How to Regenerate Soils for Free

By John Wallace, SIFT Farm Manager

How much does a homegrown tomato cost? Often, a home gardener will spend more than the cost at the grocery store to grow fresh food. Considering that homegrown food is arguably healthier, has less of a footprint, and may have more personal value because you enjoy it, can you operate a garden with almost no input costs? Our SIFT farm is interested in answering that question.

We aren’t interested in sustaining soils. The word sustainable inherently means we want to keep the soil health the same when, in reality, we want to enhance the soils in a way that it can regenerate itself. By putting all the puzzle pieces in place, the soil is actually able to thrive. It is a balancing act for the food web, but if you give the soil what it needs, it will grow. There are so many different organic materials that can aid this that are available for free or almost free. Leaves, grass, food scraps, and chicken manure are some common materials used in our compost.

In Austin, Texas, a good friend of mine was able to build a business based on this idea. His name is Dustin Fedako, and he created the Compost Peddlers. There is a missing link between food waste and its value as a rich, compostable material. Dustin was able to create a system where people rode bicycles around the neighborhoods and collected their compost rather than having individuals responsible for turning their own stinky mess into black gold. The material otherwise will likely end up in the landfill or become anaerobic if not done correctly. His business was so successful the city actually took on his idea.

You aren’t feeding just bacteria and fungi, but the whole soil food web, which relies on the correct balance of carbon and nitrogen to break down this organic material into bioavailable nutrients for plants. What happens during this process is just shy of a miracle because, indeed, it happens and is meant to happen. The population of living organisms in the soil exponentially compounds and no longer can one organism dominate in a biodiverse system. It is why yogurt is good for your gut and why insects thrive to pollinate your plants.

Now let’s jump into the science of these “puzzle pieces.” Carbon and nitrogen are needed to complete the chemical processes of decomposition. The nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle must be in sync for all the microbes to cycle the necessary nutrients for plants. Get it yet? We aren’t feeding the plants, we are feeding the soil. In fact, these microbes store available water for plants, as well. So… you aren’t watering your plants, you are watering your soil. The necessary ratio of carbon to nitrogen (C:N) is 30:1. By creating an average ideal ratio, all parts of the food web are able to digest the material and create a rich availability of nutrients for soil.

If you want to learn more about the C:N ratios of certain materials, check out the ATTRA publication Nutrient Cycling in Pastures. This publication helps explain the soil food web and necessary carbon to nitrogen ratios to regenerate soil health. It looks at the pathways and drivers that move nutrients into, out of, and within pasture systems. It attempts to provide a clear, holistic understanding of how nutrients cycle through pastures and what the producer can do to enhance the processes to create productive, regenerative, and resilient farm and ranch systems.

Posted on: August 22nd, 2018