Ag 101 Week 20

I Only Eat Cheesecake


 Let me explain.

I have an available supply. The market down the road has the best in town, and sometimes the market has it on sale. I can stock up when that is the case. I can freeze it so I will never run out. I always have it on hand. I have been able to maintain a somewhat healthy weight while on my cheesecake only diet. Well, sort of. A healthy weight is a relative term. As long as I exercise and still fit in my sweatpants, that’s fine with me. I like my sweatpants. So far, my health is reasonably good while on my cheesecake only diet. I realize that eventually there is the potential for me to have some nutrient or vitamin deficiencies, but so far so good. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it, right? I’ll know when I’m dead there is a problem.

Sounds a bit dramatic and crazy, right?

That’s what I think when a grower tells me they only use compost. Be upset with me, tell me that it’s working just fine for you, justify it all you want but that is how you are feeding your soil and your plants. You are feeding them a nutritionally imbalanced diet that even though you are intensely rotating crops things will eventually catch up with you. In reality, you are not feeding them; you are amending the soil. You are changing the physical characteristics of the soil while ignoring the nutritional needs of the crop because compost is an amendment, not a fertilizer. 

Let me ask you a question. Would you eat like that?

There seems to be a more significant number of farms starting in the business. A farm up the road has been composting for several years, another in the opposite direction is now offering its own brand of compost, and local municipalities in the area have started some windrows of their own. Compost business has started as a means to handle wastes from other industries. It is available year-round and at what seems to be a reasonable price, sometimes being free for the taking. 

Let’s look at an average analysis of your garden variety compost. Guess what; there is no average. First, compost companies source material from a variety of places. Companies in our area use mushroom waste, or food waste, some paper-based products, some use manures, some use peat or sphagnum moss, or combinations of all of the previously listed. These inconsistencies in materials and how long it is composted lead to the variabilities in nutrient analysis. Second, the nutrient analysis is negligible due to the fact nutrients are diminished as the materials are decomposed. It is an inevitable part of the process, leaving you with an amendment intended for adding organic matter and microbes. 

I am not bashing the industry.  A vendor questioned me after a presentation about this very subject, and they have yet to get the information I asked for. I wanted analysis and data showing me what’s in their compost. That’s it, that is all I asked for. What I got were marketing talking points that I later saw on their website. That’s all you see from any of them. I’m not singling out any one company or manufacturer. They are all doing the same thing. Go to the US Composting Councils’ Website. You get a lot of marketing points, but I had to spend an hour digging for some hard-core research, and it turned up useless for any grower I’m working with.

Do your due diligence and look into the source of the compost you are considering. Better yet source it from a reputable manufacturer or farmer that is willing to disclose what is in it and what the analysis is, making sure a reputable lab did it.

Composting your food and lawn waste is a great idea, however, to be done successfully it can be labor-intensive and time-consuming. The volume at which you need to compost can be prohibitive as well.  If applying 1 inch of compost on a 30X30 garden that is almost equivalent to 2.8 cubic yards. You would need anywhere from two to three times that volume in initial waste materials to produce that.  I’ve worked with several farmers that have tried to compost and farm and cannot find enough time to do either the justice it deserves.

You may be wondering how well the cheesecake diet works-

I have personally tried the cheesecake only diet, and I’m here to tell you it did not turn out well for me. I gained 75 pounds, and I ended up back in my fat pants. I am tired and cranky most of the time unless I am medicating with coffee or another form of therapeutic beverage. I am on the verge of exploding if I do not make changes. I have radically amended my physical characteristics while ignoring any nutritional needs I have. I’m on the brink of a health crisis if I don’t change.

What do I need to do to make changes-

Over the past few weeks, I have decided to get back to eating a balanced diet that consists of healthy proteins, fats, vegetables, and fruits. I have given up one therapeutic beverage except for coffee. My fern leaf peony and coffee will be buried with me. I am exercising on a regular basis and getting my family involved. As much as I love cheesecake, I have had to eat a more balanced diet. I have to find a balance between changing my physical characteristics and my nutritional needs using exercise and food.

Guess what – Your soil and plants need a balanced diet as well.

Your soil and plants will eventually send out signals just like what happened to me. They will not end up in their fat pants, but they will be tired and cranky. Yields will start to go down, plants will start and look unhealthy while being subjected to higher insect and disease pressure. An unhealthy plant is an open door to unwanted issues. I often hear “Well I rotate, and that ensures the plants are getting what they need.” You do have a point, but if you rotate into a crop that wants a nutrient that isn’t there because you might have overlooked nutrient removal from the previous crop? Then what do you do?

Just as I have to use exercise and food to be healthy, you need to use management strategies and inputs to balance soil and plant health.

What are simple steps you can take to get off the compost only diet-

Truth, I don’t want you to kick the habit entirely. I want you to use compost for what it is best suited, and that is an excellent source of organic matter and microbes. I want you to use it when it is needed to enhance your fertility program, not be the main component of it.

-Get a soil test that includes organic matter.

A comprehensive test that includes significant nutrients N-P-K, along with trace minerals and organic matter will be the best investment to understanding what your soil needs.

-Look your farm on the soil survey website to identify your soil type.

Understanding your soil type will help you learn how to work with the soil you have.

-If using compost ask the manufacturer for a lab analysis done by a third party reputable lab.

If they can’t provide one, you have to decide if you want to take the risk or look for a reputable manufacturer that can provide a current one. Before purchasing it take a minute and smell it. Smelling it may sound odd, but how compost smells can be an indication as to how well it is broken down and how healthy it is. Just because you are working with the rotten stuff, it shouldn't smell rotten. If it has been composted adequately, it should smell fresh and earthy.


Ag 101 Week 19

Grounds for That

I’m talking coffee grounds this week. It all started when I happen to see a post on Facebook from my local coffee shop 3J's Coffee . They were advertising they had free coffee grounds for your compost pile. I thought to myself  “It’s good they sent the right message and said need compost not fertilizer?


I happen to stop in later in the week and saw the owner. I mentioned that I appreciated the fact that they said for your compost pile. She said thank you and from there this week’s topic was decided.

It’s not something the large-scale grower considers. I realize this. I was even thinking about ditching the topic altogether. After last week’s half-assed attempt to instill wisdom about the use of vinegar, I was convinced I needed to step up my game and talk about more serious-minded agronomic topics like how to grow 200 bushels of corn per acre.

Then I decided, screw it. Some well-meaning other person has that covered. I’m talking about coffee grounds. And here’s why

1.      A considerable percentage of growers I work with started as hobby or backyard growers.

2.      The industry lacks for current if any research regarding anecdotal information about inputs used             by naturally-based or certified organic growers.  

As I mentioned, a considerable percentage of growers I work with started as hobby or backyard growers. They bring with them all the googled, passed down, well-meaning information gardeners’ like to share. Then they become a CSA/market grower doing it on a larger scale with that same backyard information mindset. Not that there isn’t value to that. I’m not putting anyone or anything down. But to scale up, you have to think up and ditch the backyard mindset. Don’t lose the zeal and excitement for growing great produce or vegetables but take your thinking aka management to an elevated level on par with the scale it takes to supply a CSA or market.

One of the nuggets of great info out there is the practice of using coffee grounds as fertilizer. I understand the positive environmental impact it can have to keep them out of landfills. I also realize that there is very little if any real data to support the fertility claims that are made.  I often hear things like, “I use it for my rose bushes with a banana peel, and they grow bigger and bigger every year. I have the best roses in town!” For the backyard grower that might be sufficient evidence, however, for a production level grower, it is not scientifically based research adequate to be of benefit to a CSA/market scale system.

In an abstract from Urban Forestry & Urban Greening Vol. 18 August 2016 pg. 1-8, it suggests not to use coffee grounds in a horticultural production setting due to stunted growth and inconclusive data.

However, in a study conducted in South America, there was evidence that the addition of coffee grounds in Arenosols soils was beneficial.

Note that each study was conducted in entirely different settings and different soil types. It’s not comparing an apple to an apple, and that needs to be taken into consideration. There is not enough research out there for me to feel comfortable recommending a grower use it in their fertility program. And what I could find on actual numbers is variable. To get accurate levels of the nutrients and pH, you would need to take a representative sample from each batch of grounds you collected. That almost defeats the purpose of it being an economical addition to a fertility program.

However, I do feel that with what information is currently available coffee grounds could be an excellent addition to composting. Research has been done that suggests coffee grounds could help maintain temperature levels that will kill pathogens. Whether that is entirely accurate or not, due to the fact the research is still somewhat lacking, it still can’t be a bad addition in appropriate amounts.

My stash of coffee grounds headed for the compost pile

My stash of coffee grounds headed for the compost pile

My advice

If you are a gardener doing some composting, use the coffee grounds as an addition to your compost pile. If you want to amend specific areas of your garden directly, apply an appropriate amount and work it into the soil.

If you are a market/CSA grower use them in any composting, you are doing but not directly incorporated in any production areas like greenhouses or raised beds. You should now be at a level you are monitoring and adjusting the fertility of those systems with specific inputs, and due to the variability of coffee grounds, there is the potential for things to get out of balance. If you have a source that can supply them in a large enough quantity while not inundating you with them, get the grounds tested for nutrient content and pH. That way you have an idea what you are working with and can make a more sound decision as to how and where you could potentially work them into a fertility plan. 

Go to your local coffee shop buy a cup of coffee take some time to get to know the owner and staff and while you’re there get a bucket of coffee grounds for your compost pile.

Just as they have the potential to be good for your compost, it might be an excellent way to build a relationship that could potentially turn into a customer for you, and there is always grounds for that.

Again, thank you 3 J’s Coffee Shop in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. You made this agronomist’s day by sending the right message and making a great cup of coffee.