From our farmers: The secret to healthy plants: it’s all ground-up

Pete from Udan Farm, pouring compost tea

This is the third in our “From our farmers” series, and was contributed by Pete Munyon of Udan Farm, one of the farmers enrolled in our Farm Incubator Program.

Hi folks! Pete from Udan Farm here. I just wanted to take a minute to share a little of my excitement for ground-up ecology-building at Headwaters Farm with you. The folks from EMSWCD have done some awesome work restoring the native species to our little section of Johnson Creek, and now we’re looking forward to doing the same with the dirt in the Udan Farm field.

We all know that all animal life on earth depends on plants, but we don’t hear as often how plants depend on bacteria and fungi to help them structure the soil, get nutrients from the soil and air, and hold water in the soil. After several decades without promoting biotic activity, our soil has been taken pretty far from its natural state. To improve conditions we’ll be growing a variety of native wild flowers around the edge of our field, and soil building with ground covers underneath our crops. To help support these plants and our crops, one of our first activities this season was to spray our field with Actively Aerated Compost Tea (AACT).

AACT is made using a special “brewer”. This is basically a ten gallon bucket that has a large air stone on the bottom (think of the bubbler in a fishtank, times fifty) that is connected to a very powerful air pump. Well-finished compost is placed into a tightly woven mesh basket, which is then partially submerged into the water in the brewer bucket. When the air pump is turned on it fills two important roles. First, it keeps the water saturated with oxygen, which is important because the healthy bacteria and fungi that we want to build our soil need oxygen, while many pathogenic bacteria are killed by it. The second thing that the air bubbles do is break the bacteria and fungal spores loose from the compost so that they can float around in the water.

We add a little bit of molasses to the water to provide sugar, which gives the bacteria fuel as they extract the soluble nutrients from the compost. This makes our Compost Tea an innoculant (agricultural amendments that use beneficial microbes to promote plant health) of beneficial native micro-organisms, and also a fertilizer rich in trace minerals that help to make vitamins and other beneficial nutrients.

Earthworms and small insects feed largely on bacteria and fungi, and help to open the soil for air, water and plant roots. By using AACT to build these important microbial populations, we catalyze the base of the food chain and promote the ecological processes that happen on a larger scale! Ground-up ecology-building supports that whole web of plant-nourishing processes at the same time!