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The Toil for Healthy Soil

Happy Dirt Veggie Patch is a drop off point for Community Compost. We are a small 3 acre farm in Phoenix that grows a wide variety of vegetables. We maintain healthy soil with compost made on site. Your peels and pits, leftovers and less-than-their-best veggie scraps arrive at the farm in trash barrels that get dumped into big piles for processing.

The first thing we do is look through the fresh droppings for anything that doesn’t belong. Almost any naturally produced item can contribute to building healthy soil – but plastics, metal or any other questionable trash that won’t break down is picked out and put in the regular trash. Meat and dairy products can theoretically be composted, but as a practical matter we exclude them as much as possible because they attract critters that we would rather not have to contend with.

Packaging items that are labeled as “compostable” typically don’t work very well in our system, so we pick most of those out too. Thin green compostable bags work ok, but compostable cutlery and dishes, etc that are more substantial take much too long to digest in our small operation. So into the trash they go.

Another indigestible item is the plastic stickers that come on produce. We have to let these go through at this early point in the process, because trying to remove them all is impractical. We have found that it is easier to remove them from finished compost than at the beginning of the process. Still, this is the biggest contamination issue we deal with. Thousands of stickers, still sticking to their morsel of compost! It is a huge headache trying to remove them all, not to mention hours of labor. We would love it if customers could remove stickers from their produce before tossing them. An even better solution would be  for the industry to go to paper stickers. After all – the entire purpose of the sticker is to exist for a fraction of a second to speed things up at the checkout stand. After that nobody cares. So why do we make stickers that last for generations? The simplest thing with a very simple solution ends up being a blight upon the land. Paper breaks down easily in compost – plastic does not. 

One more irksome item is plastic teabags. They absolutely do not break down, and pop up in otherwise finished compost with amazing frequency. Each one requires bending over, emptying their enclosed contents, and getting it to a proper disposal receptacle. Much easier would be for everyone to use paper tea bags which easily return to the Earth.

Once we have the compost spread out on the piles, we let it sit in the sun for a day or so, weather permitting, to dry it a bit. In Winter we often cover with tarps to keep excess rain off the piles. Compost needs some moisture to work properly, but too much moisture prevents enough air from getting into the pile. While the food is drying in the air, it is very attractive to a variety of birds in the area. Throughout the day, flocks of birds come visit the compost – taking some and pooping some – stirring it up and speeding the digestion process. Some come for the ripe fruits, some for the multitude of bugs and worms.

At night, there are other critters which visit the piles, mainly skunks, raccoons, and opossums. Feral cats are also on the prowl. These animals also like to feed on rodents, so there are no rats to be found and only rare sightings of mice.

When the latest dump load has dried, we cover it with straw, leaves, dry grass clippings or other farm clippings. This introduces the “brown” component that gives microbes the balance of nutrients they need to activate the digestion process. We layer the pile with additional loads of “fresh” produce until it is big enough to start cooking on its own. 

At this point we take our trusty old tractor and turn the pile and mix all the ingredients together. Once it is all mixed, the composting process really accelerates. Within 2-3 days the temperature of the pile will soar, eventually reaching 140-150 degrees. Thermophyllic bacteria do the work of eating it all and gradually turning it into beautiful brown humus. These bacteria also eat and digest any pathogenic microbes that may happen along the way. It takes a few weeks until the temperature goes back down. We then turn the pile (which is considerably smaller by now) one more time. The pile heats up once again , but reverts to ambient temperature more quickly. After the second turning, piles are left to finish for several months. This allows the beneficial fungi and earthworms to infiltrate and leaves us with a beautiful, rich, sweet-smelling compost that is pure nutrition for our crops and essential for maintaining healthy soil.

We are very thankful for all of those who contribute their compost through Community Compost. We are also very excited to now be getting leftovers from the new Market of Choice in Medford. This will increase our supply of home-made compost significantly, which will help increase our production of local veggies! All of the compost we make is used on-site to fertilize our crops and maintain healthy soil, eliminating most of the need for expensive fertilizers from faraway places.

Thank you for your support!

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