Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Revitalize your soil; feed it

Compost tea gives boost to agriculture

Express Staff Writer

At his shop in south Hailey, Gunnar Whitehead helps load compost tea (a.k.a. microbe extract) into a truck for spraying. Next to him is one of the filled vats of the "tea" that used as a fertilizer. Express photo by Dana DuGan

Compost tea is an old and re-emerging substance that is gaining popularity for treating soil, plants, trees, lawns and crops, albeit with new technology and materials.

Like the air and water to which it's connected, soil is a precious resource, but not unchanging. Instead, the quality and quantity of soil can change rapidly due to human activities and/or the natural order.

A healthy soil provides habitat and the means of survival for a wide variety of plants and microorganisms. These in turn feed animals and humans.

Using a state-of-the-art diffusing method, Sustainable Services of Idaho, based in Jerome, is producing organic soil food for farms, gardens, golf courses and homes. In fact, SSI in three years has become the go-to company for organically fertilizing farms.

"We're the ag people," said Dwight Rarick, SSI soil consultant for the Wood River Valley. "I'm the one that started it up there (in the Wood River Valley) and am now working with Gunnar Whitehead of Whitehead Landscaping."

Indeed, Whitehead, who has been in the landscaping business locally for 10 years, has the only franchise in the valley, and is one of just 11 in the country. Currently, SSI and Whitehead are fertilizing 7,000 acres, 150 home lots and approximately 600 trees in Blaine County, Rarick said.

But what exactly are they using?

The main component is a liquid compost extract that contains high numbers of beneficial organisms. Produced using a mix of high quality vermi-compost and Alaskan humus, water is run through it—as with a tea—and then extracted into a liquid vat. The beneficial organisms, such as fungi, bacteria and nematodes, remain in the extract. Compostable foods are added to the liquid, which the beneficial organisms feed upon and grow in number. This all happens under controlled conditions of time, temperature and oxygen concentration. The liquid is applied to the ground from a sprayer truck.

"By applying this several times throughout the growing season, it's possible to return the soil's natural disease and pest resistance while regaining fertility," Rarick said. "It's just better for improving your soil. It's safer. You're not putting non-organic things into the water or air, and you can get better crops with better quality. Even fruit tastes better."

The idea is to build up the soil structure, which improves the holding capacity of the soil. Phosphates and nitrates are released into the soil.

The results have been "phenomenal," Rarick said. "I got some of the biggest farmers in the valley doing it that would never have done it before. No place is too small and no place is too big. We do cottage gardens to 10,000-acre farms."

Whitehead acknowledged farmers are hard to change.

"The reason they're changing is because they're seeing bigger yields at their neighbor's who're using it."

Another bonus of the process is the more efficient use of water. Especially this season, the natural aridity of the climate and soil will challenge farmers and gardeners alike. Active soil retains water much more efficiently than hard, dead soil, which is prone to letting water run off.

"In the long run, it's better for water absorption because you don't need as much," Whitehead said. "Certain homes will save up to 30 percent of water this year. And there is no spring cleanup because the microorganisms actually eat the thatch. We've talked to the parks departments and golf courses.

"This year, saving water will be so important. Here's our chance to actually do something about it. Chemical fertilizer just kills the microbes and hardens the soil. Doing that is like having grass on cocaine. It takes time to get it off that, but we can have living soil again within three months."

Whitehead makes his own microbe extract in Hailey. SSI provides materials to him, Rarick said.

The Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Center is firmly behind Whitehead's new industry. With their help he may not have to buy materials from SSI any longer.

"The plan is to get local restaurants to separate compostable foods and donate them to Gunnar, who'll feed the worms in his compost for the extract," ERC Development Director Ben Mackay said. "He needs something like 700 pounds a week."

This would benefit taxpayers at the same time, since it costs nearly $50 in taxes for every ton of waste put in the area landfill each month.

"For every ton of food waste that is diverted to Gunnar it saves taxpayers the burden," Mackay said.

Another benefit? The sprayers love it. One of Whitehead's men said he used to worry all the time about the effects of spray-borne chemicals on his health. Now he's very happy with the product he sprays several times a day.

Down at Whitehead's lot in Hailey, his trucks roll in, fill up with the extract and leave to spray several times a day, Whitehead said. It's a healthy life.

And very little survives without healthy soil.

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