Making Hay

What’s worse for our planet than all of the pollution produced by China, and a major source of catastrophic droughts, erosion and even climate change? Shawn Bishop, owner of Third Coast Horticulture Supplies in North Central Austin, says the answer is simple: Look down. 

“The most important thing that I can see is how we’re treating the land, agriculturally,” he says. “We’ve lost so much soil because modern agricultural efforts aren’t doing anything to build or sustain [it].” 

But Bishop, whose current business is hydroponics, aquaponics and general organic gardening supplies, says he’s in the process of developing yet another business model that includes microbially digested vegetative compost made from organic hays, grasses and grains. Bishop feels certain his new endeavor will not only help bolster the local economy, but will also help home gardeners, ranchers and other land managers rebuild what’s been lost.

“Our main focus is to realign proper biology in different growing systems, which will be manageable with these compost products and extracts,” says Bishop. “We’ll be putting trace minerals into the compost and the hay, inoculating the soil with different microorganisms and trying to create a nice, slow-release nutrient, with lots of humic materials, that helps with actual organic plant growth.”

This kind of biological adjustment of the soil can result in better moisture retention, less erosion, improved carbon sequestration and, of course, healthier plants. “The more we engage a plant’s natural metabolism to relate to soil microorganisms and minerals, we can actually create a more sustainable effort with less inputs,” he says. “That’s really the goal: to eliminate damaging chemical inputs into our properties that are harming the environment.”

Recently, Bishop received a $95,000 research grant from the USDA to determine whether this process—which involves setting up windrows of grasses and hays and turning them periodically in compost piles for up to eight or nine months—can add value to the local hay economy. If all goes well, Bishop would then be able to apply for a $200,000 production grant, which would allow him to get started providing this tool to consumers.  

Bishop says both Third Coast Horticulture and this new business model are his way of being able to provide for himself and his family while also making a positive contribution to the health of the environment. “I get tunnel vision in what I feel is right, and I get a whole lot of angst over where I feel we are and what we’ve done to this state and our planet,” he says. “What we can do for the land is probably the most important thing for us to start to focus on, and this will be one of the tools at the disposal of land managers.” —Nicole Lessin

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