NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Stoney Lonesome Farm, Gainesville VA

Thinking up compost
Having a plan for recycling on-farm nutrients is time saved and fertility in the bank.

By Pablo Elliott



Stoney Lonesome Farm
Gainesville, VA

Farmers: Pablo Elliot and Esther Mandelheim

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables (always lots of tomatoes)

Location: 35 miles west of Washington, D.C.

Marketing strategies: CSA, farmers' market

March, 2005. Snow in March. While the fields and trees sleep soundly beneath a fine crystal blanket, I notice the compost piles steaming away, their tops quickly melting any snowflake so unlucky to land there. These compost piles are quiet volcanoes, a whole life inside them invisible to us except for the soft, unending plume of rising vapor.

This off-season we worked on building long-term thinking into the way we farm, and we’ve centered this effort on compost, the critical life-blood of a sustainable farm operation.

Last year—the first year of our CSA—was about getting through each day as best we could. We would wake up and ask “what do we need to do before sunset?” This day-to-day farming style was a terrifying and sometimes wonderful adventure, like backpacking through the Himalayas with a tarp and a pocket knife. We had no elaborate garden plan, and no on-farm compost to speak of; we just trudged forward to the next mountain of activity. We started all kinds of vegetable plants in the greenhouse, and when they were screaming to be put into the ground we found a place in the field…and scrounged pick-up truck loads of compost for the plants from ancient piles of horse manure on other farms.

Short-term farming worked last year, but it almost killed us. We spent half of our time and energy collecting and hauling loads of compost which went straight into our garden beds, and at the end of each day we were “compost-broke.” And because we absolutely needed another batch of finished compost the next day, we could never afford the time to set up our own on-farm compost operation. I call this the “no-compost trap.” It’s like credit card or financial debt, but it’s fertility debt, owing your plants the compost fertility you don’t have. This type of organic debt forces you into a state of perpetual reaction, running from crisis to crisis. You spend so much time and energy on one problem (lack of compost, for example) that the weeds get out of control. Then you are spending so much time on the garden beds with the worst weed problems that the other beds quickly catch up. And what about an irrigation system! You had no time for that, so now you’re running from suffering bed to suffering bed with a garden hose. We survived a year of “crisis” farming because we stayed as small as possible, which allowed us to get away with more chaos than a larger farm operation would ever permit. The weather also blessed us with a half-inch of rain every three to four days, as if we had it on a timer. I doubt we will be that lucky again.

At the end of our CSA season, in October, we recognized that the main thing we needed to change was our farm thinking. A good place to start was our thinking about compost. Instead of hauling infinite pickup loads of finished compost to the farm, we started setting up our own compost piles on the farm (with garden roughage, leaves, and any other organic materials) right away. We visited and called neighboring farms, encouraging farmers to bring us their unwanted piles of animal manure and bedding. Time and energy saved by not doing all that hauling ourselves, we invested in long-term thinking about other elements of the farm operation.

And here’s what happened: In the sections of good weather during this off-season, we got about twenty dump-trailer loads of animal bedding and manure delivered to the farm for free. We organized much of it into windrows, combining this material with organic matter from our farm. Now we have five large compost piles: two almost finished, and more than enough for the upcoming season.

It’s an upward spiral. A compost revolution. Having built the foundation for a real farm fertility bank, we now have more daily space for thinking and planning, which in turn creates even more daily space for plain old farm fun. I used to cringe when anyone mentioned “planning”. Now I’m starting to understand that the more we embrace “planning”, the more we will find ourselves “sledding”, “swimming”, and even “sleeping”.