Organic Compost Program

Healthy soil is at the heart of any organic farming operation. Because the use of chemical fertilizers are specifically prohibited on certified organic ground, organic farmers must maintain soil fertility by adding nutrients in the form of compost and other soil amendments. Though it may not be the easiest or even cheapest option, Gathering Together Farm has a large, involved program that makes enough compost on-farm for the vast majority of our fertility needs.

The bulk of our farm-made compost is composed of animal manure (horse, cow, alpaca, rabbit, pig, chicken), hay, straw, vegetative farm waste/green chop, and leaves. John Eveland (GTF co-owner) uses his long-standing relations with other local farmers to procure as much feedstock (material to be composted) as possible. Much of the animal manure originates literally across the street from GTF, and even the most remote feedstock sources are within a 10-mile radius of the farm’s home base.

Many of the feedstocks are free or cheap (though they must be loaded up and trucked back to the farm). Some compostable materials, particularly chicken manure, are quite expensive. Ten years ago, John could buy a truckload of chicken manure for $25, but today he pays over $350 per load. The price has risen so dramatically because some farmers who traditionally used chemical fertilizers have turned to manure as a source of nutrients as the price of conventional forms of nitrogen have fluctuated. Chicken manure, as a commodity, is in high demand.

The vast majority of feedstocks used in our compost program do not come from certified organic operations because we simply could not obtain enough compostable material for our needs. That said, soil tests on our farm have consistently shown no or very low levels of chemical compounds, putting us well within the standards for organic production and actually with lower background levels of chemicals than most organic farms.  Fortunately, the land that we farm was never a target for heavy pesticide or chemical fertilizer use in the past because it was mainly used for pasture or hay before we started growing vegetables. Unfortunately, that ground was fairly nutrient poor when we started to work it intensively, so it has easily absorbed large amounts of organic compost, and we’re still working on making the land more productive by adding more nutrients.

As we intensively farm in this area, we export large amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium off the farm in the form of fruits and vegetables. Even though we employ many organic practices aimed at maintaining soil fertility (cover cropping, appropriate irrigation to reduce leaching, crop rotation, etc.), we need to consistently replace the nutrients lost by adding compost to the soil.

We produce three different grades of compost for three different purposes. Our standard mix includes animal manures, hay or straw, and other vegetative materials. We apply this product every time we prep a field for planting, and it’s a general all-purpose nutrient booster. The main component in our greenhouse potting soil mix (recipe here) is a blend of composted rabbit manure and leaves (obtained from the city street leaf pickup program). Lastly, we lightly compost chicken manure (meeting but not exceeding organic compost standards) for a high-nitrogen soil additive that is applied during field prep to crops that need extra nitrogen like melons, cucumbers, sweet corn, onions, peppers, and tomatoes. Sometimes we top dress crops with more of this chicken-manure based compost as the plants are growing.

Chicken manure is the most nitrogen rich of the feedstocks we use in our compost, and it has the most stored potential energy to heat up compost piles. Chicken manure is added to composting feedstocks after all the other materials are starting to break down and warm up, and the compost tender mixes in just enough to bring the piles up to temperatures that meet organic composting standards.

John has been personally responsible for the majority of the compost program from the farm’s inception until recently. He has always enjoyed his hands-on efforts in the composting yard, but being the owner of the farm pulls him in many different directions and finding time to devote to regular compost turning has proven harder and harder. This year, Dan (above) has taken over most of the day to day compost duties. Dan has some composting experience from previous jobs, and he brings a new passion and focus to the task. (I caught up with Dan to take these photos around 7:00 PM after he had already driven a truck up to Portland, worked the Saturday market booth, packed up, driven home, and unloaded the truck.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering Together Farm, John in particular, is notorious for purchasing used (sometimes antiquated) equipment that needs a fair bit of tinkering to stay in service. About 10 years ago, however, John special ordered the compost turner and had it shipped from a factory in Austria because there was no decent equivalent available in the United States. The Sanberger 5000 has a rotating drum fitted with specially designed, hardened paddles and a 5,000-pound block of concrete in the back to keep it stable.

Obviously, there is a health and safety concern when dealing with animal manure in proximity to food crops. In 2002, NRCS, EPA, and USDA finalized organic composting standards to ensure that pathogens are eliminated before the end product comes into contact with food. Compost must be turned at least 5 times in 15 days, and it must maintain a temperature of 130-170° during that time. While these standards were developed with food safety as a primary concern, the same methods will also sterilize weed seeds and cook out the vast majority of residual chemicals in the feed stocks such as antibiotics, pesticides, and fertilizers. Raising the compost temperatures too high, however, will kill off the beneficial bacteria needed to break down the organic materials, so the compost tenders pay careful attention to air/water/nutrient balance to maintain temperatures within the ideal range.

Dan will turn compost every other day for three or four weeks straight until the piles reach (or surpass) the mandated temperature and time standards. After that, he’ll turn the windrows about once a week to keep them active. After the composting process is complete, the final product will be piled up until it’s needed. We are currently using up what’s left of the compost produced in 2011, and the piles we’re working on now will probably not be spread on fields until next spring.

Dan drives the tractor at a snail’s pace alongside the linear piles of compost while the paddles of the compost turner aerate the material and re-mound it into nice, neat windrows.

Adding air and mixing compost activates the decomposition-inducing bacteria, releasing energy in the form of heat. As John says, “You could fry an egg in there.”

Water is also an important element in the composting process. As the piles heat up, they get seriously steamy. The piles that Dan is working on now are quite moist after winter and spring rains, so there’s been no need to add extra water.

In a couple months, we’ll gather a new batch of feed stocks and begin the composting process again. Those materials will be quite dry at the end of the summer, so Dan will need to add water to activate decomposition. The compost turner is designed to be fitted with a large water tank that can spray water directly into the windrows as the piles are turned.

At the end of each windrow (and when he’s moving the compost turner around the field), Dan raises the drum of the compost turner for unencumbered mobility.

Turning compost is a slow and somewhat monotonous job, but the compost tender must be actively paying attention to the task at hand, making sure that the rows stay straight, and the turner isn’t getting plugged up.

Though it’s not always pretty to think about where the nutrients that produce organic fruits and vegetables come from, the reality of farming is that we’re part of a complex ecosystem, part natural and part human constructed. Compost is the reason we’re able to keep producing such good stuff.

Views Around the Farm Stand + Lunch Menu for June 12-15

Summer is coming on strong. We have our first ripe tomatoes in the farm stand along with basil, berries, and new potatoes. The flowers are blooming, the plants are growing, and the meals are as bright and fresh as ever.

The Lunch Menu (subject to change based on availability)

antipasti:

pâte of lamb and pork served with house pickles and mustard
new potatoes with romesco and aioli
smoked paprika coppa with aged cheddar and tomato caramel
 
mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette
GTF salad with grilled flat iron, pumpkin seeds, and roasted garlic-italian pepper vinaigrette
 
onion soup with artisan bread
carrot soup with artisan bread

 

pizze:

roasted garlic/basil/tomato/mozzarella
duck/feta/spinach/tomato/mozzarella
peppers/kale/potatoes/tomato/mozzarella
ham/caper/chard/tomato/mozzarella

 

secondi:

agnolotti with favas and walla wallas
beet risotto with grilled scallions and blue cheese
gnocchi with herbed ricotta, romas, and pesto
grilled pork loin with apple and caper relish
brodetto with rockfish, pork belly, and aïoli

 

toasted pumpkin seeds
GTF salad with grilled flat iron, pumpkin seeds, and roasted garlic-italian pepper vinaigrette
pâte of lamb and pork served with house pickles and mustard

duck/feta/spinach/tomato/mozzarella
grilling dandelion and pork loin
house-made cracklings for the pork dish
grilled pork loin with apple and caper relish
gnocchi with herbed ricotta, romas, and pesto

GTF pastry chef, Ana Patty, made this two-layer carrot cake for a group that came out to the farm stand for a lunchtime birthday celebration.

If you would like to order one of Ana’s cakes (to serve with lunch or dinner at the farm stand or to take away to your own private event), contact the farm stand at 541-929-4270 at least two days ahead. Cake prices start at $25.

 

Strawberries

We’re right in the middle of strawberry season, but unfortunately, the situation doesn’t look good. We primarily grow ‘seascape’ strawberries, which are ‘day-neutral‘. Day-neutral strawberry varieties (as opposed to June-bearing) will continue to set fruit as long as temperatures are mild-hot. They usually flush two or sometimes three times: once in late May/early June, once in August, and (hopefully) again in late September/October if the weather doesn’t get too cold. In each flush, the whole patch of seascape berries ripens up pretty quickly, so the window of opportunity to pick and sell the fruit is short. This year, that window has coincided with several heavy rains, which will ruin a good portion of this year’s spring crop.

When picking berries after it’s rained, the crew has to examine each fruit for rotten spots or marks. Lots of berries get thrown out, and the extra inspection makes for a very slow harvest.

All our strawberries are grown on plastic mulch, which adds heat to the soil and ripens the fruit a little early. After a rain, however, plastic mulch will also prevent water from draining into the soil, so the berries are often sitting (and rotting) in little puddles.

The berries that do end up at markets are good ones. They look good, and they taste good. The berries that come on later in the summer, however, will be even better because they’ve seen more sun and hot days to sweeten them up.

The crew recently planted some more ‘seascape’ berries that will hopefully begin to bear fruit in August. A few times per summer, the crew will clean up the rows by cutting strawberry plant runners to encourage more fruit production. We usually harvest off each strawberry field for two years before plowing under the plants and moving on to newer, more productive berry patches.  In the fall, the plan is to plant some new June-bearing strawberries (‘Benton’ and ‘Hood’). We purchase all our strawberry plant starts from Lassen Canyon Nursery.

This year, we have two large greenhouses planted with strawberries. In an attempt to get fruit as early as possible, these plants got an extra “tent” layer of floating row cover for added heat.

The strawberries coming out of the greenhouses look great. These plants ripen fruit over a longer span of time, so the yield from any single picking is a little lower than a good harvest of field strawberries, but they’ve certainly pleased many fruit-hungry farmers’ market customers in the past month or so.

Our strawberry offerings in the next few weeks may be somewhat slim, but keep an eye out for more of our berries later in the summer.

 

Views Around the Farm Stand + Lunch Menu for June 5-8

strawberry-walnut bread

The farm stand is now officially on summer hours, which means that we’re open until 6:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (9-5 on Saturday). Our Thursday and Friday dinners are getting quite busy, so if you’re interested in coming out, be sure to make a reservation by calling 541-231-1646.

new potatoes with romesco and aïoli

The Menu (subject to change based on availability)

to start: 

country pâté of lamb and pork served with house pickles and mustard
new potatoes with romesco and aïoli
frisée salad with lardon and poached egg
mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette
GTF salad with strawberries, toasted almonds and tarragon vinaigrette
onion soup with artisan bread
chunky vegetable soup with artisan bread

 

pizze:

roasted garlic/basil/tomato/mozzarella
duck/feta/kale/tomato/mozzarella
pepperoni/caramel shallots/tomato/mozzarella
ham/caper/mozzarella

 

secondi:

herbed ricotta agnolotti with favas
Mosaic Farm ragú with kale and tagliatelle
gratinata with walnuts, blue cheese, and arugula
beet risotto with walnuts, blue cheese, and arugula
cacciucco with rockfish and prawns in roasted pepper stew
beef short ribs with carrots and polenta

 

frisée for the frisée salad
chunky vegetable soup with artisan bread
duck/feta/kale/tomato/mozzarella
ham/caper/mozzarella
herbed ricotta agnolotti with favas
beet risotto with walnuts, blue cheese, and arugula
cacciucco with rockfish and prawns in roasted pepper stew
doughnuts and strawberries
the makings for Ana Patty’s perfect vanilla bean sugar cookies