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Book of the Week: The Secret Life of Compost

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your inbox!

This week’s Book of the Week feature is The Secret Life of Compostby Malcolm Beck. 

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From Part 1: The Why of Composting

Observe the Cycle of Life

Walk into the woods and meadows and visit with Nature. You will be in the presence of much life. Especially in the spring, you will find many types of plants, grass, trees, animals, and insects large and small. There will be life in abundance.

Now take a closer look. There is an equal amount of death, particularly in the winter. There will be dead grass and leaves, fallen limbs and trees, even dead animals and insects.

Every living thing will sooner or later die; no living crea­ture, plant or animal, escapes death. In Nature, every dead thing is deposited in the very place it dies, and there it serves as a mulch protecting the soil until it finally decays and, in due time, is covered and replaced by still later deposits of expired life.

When a plant or animal dies, even though it may be con­sumed higher in the food chain, it will eventually be eaten by the decomposing microbes. They will decay or disassemble it and put it back into the soil. If they didn’t, our planet would now be miles deep in dead things.

This life-death-decay cycle has built the thin layer of fer­tile soil that covers our land. It nourishes and grows our plants which are the bridge of life between the soil and man.

In the beginning, our planet was just a round mass of min­erals moving in its planned orbit through space. At some point, the Almighty saw fit to breathe life onto earth, very meager and primitive life, but life with a crucial mission.

As these micro-forms of life lived and reproduced, they fed on and etched away at the rocky mineral earth surface, and as they died, their remains formed humus and mild acids to etch away still more minerals. This process went on and on until very small amounts of our first soil was formed.

Even though extremely small, the life, death, and decay of each preceding life form has been creating better conditions for future life forms. The decay process builds with added interest to the soil’s bank account, and after countless centuries of creating conditions for higher and more complex forms of life, Man, the most complex of all life, was able to exist and be sustained.

Man . . . does he know? And can he trace his life support system far enough back to understand the life cycles? Man has accumulated much knowledge, but in areas of his healthy exis­tence he seems to be slow to learn. Man sees death as a loss, or something to be sorrowful of, and he considers decay as some­thing ugly. He doesn’t understand why Nature always returns the dead back to the soil from where it came.

If man understood the laws of recycle and return, he would without delay put back into the farmlands all the animal manure and other organic waste he generates. He wouldn’t be daily burying the thousands of tons of these life-generating materials in landfills that seal and lock them away from the natural soil-building processes for centuries to come.

In Nature, there is no waste. All is reused, and usually made into something of still greater value for the sustenance of life.

If man continues to break this law of return, he will not only stop the life-generating processes of the soil, he will actu­ally cause the soil to degenerate. This process will sooner or later degrade all life . . . including man himself.

Why Recycle and Compost?

Planet Earth

Ours is the only planet known to support life. All life on Earth is maintained by a thin layer of soil covering a small por­tion of the earths surface. The quality of all life on this planet is determined by the quality of that thin layer of topsoil. If we allow the quality of that thin layer to degrade, all life on Earth, man included, will degrade to the same degree. The parent to all soil is mineral rock. The wind, rain, freezing and thawing break the rock into smaller sizes to start the soil-making pro­cess. Small rock particles do not become fertile soil until some life form has interacted with them.

The first life forms to attack the rock are microbes. They use elements from the air to grow and reproduce and slowly etch away at the rock surface. They exude, die and decompose, forming humus and mild acids on the rock, which dissolves mineral to further enrich the accumulating soil. This process goes on and on until higher plants and then animal life can be sustained. The death and decay of each life has a generating effect. Each time a living thing dies and decays on the soil, it creates a more fertile condition than was there before.

The energy to keep this cycle revved up comes from the sun. Plants alone have the ability to collect solar energy. Then, this energy passes through the food chain to all other life forms. Through the excrement and finally death of the many life forms, the sun’s energy is passed to the soil to fuel the life systems in the soil and keep the cycle going so man, the highest form of life, can be sustained. Plants bridge the void between soil and man.

Walk onto the prairies or into the woods and look around, you will see much life, plant and animal, large and small. Then look down, you will see many expired life forms covering the soil. A mulch of dead things, twigs, leaves, grass, insects, manure, and even dead animals. Dig into this mulch and you will find it beginning to decay. The deeper you dig, the more advanced the decay until it fades into rich moist topsoil.

Nature has been building fertile topsoil by mulching and composting the surface of the earth since the beginning of time. With our modern way of living we consume, use, wear out and discard mountains of once-living materials. Most of this we waste by sealing it in landfills where it is locked away from its soil-building destiny for centuries to come. In the landfills, these natural resources are a waste. In the streams and lakes they are pollution. But on farmlands they become fertil­izer. We must loop these natural resources back to food-pro­ducing soils so the life cycle can be maintained.

In the towns and cities, organic materials should be col­lected at feasible sites. Then through the art of composting these once-alive materials can be partly decayed to a condition that is sanitary and easy to transport to the countryside where Nature can reuse it.

Reports from governments of all countries, the United States included, show widespread humus depletion and topsoil erosion from the food-producing soils. The degraded soils can only grow degraded plants which forces the higher life forms to follow that same path. Only proper recycling of all organic materials coupled with good farming practices can stop and reverse this little noticed decline that creeps through all life.

Food Production

Why doesn’t man pay more attention to the natural chem­istry, physics and biology of the world and see himself as part of that natural world, of its perfect design? Is it greed? Is it vanity? Or could it be that soil fertility has eroded to a level that no longer nourishes the body and the mind? Is man losing his ability to see and think logically ?

History books are full of stories about the decline and fall of many great nations. Soil decline was always the start of the fall. Poor soils result in failure of the economy and then the defense system. But if history were closely studied and the truth were known, you would find it was really decline of the mind that made the difference — and the mind begins to decline as soon as the soil begins to produce food that is empty of nutrients.

I know an animal nutritionist who taught at a small col­lege. For an experiment he had his students divide a large group of pigeons equally into two separate large cages. One group was fed polished rice and water; the other group received brown, whole grain rice and water. Then he made the predic­tion that the pigeons on polished rice would get five degenera­tive diseases, stop reproducing and die prematurely. He also predicted that the pigeons on the brown rice would remain healthy and live and reproduce normally.

His predictions came about exactly as he said, but the stu­dents learned something they weren’t expecting. The first noticeable difference in the two groups was behavior. The pigeons on the polished rice became irritable and discontented and started to fight amongst themselves. The pigeons on the brown rice never became irritable or discontented.

This experiment inspired me to do a similar test. I used young chickens instead of pigeons and fed one group white bread and water. The other group received whole wheat bread and water. The results were the same as the test with the pigeons. The very first sign of malnutrition in the animals was irritability and discontent among those eating white bread and water. Those on the whole wheat bread always remained happy and contented. The first white bread-fed chicken died on the thirteenth day, and they were all dead by the seventeenth day. The chicks on whole wheat were kept on that diet until full-grown. They grew normally, never were sick or attacked by parasites. The hens started laying eggs, and we butchered the roosters.

Look at our society and the people all around the world. You can find many examples that show evidence of eating too much white rice and white bread. Or, could it be symptoms of soil decline!

Soil Microbes

Sir Albert Howard, the author of the book The Soil and Health, was an early scientist who recognized that the health of the soil determines the health of the plants, and the health of the animals that eat from them. Albert Howard is known as the father of compost. However, he learned from the Chinese. They have been maintaining soil fertility for forty centuries. We have worn out farm after farm in two centuries.

When Howard first used compost around failing plants, he noticed almost miraculous recovery. The plants also became resistant to pests. He then fed animals from the composted, healthy plants and noticed they didn’t contract diseases, even when allowed to mix with sick animals that had very conta­gious diseases. Health did indeed pass from one life to the next through the food chain. Perfectly healthy plants and animals have resistance to diseases.

Albert Howard believed his compost to be rich in nutri­ents but was disappointed when test returns showed it to be low in N, P and K (nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous). He had not used it thick enough to have good mulching effects, so he was eager to learn how a little compost could get such good results. After studying the roots of the plants with compost, he found the reasons. The beneficial root-colonizing microbes, especially the mycorrhizal fungi, were present in very high populations, and no harmful root pathogens were present. The roots of the nearby plants without compost were being attacked by pathogens and very few, if any, of the beneficial microbes were present.

I have a friend that grows cotton up in the high plains of Texas. He was slowly going broke, so he decided to look at other, and possibly better, ways than the conventional farming methods he was practicing. He cut his acreage from 2,500 to the 240 acres he owned. He then started using organic meth­ods, among them biological sprays which included free-nitro­gen-fixing microbes, which he applied along with feed-grade molasses for an energy source.

After a few years on the natural program, he discovered he could quit irrigating even though he was in a low-rainfall area. In drier years his production is below that of his irrigating neighbors, but his profit per acre is always greater since he has no irrigation or pesticide expenses. I have seen this man’s cot­ton stand up showing no signs of stress while the neighbors cotton across a dirt road just 70 feet away under conventional farming methods was severely wilting, even though it had been irrigated twice that year. To find out how this was possible I had the soil and roots tested from both farms, and there was a striking difference. The roots from the organic farm had 24% mycorrhizal colonization with many spores and vesicles. The cotton roots from the conventional farm had only 2% coloni­zation with some roots showing none. I discussed these two farms and the difference of soil microbes with Dr. Don Marks of Mycor Tech, Inc. and Dr. Jerry Parsons, our extension agent, and both agreed that overusing chemical fertilizers and pesticides on soils low in organic matter is detrimental to the beneficial soil life.

Mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic association with the roots of most plants. The fungi grow into or between the cells of the roots and use 10% of the carbohydrates the plant passes from the leaves to the roots. The fungi don’t have chlorophyll in the presence of sunlight, so they can’t manufacture carbohy­drates. In return for the energy taken from the plant, the fungi grow out and search far and wide for nutrients and moisture and feed the plant so it can continue to manufacture more and more carbohydrate energy. The bigger and faster the plant grows, the farther and faster the fungi grow to feed the plant still better. A plant colonized with mycorrhizal fungi will have the equivalent of ten times more root. Another benefit of this association is that as long as the fungi are flourishing, they can prevent all root pathogens and damaging nematodes from attacking the root. Decaying organic materials on and in the soil keep both the plant and the fungi flourishing to help each other.

There are many beneficial forms of life in the soil. Scientists now tell us there is more tonnage of life and num­bers of species in the soil than growing above. All of this life gets its energy from the sun. But only the green leaf plants have the ability to collect the sun’s energy. All other life forms depend on the plant to pass energy to them. The plants above and soil life below depend on each other for their healthy exis­tence and continued survival.

Another beneficial microbe that colonizes plant roots was introduced to me by Mr. Bill Kowalski of Natural Industries. He said he had a microbe that has been shown to knock out a half dozen root rots in the laboratory. At first I told him I was not interested unless it was known to stop cotton root rot, because the only deterrent to a booming apple industry in the hill country of Texas is cotton root rot. He replied it hadn’t been tested on cotton root rot, but he would be glad to give me some if I wanted to try it.

Okra is related to cotton and back when we were farming we planted lots of okra. We had a spot on the farm where the plants suffered from cotton root rot. To test the new microbe, we planted two rows of okra across the root rot spot, then skipped two rows and planted two more rows of okra. The seed in these last two rows had been soaked in the product for a few minutes to ensure they would be inoculated with the microbe.

After the okra was in full production, Bill came over and we went out to inspect. Immediately we noticed the inoculated okra averaged a full twelve inches taller than the control rows. We walked down the control rows first and pulled up the smaller and weaker looking plants. We found the roots to be badly infected with some form of root rot and also full of root knot nematodes. Inspection of the inoculated row found not a single case of root rot or nematodes.

This was exciting. I immediately called Dr. Jerry Parsons. He came out and did his own inspection, and he too found lots of root rot and nematodes in the control rows but none in the inoculated rows. Then Dr. Parsons told us he had seen microbes such as these tested before and sometimes they worked perfectly, other times a little, and sometimes not at all.

I later contacted Dr. Don Crawford at the University of Idaho about this root rot-destroying microbe. Dr. Crawford originally discovered it. He tells me it is a saprophytic, rhizo­sphere-colonizing actinomycete, which means it is a microbe that lives on the roots and eats the skin sloughed off by a healthy, normal growing plant. As long as the plant is flourish­ing and the root is growing and lots of root skin is being shed to feed the actinomycete, it doesn’t let a disease organism or root knot nematodes attack the plant roots.

The soil life and the plant life support each other. Dr. Parsons said the reasons these things don’t always work is because the plants were probably growing so poorly they couldn’t feed the beneficial root colonizer, allowing them to weaken; then the bad guys get a toehold. Hence the Laws of Nature: Destroy the weak and allow survival of the fittest. Without the colonizers feeding and protecting the plant, it falls victim to the natural laws. Weakened plants are attacked by all kinds of pests below and above ground. Nature wants the weak and sick plants to be destroyed. But man interferes. He uses his arsenal of pesticides to keep the unfit plants alive. Then he eats from the poisoned sick plants — and wonders why he gets sick.

The beneficial soil life can perform its job only if we do our part in following six important rules when growing plants.

Rules to grow by:

  1. Use the best adapted varieties for each environment.
  2. Plant in preferred season.
  3. Balance the mineral content of the soil.
  4. Build and maintain the soil organic content – humus.
  5. Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life.
  6. Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules having been violated.

Of the above rules, number 4 is the most important. It is the law of recycle and return. When practiced, it supports the other five rules and makes them less important. Because of rules 4 and 6 being ignored or not understood, the big use of pesticide became necessary. As a result, 1.9 billion pounds of pesticide are sold each year in this country.

We recognized and followed these rules on both of our farms. The first farm had a fruit orchard, an acre-and-half garden, and the rest was covered with pecan trees under which we grazed our milk cow and other farm animals. One day Dr. Sam Cotner, the vegetable specialist of Texas A&M, came for a visit. After looking around he said, “Beck, your farm is beautiful. Are you sure you are not using any modern farm chemicals?” I told him our little farm was more of a hobby than a necessity, as I made my living working on the railroad. As an experiment, we kept the farm all organic. He replied, “This is nice but it is not practical on large acreage. We have to feed the world.”

The more I thought of Dr. Cotner’s statement the more I realized a new challenge. We soon sold the little eleven-acre place and moved onto a much larger farm where we learned that the larger the area over which you have control, the easier organic farming becomes. You have more different environments to use, more room for rotation, and no close neighbors upsetting the natural balance with toxic sprays.

There are large farms all over the United States that have turned toward a more natural way of growing. And more are changing daily. Many are certified organic, following strict rules and using absolutely no harmful agricultural chemicals of any kind. The certified farms have a niche market and usually get better prices for their products.

In my travels around the country, and because of our business, I get a chance to visit with many farmers and ranchers that are changing or have changed to more natural, organic ways. When I ask what made them decide to change, the answer is always the same: “I was going broke following the modern, conventional ways.”

Modern conventional farming is not all bad. It gives a lot of attention to NPK and other minerals needed to grow crops. But not enough importance is put on the soil life. Many agricultural pesticides and herbicides — and even some of the fertilizers — are harmful to soil life, especially when there isn’t enough organic matter in the soil to supply the energy microbes and earthworms need.

Without this needed energy, the soil life can’t properly process the applied minerals. The minerals may become imbalanced and toxic to the plants. The plants become weak. Then they can’t feed the beneficial root colonizers. The colonizers can’t furnish nutrients or protection to the roots. The plants get sicker. Nature wants to get rid of the sick plants and sends pests to attack and destroy them. Then the farmer is told to use toxic rescue chemistry. The environment, the farmer, and the consumer suffer. It is a vicious cycle. All become losers because of a lack of organic matter in the soil.

Organic materials from sewer plants, landfills, dumps, factories, feedlots and other sources become waste materials only after we have wasted them. In Nature nothing is wasted, she has no waste. When we recycle an organic product, it immediately becomes a natural resource. When organic resources are recycled back into the life stream, the whole environment comes out a winner. There are no losers. The soil life, plant life and animal life all gain tremendously. And all contribute to man’s well-being so he wins the greatest.

About The Author:

Malcolm Beck was a lifelong organic farmer and the founder of Gar­den-Ville, a composting/recycling business and retail horticultural supply house. He spoke widely throughout the country, but was particularly well known in south-central Texas. His Garden-Ville operation has grown from a composting pile on his family farm to a multi-million-yard operation in a few years. His compost, fertilizers, bedding mixes, and soils supply leading landscapers throughout Texas. He authored and co-authored many books on organic gardening, including Lessons in Nature.

More By Malcolm Beck:

Lessons in Nature – A collection of essays, including practical and inspirational philosophy and techniques on soil building, planting and growing, pest control and more.

Similar Books of Interest:

Building Soils Naturallyby Phil Nauta

From the Soil Upby Donald Schriefer