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The Magic of Compost

Orizaba Farm's new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

Orizaba Farm’s new location in Milwaukie, Oregon

The green tarp crinkled as I pulled it back from the large pile of leaves, straw, and kitchen scraps.  Digging my hand into the moist pile, I moved aside the top layers until I reached a mat of coffee grinds.  An eruption of warm steam billowed from the center of the pile and a red wriggler worm squirmed out from beneath a coffee filter.  I tossed another bucket of kitchen scraps and coffee grinds into the hole I created and covered the pile back up with leaves and straw.  Creating a good compost pile is a bit like baking bread.  It needs the right mixture of ingredients; the right amount of moisture – not too wet or too dry; the right environment to foster rapid but controlled microbial growth and activity; and the right cooking time and temperature.  Like baking, the process may seem tedious to the eyes of the uninitiated.  But once the process is complete – and if done correctly – I knew that I would be rewarded with a bountiful garden harvest the following season, as rich and filling as the heartiest loaf of bread.

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

Our nursery of berries, grapes, and figs

I had only been at our new home for two weeks and had already accumulated a massive pile of leaves from a nearby church, pine needles from a local school, wood chips from the Portland Urban Forestry Center, a tall stack of cardboard boxes from a local appliance store, pallets from an upholstery shop down the road, newsprint from a local printing press, coffee grinds from our neighborhood coffee shop, and 15 bales of oat straw from our community’s organic farm supply store.  We have a trunk full of seeds we saved from our last farm in Maine, two dozen raspberry plants that I had dug as sprouts from Suyematsu Farms on Bainbridge Island, a dozen blueberry bushes, and several grape and fig plants we propagated from cuttings last year.  My parents, grandmother, and our numerous green-thumbed neighbors hold in reserve for us countless varieties of perennials from which we will take cuttings to populate our urban farm:  figs, grapes, kiwis, raspberries, thornless blackberries, rhubarb, and huckleberries.  Our community is full of fruit trees from which we will collect scionwood for grafting onto rootstock.  Our half acre farm plot will be productive, and our plates will be full.

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

Leaves, firewood, wood chips, and pine needles to feed the soil

This is what it was all about.  Nutrient Cycling.  Feeding Life from Death.  Composting.  The continuous circle of matter and energy facilitated by that miracle of organization and defiance of entropy we call “Life.”  This is why I left academia to become an organic farmer.  This is why I forfeited nearly $100k in fellowship stipends:  to dig my hands into the soil and pull forth Life.  Because, as my best friend Josh Ellis puts it, “Cultivating Life is infinitely more rewarding than studying it.”  And Life begins – and ends – with compost.  So, in a word, compost is the reason that I left the nation’s top Ph.D. program in Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology.  Compost:  to create Life; to transform it; to become a true student of Life.  Not by experimentally manipulating and statistically analyzing it as a scientist would; rather, by observing, feeding, producing, and consuming it.  By becoming an organic farmer.

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