seem within the reach of ordinary mortals, unlike the terrifying quantities that John Jeavons reports from his Californian veg factory.

The history of this bit of land is that it had been down to long-term permanent pasture until 2010, when I put four pigs on it. The permanent pasture didn’t last long after that! I then tilled it and grew wheat in 2011 (a bit of a disaster – but that’s a story for another day), then tilled it again and sowed a mixed ley of red clover, chicory and cocksfoot in spring 2012, which I meant to grow on for a couple of years but came up with this crazy plan instead.

To establish the beds in this largely preparatory year, I took a no till approach with the Dowding no till beds by simply mulching them with phormisol. I’ll put some compost on in the autumn and start growing something on them next year. The Tolhurst and Jeavons beds I started off by rotavating them. It takes approximately 1 minute to do one pass along a 10m bed with the rotavator, which I’d estimate is at least 100 times faster than hand digging. I ain’t sayin’ it’s right, I’m just sayin’. Having first rotavated the Jeavons beds I then initiated a programme of double-digging (by hand, obviously). I’ve only done two beds so far. The first one took me 4 hours to do the 1x10m, the second 2 hours – the difference I think being largely down to variation in the stoniness of the subsoil. Just goes to show how different a couple of bits of land can be even when they’re just a few metres apart.

I’ve left 50cm paths of the untilled ley around the beds, which I guess I’ll have to scythe or strim. The paths are absolutely chocka with docks. Maybe I should have tilled in the whole damn ley, though that would probably only have brought temporary relief. I’m not sure the pigs did me any favours on the dock front, and as an aside I think I’d like to register a slight scepticism about the usefulness of permaculture ‘pig tractors’ (also a topic for another occasion…). Then again, perhaps I should blame my poor weed management rather than my poor pigs. Anyway, I think the docks are going to be a bit of a problem – lots of hard work with a lazy dog? I’ve never really figured out the optimum way of making paths around vegetable beds on largish scales.

I’ve been late getting going with establishing any crops in the beds – let’s just blame it on the cold spring. Still, I never planned to go full tilt in the first year and at least I’ve now got potatoes in one of the double dug Jeavons beds, and in one of the Tolhurst beds. It took me one minute to ridge each bed with – yep, you guessed it – my trusty Honda, and about twenty minutes to plant each one up by hand (22 Sarpo Mira seed potatoes per bed). The potatoes went in nice and deep into the loose soil of the double dug Jeavons bed. It will be interesting to compare yields with the Tolhurst bed.

Having been advised by various folk not to overdo it and mess around with a polyculture bed as originally planned – wise words, I think – the illicit thought occurred to me that I might just grow one of my six rotation crops in the bed originally earmarked for polycultures using conventional methods. It would be my own little contribution to the sustainable intensification debate. Anyway, more on that another time.

Four of my ten Jeavons beds are for carbon-and-calorie/biomass crops. I sowed a mix of four parts wheat (Tybalt – it was all I could get…), one part buckwheat, almost one part lucerne (which turned out not to have any inoculant with it when I opened the package, despite the seed company’s assurances – oh well, I just sowed it anyway), almost one part red clover, a one-tenth part broad beans and a tiny bit of grain amaranth. Seems hard to get grain amaranth in large quantities. Perhaps I’ll rethink that mixture in future years. Anyway, then I raked it, rolled it and put Enviromesh over it to keep the corvids off until it’s germinated. It’s pretty late to be sowing wheat, so I probably won’t get much of a grain crop. I suppose for this year at least the carbon/biomass is more important.

I’ve already made various stupid blunders in establishing the beds, most of them to do with complex technical issues such as my inability to count, tell left from right etc. But I don’t think they’ll compromise the results – the main thing is to make sure that I do the same things year on year across my three different systems, other than the key variables of interest which are basically tillage and fertility. I want to keep inputs as low as feasible, so I’m avoiding irrigation, transplanting etc as much as possible. I’ll see how it goes.

And your reward for reading this far is to see the first official picture of the Vallis Veg Experimental Trial. Don’t it just look lovely? I sent it in to Homes and Gardens Magazine, but I’ve not heard back yet.

For peat’s sake

Last week I sold on a few organically-certified bags of reclaimed peat seed compost that I’d bought from West Riding Organics and received some negative feedback about the use of peat from customers who apparently hadn’t realised that the reclaimed peat I was selling was based on, er, peat. The episode raises some wider issues that are close to the theme of this blog, and has prompted me to think a bit more about them, so I thought I’d give them an airing.

The basic problem is that peat is pretty much the best substrate for seed compost, but you can only get it from the slowly accumulating vegetable detritus of wet moorlands, which are rare and sensitive habitats, and also ones that sequester carbon. So digging it out for gardeners at rates far greater than it’s being deposited isn’t a sustainable practice.

Reclaimed peat is peat that has been eroded out of moorland habitats and washed into lakes and reservoirs, from where the enterprising folks at West Riding Organics filter it out, fiddle about with it a bit and then sell it to the likes of me. The West Riding Organics website states “It must be stressed that this is a result of natural erosion with man playing no part in its formation”, but according to one customer I spoke to views of this kind are ‘weasel words’.

Why? Well, I can’t speak for my customer but one possible problem is that the erosion is only partly ‘natural’, with at least some of it (how much?) resulting from human practices that exacerbate the erosion. Another possible problem is that there’s nowhere near enough natural erosion to satisfy the demand for seedling compost.

Actually, I don’t think the second objection stands up. No, there isn’t enough peat to go around, but if some of it is knocking around on the bottom of a reservoir then there’s a good case for filtering it out and doing something more useful with it. The same argument applies to the recycled chip fat that I use in my van – we can’t fuel the entire global vehicle fleet with chip fat, but that doesn’t mean that a few of us shouldn’t make use of the resource. The first objection is potentially a problem though. On reflection, my view is that it’s still worth making use of the eroded peat – it’s not doing any good where it is, and it can’t be put back. But if it could be shown that the market for reclaimed peat was in some way directly incentivising land management practices that contributed to the erosion of moorland, then I think I’d avoid buying it. I don’t think using reclaimed peat is ethically tainted just because it’s peat, but if its use is directly contributing to moorland erosion then I’d have to accept that it is ethically tainted. And I don’t know whether it is or not – it would be good to find out.

For me, there are three wider issues of interest here encompassing (1) trust (2) farm economics and (3) growing practices. A few brief comments on each in turn.

My customers bought the compost without researching the details because, touchingly, they trusted my ethical integrity as a sustainability-minded grower. I don’t suppose they’ll be making that mistake again, dammit. And I suppose I in turn bought it without researching the details because it’s organically certified, so implicitly I placed my trust in the Soil Association to have researched the details for me. That’s basically what third party ‘ethical’ certification is all about, as when we buy fair trade coffee in the supermarket for a few pence extra and feel like we’re good people. But since my whole ‘small farm future’ schtick is basically about direct relationships of trust between producers and consumers then I’m somewhat hoisted by my own petard on this one. The only thing I’d say in my defence is that I was pretty explicit in my message to customers about the source of the compost, which just goes to show how much people’s trust of individuals can obscure attention to the fine print. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe peat compost will have to go the way of cigarettes, with ‘PEAT COMPOST KILLS WETLANDS AND CAUSES DISEASES OF UNSUSTAINABILITY’ marked in huge letters on the bag. Maybe people will go on buying it anyway, just like cigarettes.

Oh what the hell, I’m going to say two other things in my defence as well, which come under the rubric of the other two wider issues – first farm economics. As a ‘direct producer’ I would love it if I really could produce everything directly. When people visit our holding they often ask, ‘do you save all your own seeds?’ or ‘do you make all your own seed compost?’ In fact, we do try to do a bit of both, but the honest answer is ‘I’d love to but I can’t even earn a living wage spending all my time just growing vegetables’. As I’ve said before on this blog, the economic reality of farming is that fossil energy is cheap and human labour is dear, and this fundamentally distorts the social ecology. Whether it’s possible to farm sustainably at all in the long view of human history is a moot point, but it’s certainly not possible to farm sustainably in contemporary Britain. Which means all of us have to make personal decisions about what we will and won’t do for the sake of our sustainability principles, decisions that are endlessly open to the scrutiny and criticism of others.

And so to the final interesting issue, growing practices. One decision I’ve made is not to import any manures or composts onto my holding…well, er, other than seed compost that is. There are various reasons for that, but the main one is that even supposedly ‘organic’ compost relies directly or indirectly on fossil fuel intensive synthetic nitrogen, and I think we need to experiment with other ways of producing our food. It’s worth bearing in mind that organic growers have to use something like 25 tonnes of soil-building compost per hectare, as compared to something like 250kg of seed compost for the transplants that go into the same area. I think importing the seed compost is a lesser evil. Of course, seed compost doesn’t have to be peat-based, but it pretty much does if you use a soil blocking system for transplants, which I’ve found to be the most effective way of establishing transplants – and effective germination has sustainability implications of its own. Seedling substrates are a big issue for organic growers, because there are very few products available that do a good job without having sustainability implications of one kind or another (coir being the main alternative to peat). If you don’t buy organic it’s pretty likely that there’ll be peat in them thar vegetables, the transplanted ones anyway. What are the solutions? Well, I’m open to suggestions, but everything I can think of involves greater costs, and – if my customer surveys are anything to go by – people think organic veg costs too much already.


1: I ought to have found out a bit more about the erosion processes associated with reclaimed peat, and whether the market for it incentivises poor land management, rather than relying on the Soil Association to do it for me. I’ll invite West Riding Organics to comment on this.

2: it’s a lot easier to be a sustainable domestic gardener than a sustainable commercial grower, and it probably pays better too

3: but if you really want to be a sustainable gardener don’t import compost of any kind. Period. Or much of anything else for that matter.

I’d be interested in comments on this post, or thoughts on other dilemmas of sustainability facing growers and gardeners.

Mythologies, and how to apply them

In its ceaseless search through the blogosphere to identify even the smallest of byte-sized morsels that might inform its mission, Small Farm Future has stumbled upon an alter ego in the shape of Steve Savage’s blog Applied Mythology, which puts the case for agribusiness-as-usual.

I think I can safely say that the editorial office here at Small Farm Future is unanimous in its commitment to evidence-based policymaking, and Savage’s evidence as an industry insider is certainly interesting. I do wonder a little why critics of organic farming and similar initiatives are so vociferous in their condemnations given the overwhelming dominance of large-scale conventional agribusiness in global political opinion – perhaps they’re afraid of something? Nevertheless, it’s good to engage with the other side once in a while.

What’s interesting though is that in these debates matters of technical fact quickly turn into matters of political opinion. For example, Savage purports to show that in relation to greenhouse gas emissions organic wastes are better sent for anaerobic digestion than composted in situ. I don’t think his evidence can entirely support that conclusion, but he may turn out to be right in terms of life-cycle emissions per unit waste. However, such an analysis takes much for granted – and in particular it chooses to focus on one small part of the emissions profile that happens to be strongly associated with organic farming, rather than suggesting any modification to the whole outgassing edifice of our highways, cities, supermarkets, cold chains, soya plantations, airlines, cheap goods from China and all the rest of it. That, of course, is where the politics comes in. And also the ‘myth’, which I take to be a much more complicated and ambiguous word than Savage does – for ultimately both farming in particular and human life in general turn on the stories that we want to tell about ourselves, and how we enact them.

In an article in the Journal of Agrarian Change (‘Beyond industrial agriculture?’ 2010, 10, 3: 437-53), Philip Woodhouse complained about the polarised debates between advocates of “‘small-scale’, labour-intensive ‘peasant’ or ‘family’ farming and large-scale, mechanized ‘industrial’ farming’”. He has a point, but I think the debates are likely to stay polarised until that small-scale, peasant or family farming vision is treated as a serious option in political debate (Woodhouse’s use of scare quotes is quite interesting in that respect). Until that comes to pass, this blog will strive in its own sweetly polarised way to change the world by fronting up to agribusiness. ¡No pasarán!

Merry Christmas…

…and a happy new year to anyone who for some bizarre reason may be reading this blog during the holiday season.

Small farm future will now be taking a Christmas break until early in the new year. Upcoming highlights for 2013 will include a report back on the Oxford Real Farming Conference, an analysis of R. Ford Denison’s interesting book Darwinian Agriculture, and doubtless more posts on many other topics that I promised to cover in the past but never did. For me, 2013 is also likely to involve a long drawn out planning appeal against Mendip District Council and a tricky decision as to whether to try to resume life as a commercial grower in the mean time – I’ll keep you posted. Betcha can’t wait!




Spam and Spudman

As Small Farm Future starts going viral, I’m finding that it’s subject to an increasing amount of spam. I’ve recently activated spam filtering software to deal with the problem, but there’s a risk that some genuine comments will get filtered out. If you find that your comments don’t appear on the blog please email me via Vallis Veg to let me know.

I’m currently in the midst of a raft of interesting meetings around the country – the inauguration of a UK branch of the international peasant/small farmer movement Via Campesina, working on the emerging College of Enlightened Agriculture, and attending an interesting conference at the University of Oxford on global agrobiodiversity and food systems. Meanwhile, my fearless superhero alter ego Spudman is continuing his epic battle against the forces of evil otherwise known as Mendip District Council. More on all the above soon!

A (non-political) blog about vegetable recipes…

One of the reasons I started this blog was that I thought it would be good to have recipes and information for customers available online in an easily archived format. But whenever I sit in front of a nice big blank computer screen the urge to write about the politics of food and farming is overwhelming – hence the underwhelming number of recipes and vegetable posts to date.

Actually, the question of vegetable recipes is quite political too. More than a few ex-customers and potential customers have told us that they’d like to get a box from us, but they can’t really cope with all of the unprocessed veg coming at them in their weekly box. Much could be written about the implications of our fast-paced modern consumerist lifestyle that prevents us from having the time to prepare and cook vegetables, or allows us to ‘cherry-pick’ just a few favourites and forget the virtues of much honest old provender – particularly at this time of year when the boxes are full of parsnips, swede, kale and such like. But hey ho, blah blah, instead of going off on another rant I just want to draw your attention to two excellent sources for box scheme-appropriate recipes, which do a far better job than I could possibly ever do – one is professional cookery writer Laura Washburn’s excellent blog Farm Box Days, in which she handily archives a bunch of her scrumptious recipes that she uses for her own veg box by vegetable type and season. And the other is the Boxing Clever Cookbook by Jacqui Jones and Joan Wilmot – worth getting once again for its delicious, seasonal and box scheme-relevant recipes.

Hey, I actually enjoyed steering clear of politics in this post and focusing on something down to earth and non-contentious. Next week: the Common Agricultural Policy.