I want worms! Earthworms that is. A few blogs back I wrote about how topsoil is the key to a healthy civilization reviewing a 1975 paper, Topsoil and Civilization. (This link will download the whole 159 page book as a pdf – or you can email me and I will send it as a 1.6 meg attachment). In November 2017 I made more progress toward improving my soil. As it turns out, there is a lot of interest in this topic from organic growers, not just to improve their soil and production, but to actually sequester carbon. It is a BIG deal. Called “carbon farming” or “regenerative agriculture” (a term coined by Rodale ). Carbon farming not only improves soil but has the potential to bring the earth back into carbon balance by re-storing the massive amounts of carbon that originally resided in the soil before deforestation, subsequent erosion and petroleum products (fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones) killed the living microorganisms and leached out their byproducts which constitute a healthy soil.
But I’m getting wound up a little. November was basically about getting ready for winter which meant getting in wood, securing the working wine inventory and making some apple wine (sometimes infused with huckleberries).
We have a lot of nearby critters getting ready for winter. One of them is Pete, the Piliated Woodpecker. He thinks he owns the vineyard, and when I have picked the grapes, he moves right on to apples or whatever he can find. No shy scavenger, he loudly announces when he is flying in and does not move out readily. He evidently does not know he is in danger or that I don’t let just any animal eat all of the grapes they want.
Turkeys have become frequent guests. They do their own distribution of our compost pile and are eagerly awaiting sunflower seeds falling from our feeder. I just put the feeder up since snow has come and gone several times and will stick around soon.
We recently got our last load of firewood, and before that I made the last run to the dump while our 40-year-old Chevy pickup is safe to drive on dry pavement. On the same trip I loaded it up with shredded sticks that are piled up to compost by the City of Colville. On that same day the city was dumping leaves in a nearby site. I was checking it out and realized that the leaf compost had matured much faster. There were a hundred tons of composted black soil in this dump. A few days later
I asked their street department about it and yep it’s free and I am welcome to take as much as I want when the road into the site dries out next year.
So that was pretty exciting but there were other discoveries on the soil front. Today (December 5th) is National Soils Day. Even the New York Times is starting to see that soil is our best hope to overcome climate change and to remedy the inevitable failure of chemical farming to retain soil health.
One ancient method of retaining soil nutrients, even in the jungle where they tend to leach out in the rain, is the use of “biochar” (just charcoal really). It absorbs nutrients and prevents them from washing out of the soil. Almost pure carbon itself, charcoal keeps carbon in the soil and out of the air and the oceans, which are already overloaded. I have been looking for a technology to create biochar for a couple of years. In November I discovered that the best solution seems to be almost no technology at all.
I have been cutting up my slash pile of branches and grape prunings into smaller pieces. I start a small fire using wood from dried pine rounds (which are not good firewood) and pile on the slash. After the smoke clears, a bed of glowing charcoal lies under the fire. I rake the unburned material to one side of the fire and rake the hot charcoal out where I can dowse it with water. Once it is cool, I rake that into a pile where it is combined with aged goat manure to add nutrients. I pile more slash on the remaining fire and in less than an hour have more biochar to cool.
While cutting up the slash pile my chainsaw threw off it’s chain. After replacing it with another, I took the damaged chain to Colville’s Small Engine Repair shop. Out front was what looked like a brand new Troy-bilt Shredder/Chipper. I asked about it and found out it was really several years old, built before Troy-bilt was taken over by another company that started producing lower quality machines. The owner kept it in a garage and only used it a few times. He was moving, had the gas system cleaned by the shop and was selling it for $400. It originally cost $1000. It came come with me and I am eager to grind up every fire-prone carbon source on the place and put it back in the soil.
So while our resident house-frog has retired for the winter and our always-hunting house cat is taking a lot more naps, I will be reading up on carbon farming, and fermenting another year’s worth of wine thanks to some of my favorite microorganisms, yeasts. A very good introduction to the topic is “Soil Carbon Restoration” by Jack Kittredge of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.