Hitting Pay Dirt

 by Carol Ann Sayle

I am fortunate to have survived, and mostly thrived, as a farmer for 25 years. Indeed, I’m still grateful, daily, to be on this farm learning—always learning—about how life below my feet works. I made Ds in chemistry in high school and at the university level, but if soil had been in the lesson plan, I might have done better. Most of what I know about this mysterious part of the Earth—which is of us and of everything else, whether alive or dead—I’ve learned from soil test reports, farm periodicals (i.e., discussions of the essence of life)…and, of course, chicken poo.

On the farm, I harvest greens for my hens to eat over the winter, because feeding them great food is the first step in nourishing the soil life. My hens are never purged just because of “henopause” (they live out their entire lives here), for even past the laying stage, they still contribute “poo de poulet” for the compost pile. Several times a year, I “harvest” and haul the chickens’ poo from the henhouse flooring to mix with the leaves brought by community yard workers. Whenever the leaves pile up, it’s time for a poo harvest.

The harvest of this past fall’s poo pile was delayed by the lack of early leaf companions to the point that it smelled like ammonia. I revealed this aroma status to Larry, who replied, “Oh, that is excellent!” Then he unselfishly sped off to the Gause farm so that I could shovel the odiferous pile alone, in peace. With the twin doors of the henhouse flung open wide, I nosed Lillian, the tractor, tightly to the back of the structure, rested her bucket on the edge of the floor, wrenched myself around her and half-stood underneath the nocturnal perches from which the hens let go of their day’s nutritious castoffs. Because the poo was moist (not enough straw to permit it to dry out), I didn’t use a dust mask, and—thinking of the eventual compost—the muck came to smell like gold to me.

I’m one who leaves no poo in corners, so there was a lot of crouching and pseudo-yoga poses with the flat shovel that not only fit the corners but permitted me to shave up the stuff stuck to the tin floor. Not being the persnickety type, I piled the gold onto the shovel’s surface with my gloved hands and then pitched it all to Lillian. Curious as usual, the hens investigated and found new interest in the traveling mixture. Worried that they might want to go around me and out to the kale, I routinely threw a bit of their gold at them to keep them alarmed and occupied elsewhere.

The recipe for good compost is nitrogen, carbon, water and air, with various ratios of nitrogen to carbon used by numerous experts. I’ve no idea what ratio I use. If the pile gets hot, it’s a good ratio. If it doesn’t, then I’ll add more nitrogen/poo. If the pile goes dry, I’ll add more water. The pile should be moist but not sopping wet, and below 160 degrees or the teensy inhabitants will die. To cool a too-hot pile—and also provide necessary air for the inhabitants—the pile is completely turned over with a shovel or simply fluffed up using Lillian’s bucket. Once the ingredients are moist and mixed, the official compost-makers (the microbes and bacteria) complete the effort. The process takes a couple of months, if I turn the pile and keep it moist. Steam coming from the top of the pile tells me that the pile and the tiny guys are happy.

Then we haul the compost, still steaming, to the fields and serve it to every bed that we prepare, along with mineral amendments. The microbial, bacterial population, along with all sorts of worms and other soil-dwellers, gorge on the compost and add their own gold to the soil. The plants take up this nutrition through their roots or with the aid of mycorrhizal fungi attached to their roots. We harvest the plants, we (and the hens) eat them, we cut down the aging plants to compost them, but we leave their carbon-sheathed roots to mix with the soil for more microbial meals. We make more compost and the circle is complete—and endless.

Working with the hens and these little critters is probably the noblest job, if not the smelliest, on this farm. But to me, the occasional aroma is life made manifest.