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Garden Tips: Agricultural waste to soil savior, using byproducts to make compost

Published: Aug. 21, 2020 at 12:52 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) -Down a long and winding road, over a slough not far from the blazing fighter jets of Eielson lies the Warren Smith Family Farm.

Since 1986 the farm has specialized in making grass and pollinator seeds used mostly for revegetation projects across the state.

Around eight years ago, farm owner Warren Smith had an idea to turn his grass straw into compost.

“It still has a lot of fiber and it’s warm to the touch,” Smith said as he reached his hand into a pile of compost.

Smith’s composting is unique as he only uses two ingredients: straw and water.

Grass bails waiting to be mechanically ground up to start the composting process.
Grass bails waiting to be mechanically ground up to start the composting process.(Sarah Hollister)

“You can see the bale in the background, the light brown bales, those are right off the field. From there in the following spring they are ground and put in a pile right here, which was done in June,” Smith said pointing to a pile of ground up grass straw. “With the right mixture of water and air the composting begins immediately, and that pile is right now at 150 degrees.”

The following season the piles are turned again then left to cure.

By the third season, the compost is ready to be sold.

Warren Smith showing his 3rd year compost pile.
Warren Smith showing his 3rd year compost pile.(Sarah Hollister)

“The reason it takes three years is I start at 60:1, that’s the carbon nitrogen ratio. It takes that long to break it down to where the mature compost is 15:1 or less and that’s the product that is dark and looks like soil,” Smith said.

The right ratio of carbon and nitrogen are essential for a successful compost -- carbon being “brown” materials such as leaves, straw hay or sawdust. Nitrogen, otherwise known as “greens,” include fresh leaves, grass clippings and vegetable scraps.

Smith says most gardeners mix compost at a 15% ratio with their soil.

“Compost is not really a fertilizer even though there [are] some nutrients in it,” Smith explained. “I have it tested every year to know what’s in it. A lot of micro nutrients are there but the biggest thing in the compost is a soil amendment that helps for the transfer of fertilizer to the plant root and obviously makes [it] far more superior, whether you are growing vegetables or any crop.”

Tune in next time when we show you how you can make your own compost pile using things you might find in your kitchen trash.

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