Horticulture Special #1: Compost’s Transformative Effect On Olive Orchard



We’re kicking off the year with a focus on the use of compost in horticulture – how compost use affects soil composition and soil health, and the plants or crops grown in it.

This week, we’re talking to Graham Brookman of The Food Forest organic farm in Gawler, South Australia about how compost has helped transform his poor quality soil and sensitive olive crops and greatly impacted his business for the better. We’ll be discussing how exactly compost works to improve the soil, and the olive crops especially, and we’ll also be exploring the cost factors involved, sourcing compost, the challenges he faced at the beginning, and how long it took to see changes in the soil and crops.



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The world’s largest organics recycling conference and tradeshow. COMPOST2015 is organised by the US Composting Council, and takes place in Austin city, TX. The event is dedicated to sharing knowledge about everything: from how to run a compost facility to the challenges of collecting green waste and food scraps. Those who attend the sessions and pre-conference classes can earn continuing education credits as well as cutting edge techniques in the industry.

Visit www.compostingcouncil.org/compost2015 for details.




Photo by AracuanoSome right reserved.




The Food Forest – Soil and Olives


Q: Can you tell me a bit about the Food Forest and your olive orchard especially?

Graham Brookman: The Food Forest is a small farm, of about twenty hectares, and of that about seven hectares are irrigated, which is important because we have an annual rainfall of only about forty-four hundred mills (millilitres). We have about one hundred and sixty different varieties of food that we produce, and in addition to the raw foods, we do a lot of value adding; so we would not only produce grapes, but the wine from the grapes, and the vinegar from the wine, and so on. So we tend to have a value-adding stream, which then creates its own by-products, and those by-products go back into the input of the system to keep it going. So we need the least possible non-renewable inputs from the outside.

So, olives are a particularly interesting crop in our environment. They’re very sensitive to the amount of rain that you get, and if they don’t get enough water they will sulk and they won’t give you a crop. And if they get adequate water, then they’ll feel really good and generous and give you good crop. So, we’re sitting on the knife-edge with a crop like olives, and the management of water in the soil is completely critical. So it’s a very interesting crop to watch when you’re thinking about how good your soil is, and how you can maximise your yield, given a particular rainfall.

Q: Can you share with us the situation you had with your soil before you started applying compost – I know it was quite poor quality and a bit of a challenge for you.

GB: The soil is naturally quite low in carbon. It’s an alluvial soil, so it’s largely fine clay silt brought down from the hills and down from the Barossa Valley, and that’s dumped into this old riverbed. So the whole of our farm is actually in a riverbed, and if the river gets angry we actually go under. So we’re acutely aware of where our soils have come from, and the upshot of that is that we have naturally around about 0.7 of a percent carbon in our soil, which is very low: a decent agricultural soil in Australia is somewhere between 2.5 and 3.5. So we started right down at the bottom end.

It was a very unforgiving soil that had the capacity to chemically concrete, virtually, in the summertime – so it was like farming on clay bricks. And so our first and major challenge was to unlock the soil from this concreting – and that was mainly done using calcium, so a calcium rich fertiliser. We used gypsum to chase the sodium ions off the colloids so that the soil would become a little bit more crumbly. And from there it’s just been a steady building of carbon that has led to the vast improvement of our soil.


How Compost Became A Solution: Location, Contamination & Organic Certification


Q: When did you decide to use compost, and why?

GB: Well we had been thinking about it for a long time, but we were bullied into going into a competition – the South Australian Premier’s Food Award – and the sponsor of the award was a guy called Peter Wadewitz from Peat Soils. And, you know, that was sort of by-the-by as far as we were concerned; we were just focused on trying to win the award at that stage.

But along the way, and particularly after we’d won the award, we’d got to know Peter very well, and it was only through talking to him that I realised how cheap compost is. It’s much cheaper than chemical fertiliser, and it gives you all of the added micronutrients, and it gives you carbon. So you’d have to be absolutely crazy not to use it in our situation. We are very close to the source – that is the city of Adelaide, which has got a million people producing organic waste, so the hauling distance is short, therefore the price is good. We also had a good contractor who does spreading locally at very competitive rates, and he worked with us to devise a way of throwing the compost into the actual olive rows – right next to the roots of the olive tree, rather than in the inter-row.

So firstly we could get the compost cheaply, and secondly, we could put the compost where it was needed. So altogether it was pretty easy to decide that that was the way to go!

Q: One of the biggest factors in the affordability of compost for farmers is the proximity to a source of compost. I’m sure you agree?

GB: It is. The cost of transport can be an absolute killer. So if you’re within fifty kilometres of one of the actual manufacturing points for compost, then you’re within a competitive range. But once you start going one hundred, two hundred or three hundred kilometres away, it starts to get pretty much undoable. So we’re just very lucky, and it’s my belief that we need to create cyclical systems where the city – which consumes the bulk of the food (and many other non-renewable items) and produces this magnificent waste stream that mostly goes out to sea – that could all be going straight into the farming system, which is just out on the periphery of the city, taking advantage of the waste water and the waste nutrient stream.

Q: A big concern for those using compost is the contamination rate of the compost. Did you do any research into the compost quality, or did you have any concerns about the contamination rate yourself?

GB: Well, we’re organic growers, so it has to be certified organic, and that was taken care of by the organic certification. So we didn’t have to worry much about it.

Q: As organic farmers, you’re able to use the compost made from non-organic materials from the city because of the change in certification, correct?

GB: Yes. There was a particular day at which one of the certifiers said, “Okay, we’re going to take the view that non-certified organic inputs, i.e. once composted and well done, can be regarded as organic”. That was a major breakthrough as far as I was concerned because up until that time we couldn’t use it because it wasn’t certified organic, and that was a mind-shift by the certifiers. So, that was a very important point.

Q: There are different types of compost to chose from and it can be tailored to suit your specific needs as well – so for your soils and for your orchards, what kind of compost were you looking for?

GB: As a farmer what I was looking for in compost was a high nitrogen level, because nitrogen is the element that drives plant growth most, and in most organic fertilisers there’s a dearth of nitrogen. So looking at the different producers, one stood out as having relatively higher nitrogen levels – still not huge, only about between 1.5 and 3 percent in terms of difference – but it makes a hell of a difference to the plants. It’s like you’ve got a rocket under the plant. So I was looking for high nitrogen, and I think that we can mainly thank the resource of animal manure for that. They had access to quite large amounts of animal manure, which went into that particular compost, and that was very important.


Compost Benefits: Water Retention, Increased Yields, Carbon Build-Up


Q: How often do you apply the compost?

GB: Back when we were poor we could only put it on once every two years, and we sort of hit on a rate of about twenty-two cubic metres per hectare – and that’s applied in bands under the trees. And then we got a bit richer and we do it every year now. And that’s much better because we could see in the second year of that cycle that our yields were less, so we need to keep topping it up. The soil is working hard and it needs to be fed, that’s for sure.

Q: What is important to keep in mind when growing olives, and how does the compost affect the olive tree growth, and crops?

GB: As I mentioned, olives are really capable of sulking. So it’s very hard to kill an olive; they will just stay alive under really bad circumstances, but in terms of giving you a decent yield, you really need to look after them if they’re going to look after you. So they do need reasonable amounts of fertiliser, and reasonable amounts of water. And what we didn’t have was any way of storing extra moisture in our soil when it was low carbon. Now we have three times the amount of carbon in our soil, having used compost for twenty-five years. So we have a much higher reservoir of water, which is actually carried within the organic carbon in our soil, and that makes all the difference.

Not only does compost give you ultimately more carbon, it gives you the capacity to hold more nutrients and hold more water in the soil, and for olives that just is enough to make the difference in our environment. We crossed a bridge about fifteen years ago where the olives suddenly decided that they quite liked being here, and instead of miserable little olives and very poor crops, we started to see some really good crops and it just gets better and better.

We haven’t had to use any other fertilisers, really, since we moved to compost. We had to fix up some stuff in the beginning, when we were low in magnesium, calcium and boron. But once we had those essential things fixed up, we have simply used compost every year, and it’s given us all of the nutrients and the carbon. So it has been quite miraculous. I feel a bit slack really, as a farmer, not having the do all of the recipes and looking at different fertilisers every year!

Q: I can imagine! You touch on some of the benefits here that you’ve experienced with compost, and I want to focus on that aspect now to give people a clearer idea of just how big an impact it’s had for you, particularly at the beginning. According to the case study done by Compost For Soils on their website, Even when you were only applying the compost every second year, production started growing steadily and yields had risen by fifty percent within a four year period – which of course has led to an increase in staff.

Soil organic carbon was as low as .7% and you have now got triple the amount of carbon, which then in turn has a huge impact on the water-holding capacity of your soils – with an increase of moisture infiltration and water holding capacity of up to one hundred percent.  So now you’ve got healthy and happy olive trees, thanks in the most part to compost…

GB: Yeah, it’s amazing really…

Q: How exactly has the compost benefitted the olive plants and the yields they produce the way that it has?

GB: One of the main things with compost is that you reduce the stress levels in your plants. So here, if we hit a real heat wave; temperatures can go up to forty-six, forty-seven degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit) and that puts the plants into stress to the point that they start producing some quite nasty chemicals – you know, some off-tastes: a lot of tannic kind of tastes – and the compost works in a number of ways to combat that.

One is actually how it keeps the soil temperature lower. So, putting the compost on fairly thick as we do, it’s not only acting as compost, it’s also acting as mulch. So if you had open, unshaded soil, the temperature might be seventy degrees centigrade or higher; well you wouldn’t want to experience that. Or, you can go under a layer of mulch in the same place, and if it’s a decent layer then you’re down around twenty-five or twenty-eight degrees absolute maximum. So it is absolutely staggering what a difference a bit of mulch makes.

So that’s one effect. And then you’ve got the continued capacity of compost to deliver water to the plants on those hot days. You just get that continual availability of moisture. So I think they’re the two key things that compost will do that conventional fertilisers won’t.

Q: So it’s crucial to supply the plant with a continual supply or water, and the mulch layer is quite critical then for success when it comes to olive growing in hot climates…

GB: Well yes, and as I was saying with the olives; if you don’t keep the water up, then they just won’t give you a yield. It’s as simple as that. We practice what’s called deficit irrigation where you don’t give the crop all of the water it could possible use, you give it a percentage of that. It’s like feeding children too much: if you feed them too much they get too fat and develop various diseases, but if you just keep them a bit leaner and a bit meaner and…but if you starve them they die!

So you’ve got to find that sweet point where you provide them with enough nutrients and water so they give you that yield, and that’s a very particular point. And we all aim for that here because we don’t have unlimited water: every little bit of water is very critical and compost helps us to find that sweet point.

Q: And of course with such limited water, it’s important that your irrigation applications are effective too…

GB: Overall. Of course, if you are irrigating on soil with low carbon, the water will go, ultimately, straight through it. It’s lost to drainage. Whereas if you’ve got a good carbon level in the top meter of soil, you can store bucket loads of extra water, which means that every kilolitre of water that you’re applying is actually being used by the plant instead of losing half of it to drainage, and that’s tremendously important. And then, in terms of utilisation of the water you’ve got in your soil – If you can reduce transpiration and keep your plants together where they haven’t kind of collapsed, then again you’re getting a much more efficient use of the water. So you’re winning in a couple of ways.

Q: That’s right, and I didn’t mention it before, but over that four year period once again, your irrigation applications grew to be twenty-five percent more effective – not only because of the carbon’s capacity to hold water, but because it lowers the temperature of the soil and reduces evaporation as well. But aside from these obvious benefits, what other benefits have you experienced with compost use?

GB: Oh, the soil microflora. If you’ve got a lot of carbonaceous material and just general vegetable material and so forth, you’ll find that you’re developing much healthier microbes. We have a laboratory in South Australia that actually tests the different types of microbes you have in your soil; and so you’ll have bacterial ones and fungal ones, you’ll have pathogenic ones and beneficials…and there isn’t any doubt about compost – it just really fixes a soil up that otherwise has no defence.

For the tree – if there’s a potential bacterial infection or something like that, with the compost you’ll suddenly find that you’ve got all the fungi and so forth that will get stuck into these pathogens and protect your tree. So there’s no question about that. We actually got our soil tested by a doctor Ashley Martin at this laboratory Microbe Labs. And when we first got the results back – you’ve got all of these issues in your soil, like gauges that you would have on the dashboard of your car, and if the speedometer reading, if you like, is right across to the right, it means you’re really good for drought tolerance, and you have another dial which is really good for bacterial-fungal balance, and so on.

And with our soils that have had compost on them for so long, every test that was done by this lab was right across to the right-hand side – fully on. And so it was good to actually see that this trial that was done using the DNA testing of all the microbes in the soil proved exactly what we’d been suspecting all along.


Challenges Faced at the Beginning


Q: Did you face any challenges at the beginning with sourcing or applying the compost?

GB: Well working out how we could band the compost along the actual tree rows. There was a lot of mucking around. We tried shoots sticking out of the side of the machine, and that was quite clumsy because you had shoot that used to crash into trees every now and then, and so forth. And then this guy from Africa – he was a welder – he designed these baffles that went on the back of the spreader. So the spinner would spin the compost out and it would hit these baffles and then bounce into the right place in the row. That was really good. So once we worked that out, it’s been pretty straightforward.

Q: Were there any challenges you faced specifically with the olive crops?

GB: We did have quite erratic yields with quite a lot of the crops, and we found that the individual climate of a year was critical to success, and I think compost has evened it out quite a bit. So the crop just charges along anyway, even if when you started this whole process a year like that would have just written you off and would have destroyed you. It doesn’t do that anymore because everything’s more resilient, and I think that’s really important. It gives you much more confidence as a farmer, that’s for sure.

Q: How long did it take for the compost to start making an impact on your soils and crops?

GB: The soil improvement came with both calcium sulphate, combined with the compost. And the gypsum, if you get rain, it takes about two or three days and you will notice that a paddock that was like rock now is quite soft. The compost was much slower, and so in terms of noticing a perceptible rise in soil carbon viability and workability with machinery, and that sort of stuff, it took two or three years to get anywhere.

But I think once you get to a certain point, you’re going to actually see the benefit in the year of application. So I would say that nowadays, we get all the money back in the first year, and then more money back in the second, third and fourth years from a given application. So your compost is extremely valuable, because you’re paying off the investment in the year that you actually apply it – and then you’re getting more and more benefit from then on as well.


Investing in Compost: Should You Take The Plunge?


Q: Why do you think some farmers are slow to use or invest in compost?

GB: Most of them are too far away, that’s the problem for a lot of them. Farmers are very practical people: if they do the sums and they can see that they will make money in their operation by buying compost rather than something else, mostly they’ll take the plunge. They’re very hyper-aware of economics. They’ll change crops from season to season, and be watching world markets…so there’s usually and economic reason; they’re economic rationalists, that’s for sure.

But the other thing is that you can put on a powerful fertiliser through your drippers in twenty minutes. You can’t do that with compost. So fertigation, particularly, is a very fast way of getting nutrients to plants. So I think not being a purist is half of the problem. So I would see a practice emerging that says “We’re going to base the soil health of our operation on compost, and we are going to continue to use sophisticated manufactured chemicals to maintain the exact control that we want in out greenhouses”, or whatever it might be.

But we could probably still use twice as much compost as we are at the moment.

Q: Do you have any words of advice for other farmers, or olive growers out there that are looking into using compost?

GB: The sooner you start applying compost, the sooner your soil structure will change – that’s the main message. You just jump in and start doing it, and I think you’ll find that you never stop. You know, I know a lot of people who have sort of weaned themselves onto compost; so they’ve applied a bit of compost for a couple of years, but they’ve kept a little bit of chemical fertilising going on at the same time, and then they’ve switched right across to compost. And so if you’re scared you can do that. It’s sort of like organics – you can do half your property and then you can do the rest when you’re convinced that you’re making more money.

So, particularly for farmers that have got a bit of land close to the city, they’ll find that they can increase their crops and maybe increase yield two or three times, become more profitable, and be doing the right thing for the planet. It doesn’t get better than that!



Toxic Dump Transformation: A Story from India


This episode corresponds to Lesson 1 of our online course.

In this tenth episode, Master Composter Peter Ash tells us how he helped transform a hospital dump in Kerala, India, from a toxic wasteland into a lush environment – with a dramatic drop in heavy metal quantities in the soil – by using recycling and vermicomposting techniques.

Thank you to the BioCycle for making this episode possible.

BioCycle, the Organics Recycling Authority, is the leading magazine and website on composting, food waste management, anaerobic digestion and renewable energy from organics recycling. Subscribe to BioCycle and get access to every article published over the last 10 years, and sign up for @BioCycle, our free biweekly e-bulletin. For more, visit www.biocycle.net.



EM: Just to set the scene a bit, Peter, can you tell us a bit about the AIMS hospital and where it’s situated?

PA: The hospital, AIMS: Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, they call it AIMS for short. And that, it was really a trip, because this had been a twelve-bed hospital about twenty years ago. And it turned, it grew up, like: everything that…where Amma goes, wherever she has a school or any kind of centre, it just goes from zero to a hundred miles an hour in no time.

So this hospital went from a twelve bed hospital to now a fifteen hundred bed, state of the art hospital and research centre, Med school, dental college, nursing college, school of pharmacology, you know, the whole thing. And with Amma, if you can pay, you pay. And if you can’t, you come and you get served, and you bring your family, and the family stays in the guest house while the patient’s being, you know, treated in the hospital, and everybody eats for super-cheap, and you stay until, you know, everything’s fine, and then you go home.

And so, there’s probably seven to ten thousand students that serve over, probably, twelve hundred patients every day. There’s thousands of employees. And it’s all coastal, tropical wetlands environment. And the hospital, it’s about 7 kilometers inland from the Arabian Sea. The city of Kochi, it’s a huge metropolitan area, you know, India is so densely populated. So there’s Edappally and Ernakulam, all these communities that just all run together – it’s just huge and it’s all interconnected with these waterways.

EM: Okay right, so it’s a densely populated area, and a massive hospital.

PA: Mh-hm.

EM:  And often hospitals use incinerators to burn the medical waste – but you were telling me that this one didn’t have an incinerator the first few years, and they were just dumping the medical waste onto the island itself. So, what did the dumping ground look like when you got there – and what did you do?

PA:  Basically, when I got to AIMS, the first thing I did was a big waste audit and a site assessment. And they took me around and showed me different properties, and the property I picked was right across this backwater channel connected to the Arabian Sea, to this big island that’s just, not even a meter above sea level. You know, it’s mushy in places. But, where they had been boating the waste, and the food waste – they were just dumping it in the backwaters – but all the other waste, if they couldn’t just easily recycle it, they were taking it over to the island and they were dumping it in pools of water or burning –

EM: And this was from the hospital?

PA: Yes. And for years before they got the incinerator, they had just been taking the hospital waste over to the island and burning it – right on the surface of the island. They took, like, metal rods, stuck them in the ground and made, kind of a rack so they could get some air in it, and they just put the bags…. I’ve got pictures of when I first arrived on the island where they had red hospital waste, you know, medical waste on this rack where they were burning. And the island, right there where they were dumping and burning was so dead that there was no insects, there was no birds, you know, it was just completely dead. And I said, “okay, this is the spot. This is where we’re going to do it. We’re going to have to build a big roof, so we can compost during monsoon season…”.

So, they said, “Well, what do you need?”

“Yeah, well I need this roof…”

“How big?”

“Well, like, by this, by that”


So, they laid it out and they started digging holes to pour concrete to hold up the pillars to hold this roof up. And then all the dumping and stuff that I’d seen, I said “Well” you know, “no more dumping, no more burning. We’re going to sort through this, we’re going to do better recycling. If it’s recyclable and it’s already over here now, we’re going to wash it and send it back to be recycled. If it can’t be recycling, then we’ll bag it up and we’ll send it to the proper incinerator, but no more dumping, no more burning”.

But when they started digging these holes for the footings, they’re like a meter wide, and they’d dig down so they can pour concrete and get…because it’s like the roof…like almost…our initial roof was almost the size of, like, a football field, because we had to build these big windrows of compost. Here we’re talking each day we were going to be composting six to eight metric tons of material a day. So, we’re building these long windrows, you know. We build a pile and then we’d add onto it the next day and add onto it the next day, until we run out of space. So when they start digging these holes, all this stuff starts coming out of the black mud. Syringes, blood vials – with blood still in them – catheters, IV bags, medicine packets…I mean, it was just, it was nasty. It was terrible. And I’m going, “Oh my God”. And they had told me the reason that Amma wanted me to come back was to start composting because they were under a lot of pressure from the State Pollution Control Board. And when I saw what was coming out of the mud, then I understood that, okay, this is not about composting the food waste, this is about the hospital’s impact on the environment.

EM: Hmm, I see…

PA: And Kerala has laws, I mean, they’ve got an environmental policy, they’ve got laws – state laws, federal laws. It’s just that, enforcing laws – they don’t, like, fine you. What they do is, they tell you “Okay, you can’t build anymore”. And with Amma, everything is growing, you know: more students, more patients, more technology, you know. So everything’s got to keep…they’ve got to keep building. And so, we couldn’t hold still. So we had to show them we were getting better.

And we actually, we cleaned up everything we could off the surface, and if it was recyclable, we washed it and bagged it up and sent it back to be recycled. If it couldn’t be recycled, we sent it back to go into the incinerator. What was buried in the mud we couldn’t do anything about because they hole fills up with water, you know. And this was really black, nasty, dangerous toxic mud, you know, with needles and…so we had to be careful.

So what we did was: once we cleaned the surface up, then we just, we took, like, palm fronds and, you know, things that were growing along the water edge. And we laid them out over the surface of the spongy soil, just so we wouldn’t sink into the mud, and we built our compost windrow on top of that, and then we build another one next to it. In two or three days we’d have a whole row of compost.  And in the island there was a little channel, where they had been boating with the waste and they’d been dumping on either side. And so, on either side of this little channel, we had a plot where we were making compost. And as soon as we’d turned and spread out the compost on one spot, we’d go right back in there and start composting again. And then we’d be turning and spreading on the other side, and we just kept going back and forth, and we did that for six months waiting for the roof to be finished and the floor to be compacted so that we could get a piece of equipment to turn our windrows by equipment.

EM: Okay.

PA: So, in the six months we’d built about eighteen inches of finished compost on top of the black toxic mud.

EM: Mh-hm…

PA: And before we got too far along, I went and I took a soil sample of the mud – about the upper four to eight inches of mud in this one area. And I had it tested for heavy metals. And I asked them to test for every metal you can test for, and there was only one metal that was not found: antimony. But mercury, lead, selenium, you know, arsenic, it was all in there. And it was way over limits. And we knew that was what it was going to be.

I also took a sample of the river sediment because we’re not the only polluters, you know: all that huge metropolitan area – there’s chemicals, and open sewer lines, and you name it, and the rains are running off, you know. But we did find that, there where I sampled where the dumping and burning had been going on, it was more toxic there than in the river, especially for certain metals.

EM: Mh-hm, okay…

PA: And, but anyway, so then, after six months of composting out in the open, we saw that now there’s all kinds of insects and stuff, you know, in the compost and birds are coming, you know, so it’s, like, coming alive – and then there’s seeds sprouting out of the compost. So we just come out and looked at each other and we go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Let’s bring in some clean soil now and mix it, and we’ll start planting stuff, you know, and we’ll restore the habitat here.

EM: That’s incredible. And what else were you doing? You were vermicomposting as well, right?

PA: Yeah. And I’d done some research, you know, like, how people were composting with worms in India, and so we build our own, kind of, open tank system: it’s just basically you build walls about waist-high on a cement floor, you put a roof over it, you put netting between the wall that’s about a meter high or less, up to the rood so it’s shaded and so birds can’t get in. And you have a little drainage on the floor so if there’s any liquid leaching out of the vermicompost pile, then you can capture that because it’s got nutrients in it. And so we started a lot of vermicomposting.

And then when we started planting plants, we used a lot of the fresh vermicompost to plant the plants with. So we knew we were inoculating the soil with earthworms, you know: there’s going to be some babies, there’s going to be some hatching eggs. And I knew that, from research that I’d done, that worms actually extract heavy metals out of the food that they’re eating. So getting earthworms into this new ecosystem that we’re building is going to be a good thing.

EM: Yeah, and we’ll talk a bit about what happened with the soil in a minute. Just before that though, can you give me a little bit more information on the logistics of the whole thing, and equipment you were using? How did you…?

PA: You know, everything gets boated over to the island – everything. You know, all the construction materials, all the cement blocks, the sand, the roofing materials, and then, you know, all of our plants for gardening and you know. And then all the food waste and the woodchips and…and then, we found this manufacturer in India that made this agricultural shredder, and then we bought this shredding machine to shred palm fronds and…. But we needed to shred a lot of wet materials too, like fresh coconut and green coconut palm fronds, and that wet stuff tends to clog up a lot of material. And so we found that this shredder machine – we bought a little one and we tested it, and then we had our own mechanics and fabricators and engineers look at it, and we told them what we needed and so we made some modifications to it. And then we took it back to the manufacturer and we said, “Look: we want to buy the big model, in fact we want to buy a couple of them, but we need these modifications build into it, because we’ve got to run a lot of wet stuff through it, and the way it’s designed right now, it clogs up. So we worked with the manufacturer and they built us, you know, the one that we needed.

But then we also needed some compost turning equipment, but nobody in India really makes composting equipment, you know: commercial scale composting equipment – there’s no compost turners, there’s no big filtering machines for compost. So, you know, I found a YouTube video of a farmer in Northern California that built his own compost windrow turner by taking the rear axle out of a heavy truck and just done a bunch of modifications: he welded this big tube onto the wheel hub, and he connected the differential onto the tractor on the power take off, you know, the tractor, to drive this differential.

Then he had this big tube with these paddles welded on it, so that you could lower it down next to the compost pile and you could drive the tractor beside the pile, and this tube with these paddles on it is now going to turn – and the thing is, this tractor is going forward, but this tube, this big metal pipe with these paddles on it, has got to turn the opposite direction; it’s got to be going, like, in reverse, as opposed…you know, so it can lift up the pile with, you know, these paddles welded to it: lift it up and throw it up into the air to get it aerated. And at the same time, we spiraled them around the tubes, so that it would actually throw the edges of the pile towards the middle, and the middle of the pile to the outside. Because that’s what we want: we want the middle of the pile on the outside, and we want the outside of the pile moved to the inside. So, we bought a tractor, and we built the compost windrow turner to put on it.

EM: That’s brilliant. And going back to the soil now – what was it like after all the work you were doing?

PA:  Yeah, so I’ll tell you what, here’s what happened was: last April, I went to the very same site that I took the original sample. And I dug down below the compost and the imported soil, down into the same black mud that I took the original sample from. And so I went and I did the same thing, in the same area, in the same soil layer, and I took that sample in. And it turned out that, like, in the upper eight to ten inches of that same original layer, we reduced three of the metals to non-detectible levels. Two others, we reduced them so that they’re still detectable, but they’re within safe limits for food consumption. There’s still three metals that we’ve reduced by at least fifty percent, but are still too high for human consumption.

EM: That’s still incredible, though, isn’t it?

PA: It is, especially when you consider that so much of the food in India is grown with overdoses of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilisers and stuff, that if that food was tested compared to the plants that are being grown on the island, they probably wouldn’t be much different.

EM: Okay, interesting…

PA: And we did, in just over three years, what we did on that island – reducing the metals the way we did – that’s unheard of! It’s unheard of. You know, and, so we’ve written some papers and I’ve presented this to different conferences…I presented this last fall to the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference in San José, California. We had another presentation at a conference held in India, also late last summer.

EM: Okay cool, so you’ve been busy trying to get the word out about this. And how do you explain to people what happened with the soil – do you know how exactly the results came about?

PA: Yeah, so what we’re finding is, like, there are a lot of different things that are happening, and we don’t know all the answers, you know, that how this could happen so quickly. We know that the earthworms are playing a part; we know that some of the plants are accumulators, or hyper-accumulators or metals. So we can plant certain plants that will pull metals out of the soil. And then, what do you do with the plant, you know? Can you compost it? Can you keylate it? Can you change the form of the metal? And then the earthworms, you know, pulling metals out: what happens when the earthworm fills up with all these metals and then it dies? Well, another earthworm eats it, so it keeps it tied up.

And then there’s some keylation that takes place, and it’s some kind of an ion exchange, especially with carbon molecules, apparently, and where there’s active fungi in the soil. You know, and one of the things we did too was we took a biological testing of the soil. Normally, farmers and gardeners to a chemical soil test, you know, they look for NPK, pH and EC – they look at the nitrogen, the potassium, the phosphorous, you know, that kind of thing. And then they want to know, like, how the chlorides – how salty is the soil. So that kind of a typical chemical test – but that’s just really supporting the chemical companies, because then they want to sell you more nitrogen, or more phosphorous, or something to condition the soil with. But if you just make compost, and you get the organic material, and you get all the microorganisms in the soil, then everything takes care of itself. The soil pH neutralises, and then these metals start to get tied up. They get keylated – they pick up or they lose an ion, and now it’s still lead or mercury, or whatever, but it’s no longer in a toxic form that enters into the food chain.

EM: Yeah, exactly. And it’s amazing to see it actually happening!

PA: Absolutely.

EM: And before we go now – because we don’t have much time – is there anything else you’d like to add, or some advice you’d like to give to people listening in?

PA: Well, you know: whether it’s composting or habitat restoration, or reforestation, or just permaculture design, or even just backyard gardening, you know, the key that I see is that: we just need to look at natural ecosystems – how is nature doing this? You know? What we need to do is mimic nature. Assist nature. As gardeners and farmers, when we see pests or we see weeds, we often ask the wrong questions. We go, “What fertiliser do I need?” or “What pesticide do I need”, you know? And that’s the wrong question. Those are all wrong questions.

We need to look at what’s out of balance in the soil, in the ecosystem. What’s out of balance so that these pests are coming? Why are the pests there, why are the weeds there? These are nature’s cleanup crew. The plant diseases and the insect pests are nature coming in and taking out a plant that can’t live there because something’s missing. And what’s missing is the microbiology. If all the microbiology is in place, then the plant will feed itself and be happy and healthy.

EM: That’s great advice, Peter. But that’s all we have time for now. Thank you very much for coming on the show to speak with us.

PA: My pleasure.

EM: All right, okay thanks.

PA: Thank you.

EM: Bye.

PA: Bye.


Madagascar: Soil Fertility on a Shoestring Budget


This episode corresponds to Lesson 1 of our online course.

In this seventh episode, we talk to Master Composter Peter Ash about how he successfully  tackled deforestation and soil erosion in a small village in Madagascar, with hardly any funds or manpower. Peter demonstrates how understanding natural systems and using nature to our advantage can dramatically improve the health of the environment.

Thank you to BiobiN for making this episode possible.

BiobiN® is a mobile, on-site organic/wet material management solution that starts the composting process and effectively manages odour from putrescible waste. BiobiN® can be used in a variety of outlets, including food manufacturing, restaurants, shopping centres, supermarkets…it’s endless. Whereever organic or wet materials are generated, BiobiN® is THE solution



EM: So Peter you just came back from a two-month trip to Madagascar. How did that come about?

PA: I was hired a year ago when I was in France and I was teaching some gardening and composting classes, and…. So anyway, I was approached by this Frenchman and he told me about…that he has this, not much financial backing but a small NGO in France and they were doing work in Madagascar; in kind of the north-west area of Madagascar, the dryer side of the island, in a fairly remote area. Very poor: no running water, no electricity. And they’d basically built a small village where they had a school for little children. And then they also had some high-school students that were coming from further away, and they were trying to gain some food security, and they were just having a lot of difficulty.

EM: Right, and they sent you there to help them out. What were the main troubles they were having?

PA: So, what I’d discovered was: first of all, that side of the island had been deforested probably two hundred years or more ago. The cattle are a very import part of their diet, and a very important part of their culture, and so what they were doing was that they were burning the range right before the rainy season to burn off all the weedy vines, and the small weedy palm trees…. They’re burning it all off to create new grasses for the cattle. Well anyway, so I get there and I see this deforestation, I see this slash-and-burn, and terrible soil erosion – so I immediately saw, okay, we got to deal with erosion control, we got to deal with soil fertility, and we need to capture the water.

EM: Right. And regarding food: you told me that they were trying to grow rice, and I imagine that was quite a problem?

PA: Yeah, the property – there was no really low-level land for rice farming. Rice farming has to be done – when you’re dry farming it you need to have flat land and you need to be down in the low valleys, in the natural run-off areas, and we didn’t have any terrain like that at this village. We were on kind of a sandstone bluff, and then it would drop down to what would turn into a streambed when it rained, and then we had another hill going up the other side. So – and very few trees – a few palm trees here and there, a few mango trees here and there…you know, mostly everything had been burned off in the past.

EM: Right, and how were they for water generally then?

PA: Basically, when I got to the village they had two wells – hand-dug wells – and it was, they were very shallow. And they had planted some trees, maybe a year at the most earlier, and they were having to hand-water the trees to keep them alive during the dry season. And in one day of watering, they could take the well all the way to the bottom.

EM: That’s quite a dire situation.

PA: Yeah…

EM: Can you list, then, the key things you decided to do to help?

PA: Right…I knew we had to do some earthworks to capture the water, and replanting trees to help hold water in the soil, digging berms and swales to help hold the water and recharge the water table…and then soil fertility.

EM: Right, and there were some big challenges when it came to improving soil fertility, wasn’t there?

PA: Yeah, so I’ll tell you what – here’s what happened was…it turned out that the students that were there – the high-school students that I was supposed to be teaching compost to – were mainly not available. Initially we did make a couple compost piles and…but it was too labour intensive. So, what we found was we had…we had about twenty-head of cattle and a couple goats. Some were owned by the village itself but most of them were owned by neighbours, but they were penned on our property.

And, you know, one taboo I discovered was that we could do no, like, compost toilets or humanure composting. That was completely taboo, but to work with the cow dung and the cattle manure – that was not a problem. And they didn’t know anything about using it. And so here was this cattle pen – quite a bit of manure had built-up in it, and I discovered that we had a nearby sawmill that had mountains of wood shavings and sawdust that was a waste, and they didn’t know what to do with it. So we could get that for free, just by sending some men in an ox-cart over and…. And then there was another nearby village where they grew a lot of sugarcane and they had some low ground and some flat ground, and so there was all this sugarcane waste.

So what we decided was that: due to lack of labour and equipment, that we would just spread the woodchips and saw dust and the sugarcane waste in the cattle pen, and then allow the cattle to just trod on it for a month or so – three weeks to a month – and then we just scrape it all out and use it as mulch. And we could turn it into the soil for kitchen gardens…and so on. And so, we let that be one of the major key components for our soil fertility program, rather than manually making compost and having to turn it, and adding more water and so on.

And then, on top of using the cattle to make compost for us, a lot of people have pigs as well and most of the animals just run free and the range is open-range for everyone to use. But then, we built what we call a pig tractor, which is like a portable pigpen. So we had the pig tractor with just three little piglets in it. Of course, the pigs are being fed, but we also just threw a lot of organic material inside  – the same wood shavings and the sugarcane mulch, and then weeds from the garden, we’d just throw it in there – if they pigs didn’t eat it, no problem: they would just basically compost it for us.

And then, when we first built the pig tractor – right next to it, just about the same size, we planted some cover crop. So as soon as the cover crop began to flower…all these nitrogen-fixing plants have, you know, captured atmospheric nitrogen, fixed it on their root systems. So as soon as it flowers, that’s basically when the plant stops growing and starts fruiting. And that’s when it uses that nitrogen. So if you cut it at that point, then all the nitrogen – these little nodules that are fixed in the soil on its root system – remain in the soil. So then what we did was we just moved the pig tractor over and set it on top of that cover crop and the pigs just devoured it in no time. But then, they’d left all that nitrogen in the soil already.

EM: Amazing, that’s a very effective way of getting around the problem of not being able to compost!

PA: Yes, indeed it is. And then, you know, as far as the reforestation: we looked around and we searched out local trees and seedlings…like, they have some moringa, which you can plant just from a cutting, and then there was a couple other trees – some of the acacia, that the leaf can be used as fodder. And, you know, of course the acacia will also provide shade and it’s a nitrogen-fixing tree – the same as the moringa. So, we planted trees on the swales, on the berms, using the swales to capture the water to water them.

So a lot of what we did around our tree plantings was…some woodier plants and trees which were more or less weeds to us – they weren’t fodder for animals, they weren’t nitrogen-fixers, they weren’t food for humans – so those trees, we didn’t cut them down completely but we coppiced them heavily so that we could chop off the branches, lay it out as mulch on the ground, and then allow the tree to grow back out so we could come back and coppice again. And as the trees that we planted grew up larger, we kept creating a larger mulched area around the tree to hold water, to create soil, to create the environment for the microbiology to be active….

And then we started our own nursery from seeds. And I’d brought a bunch of seeds with me, various seeds of fruit trees and nitrogen-fixing trees that would work in Madagascar. And then, because we had access to bamboo – some big stems, you know: bamboo that was several inches wide at the base – and so we cut tubes that were, you know, open at both ends and we used that. We put good soil inside, and then we planted tree seeds in those, so when the seeds spouted, then the roots could only drop straight down, it couldn’t spread out. And then as soon as the seed was up about four inches or so, then we took the whole bamboo tube and we planted the seedling in the tube, in the berms. So that as the swale would soak up water, you know, the root would just drop right down through the bottom of the bamboo and get a really good, deep start. And so before I left, we planted probable sixty – sixty or eighty trees that we’d started in these bamboo tubes. Basically, we had to use just what nature was offering us. Like, we couldn’t even buy, like, plastic pots, we couldn’t even buy, like, a plastic tube, you know, to start a seed in. So the bamboo worked great like that, you know, in a years time or two years time, you know, with most of the bamboo in the soil, it’s going to rot and just be fungal food for the root system, which is great.

EM: Right, so it’s all about using nature to your advantage then?

PA: Yeah, absolutely you know, and we’re really looking at, you know…. Any permaculture design is going to begin with just getting a good assessment, you know, and talking with the people – asking them what do they want. You know, “what is it that you want?” you know? And they needed more food, they needed more fresh water, and so that’s what we concentrated on.

And then, you know, anything you plant – if you can get some compost into the soil, if you can get any kind of organic material into the soil…because we know that in natural systems, plants don’t need fertiliser, they don’t need pesticides if the system is healthy. And with a basic understanding of how plants function, and, you know, the relationship of the microbiology in the soil…when we have a basic understanding of that, we realise that early-successional plants have a very highly bacterial-dominated soil food-web because early-successional plants are annual plants – they’re soft, green tissue plants. And what decomposes soft green tissue is bacteria.

And then when we get to the end of plant-succession, when we get to old growth forests and, you know, hundreds of year old trees or thousands of year old trees – we see that we have a very fungal dominated soil food-web. And so, if you’re growing trees, then you need more fungi in the soil, and if you’re growing perennial plants – you know, shrubs and things – then you need that balance of bacteria and fungi.

And so, that’s what we were trying to teach our local farmers and the villagers there, was that: around our trees we got to get a lot of woody material and mulch, and just keep mulching. Nature mulches herself, you know, she’s dropping leaves, she’s dropping fruit…. Man, you know, when we understand that – we can build compost piles and make humus in a very short period of time. But actively composting was something we just didn’t have the equipment and the manpower for – so just, laying on layer upon layer upon layer of mulch…

EM: Yeah, and it’s absolutely amazing what you got done there in such a short time.

PA: You know, I was actually really amazed by how much we accomplished in a two-month period with myself and a couple volunteers and then, on average, ten labourors. You know, we established a tree nursery, we dug some key berms and swales, and then only then, you know, when the heavy rains came consistently and the swales remained full, that then when they reached a high level, they could run off slowly into the natural drainage system.

What we didn’t have time for on my first trip was to really work the stream bed itself with constructing gabions to slow water down and not just run right off to the rivers, and then out to the ocean. So, we feel that, you know, we should be able to have that stream running year-round in seven years, with proper earthworks.

EM: That’s incredible. And how did the locals react to all of this?

PA: Well, I think they were very excited. Especially I think some of the older men were very excited about what they were learning, and what we were doing because in two month’s time you can start to see the changes. And, you know, when they saw that “my gosh, we’re holding some water here. This water would have just run away but now it’s still sitting here two days after that last rain!” You know…

EM: Yeah, yeah. Well it must be very exciting to see it all working out.

PA: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m looking forward to going back, you know, maybe at the end of the rainy season, or like halfway through into the dry season to see what more we can do with just mulching and….

EM: Great stuff Peter, you’ll have to keep us informed about how you’re getting on!

PA: Certainly.