The bread of life

This is my 21th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement.

The father of organic farming, Sir Albert Howard, maintained that the single most important factor to maintain the health of the soil is compost. A healthy soil results in healthy plants and healthy animals, including humans.

Organic farmers endeavour to improve their soils to the point where a healthy and balanced soil ecosystem can can generate its own fertility without the need for significant external inputs. So it goes without saying that one of the main activities on Broadleaze is making compost.

We make our compost using a technique that Howard developed whilst serving at the Indore research station in India. I was approached recently by an rural development NGO to hold a workshop on this method of compost making. We had great fun together making a compost heap.

This is not the the sort of activity most would consider fun but it was. The event was charged with the same atmosphere that a busy kitchen might have and this led me to ponder on the parallels between compost making and baking.

The technique we use requires a rectangular heap with straight sides and a flat top. When one of the workshop participants questioned how they could explain the necessity of this shape to the rural community, the idea of baking dawned on me.

“Explain that we are baking bread. Bread for the soil”, I exclaimed. This concept was seized on with enthusiasm.

There certainly is a recipe to be followed in making compost. There is a correct ratio between dry carbon rich and wet nitrogen rich material. Ample water is needed, and plenty of air in circulation. There are also the extras such as wood ash, rock dust and manures from different species of animal. These add extra nutrient value to the final product.

The materials are carefully layered to create a heap in the bread-like shape mentioned earlier. The shape is important as it enables maximum surface area for fresh air absorption and provides a flat top to soak up rainwater. The size is also important as we need sufficient volume for the composting process to work effectively.

The process differs from baking in that the heap heats up from the inside due to aerobic bacterial activity. Our heaps reach up to 70C on the inside. this heat helps to sterilise the heap of weed seeds and pathogens. By the time the heap cools down it shrinks in height from about 1,8 metres to 1 metre, another difference from bread.

After about 4 to 6 weeks we turn the heap over and let it mature for another couple of weeks before it is finally ready to be spread out on the beds.This compost will provide the nutrients for the soil biota and all the key nutrients necessary for healthy plant growth. it has been said that the soil is the basis of life and, if this is so, then compost, as soil food, is the bread of life.

For info on compost making visit http://www.broadleaze.co.za

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About Rob Symons

My name is Rob Symons. I live in Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. MuthiMuthi is my Zulu nickname which means tall tree. I am an Organic Farmer and an environmentalist. I live and work on Broadleaze Farm in the Mkondeni valley on the eastern outskirts of Pietermaritzburg.
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