|The Netherlands 1990|
We talk about these things and sometimes we talk a lot. It is a way to process the things that bother us. To blow a fresh wind through our mind.
It is good to dedicate your life to making beautiful things. To construct something. Something that is worth something, for your self and for others. Then there are these small initiatives that can enrich our existence. They give you a future. Not just to have something to do, but to be someone. To have a function within a community.
Actually, you should not let yourself being stopped. You always come across something that triggers your imagination, that gives you the right idea to get to work.
Our work started in the Netherlands, when we could rent a house in the country from a friend. When Hendrik was dismissed as a swimming teacher we started a goat farm. We made goat cheese to sell and we started our own vegetable garden. We did not know much about gardening, but the cheese sold reasonably well. The manure from the goats we could use for the vegetable garden. There were new goats each year and the amount of manure grew. All what we did, we built on progressive insight. And this way of working has brought us a lot of knowledge. Here we started our first composting. To begin with, one reads a book...
Within the mainstream agriculture, we did not find much recent literature about composting. However, in the dynamic biological agriculture we found even more treatises on compost. The concept of 'Eco' (ecological agriculture) we did not know then. That had yet to be invented. At the same time, we knew the Rudolf Steiner movement, which dates from about 1930. The year that Rudolf Steiner gave a lecture on anthroposophy. So then there was this book about anthroposophy and gardening. There were books on organic gardening, gardening without spading, gardening without poison etc. And they all covered gardening with compost. Organic gardening was the alternative hype of the seventies. At that time we called it 'biological gardening'. And it provided all very interesting literature that had kept Hendrik busy for long nights.
Our first compost pile was built with garden waste, kitchen waste and whatever organic matter we could find. According to the book 'Gardening without Poison' written by Alwin Seifert, we should cover big layers of organic material with a thin (pink thick) layer of soil. We followed the instructions securely. How pleased and proud we were about our pile! We showed it to every visitor and philosophized about what a beautiful compost we would get and what we all would be able to do with it.
Hendrik: "According to the book, we had to wait three months before we were allowed to touch the pile. Those three months lasted long. But then there was the day that it should be and then the spade went in. What a disappointment that was. The pile inside looked just as if I had set it up the first day. Nothing, but nothing was composted there. Not any bacteria had bothered to undertake even a start.
Each thick layer of organic material I had covered with a thin layer of soil... and that soil had sealed all organic matter from air and water. In doing so it preserved the organics. If we had left the pile untouched for much longer, maybe a year, there had been happened something obviously. Then there indeed had originated bacterial activity and the pile had composted by the influence of rain, earthworms etc... Perhaps.
I then made this pile very wet and turned it up side down as much as possible. This all finally had become compost, but my disappointment about this event has remained until this day. It made me look for answers."
Later, after this great debacle, we managed to convert manure and organic materials into a very reasonable compost. We made a thriving vegetable garden and it was a lush for the eye. Later we came to the conclusion that it was the goat manure, which guaranteed the quality of our compost. What we were doing actually was capturing fertilizer (available in the manure) in organic material, with which we multiplied the volume of the soil. Later this knowledge came very handy.
When our friend wanted to sell his house, we moved to a house without land in a neighboring village. We were a bit sorry about this, because 'living in the country' had now become a part of us. But meanwhile we had three children and in the village the school was close by.
Hendrik and some of our friends got unemployed and we developed an agricultural plan together, in theory. We set up a foundation in order to organize the plan and to realize employment for all its members when the project was realized.
Our agricultural plan was based on organic farming. It contained a mixed farm, with some arable crop, some livestock for milk (goats probably) and some horticulture. Something that was common in the 40s and 50s of the last century; something that we (we and our friends) saw disappear with heartburning because of the so-called land consolidation, the development of scale and specialization in agriculture. Our plan was beautiful and also feasible, but also contentious, controversial, and politically really unlicked. Thus it came to political resistance. And this gave our plan an unexpected twist. Some friends found a regular job, one emigrated and others just went. So we were left with only three people, for which we decided to liquidate the foundation. But it did not happen...
Within the theoretical concept of our plan we missed some organic matter. In fact it was a lack of fertilizer in the organic matter, which we missed. We could not get the cycle complete. We calculated enough manure, so we had enough fertilizer for composting. But we needed more organics to increase the fertilizing volume, in order to guarantee a proper horticulture and agriculture production. Which was of course, at that time, a quite remarkable fact to think about.
We had been working on it for a while and we came to the conclusion that we probably needed some more area for hay-making. We learned on our goat farm, that with manure one can convert a lot of organic material into a good fertilizing and soil enriching compost. And so we decided to look for an opportunity to attract organics from other sources. And for this one talks to people...
While the foundation ran down, while we were down to three people, we were already in the middle of several (informal) conversations with a few government agencies and various people, just to see what the possibilities were to gather organic materials for composting, within our theoretical farming concept. And so we were faced with diverse interests, entirely different than ours.
In the Netherlands, there are government agencies, such as the Provincial Water Management (maintenance of roads and water) and the Forestry Commission (nature), which manage greens along the roads and large areas of land as natural parks. They mow the grasses each year and carry them off to the dump. So now they offered us to compost these grasses. We were able to rent a property, to start on our own account and (if successful) continue, as long as we wanted. We had to say goodbye to the agricultural plan. Hendrik and I have considered this proposal and we decided to grab the chance.
Hendrik started the composting project, along with a good friend. Every morning they both biked to the site to do testing and building installations. I myself have restricted myself to the conduct of the administration and writing to funds for financing.
Hendrik: "In addition to the books on organic farming, I also had access to older books relating to traditional agriculture. These I had received from my stepfather. It had once been his study of high school in the 4ties of the last century. Between these books, I found the book 'Microbiology of the field and the agricultural products'. At that moment I could not comprehend the value of that information. It occurred to me later, when I had to deal with it intensively. So the most basic knowledge of soil microbiology was the basis of our future business structure."
And so this went on for a couple of years. We learned a lot about the composting of grasses, from practice to theory and vice versa. We studied the microbiology of the soil, of the fertilizer and the compost. We did tests and concluded that we could scale up using our, already very largely developed, composting method. And we knew how to cope with the Dutch, often wet, conditions.
In the end, all of this lead to the establishment of a private company: Tellus Natuurkompost BV, with Hendrik as a technical director and ma as a financial director. Later I became general director. Three years after the founding of the company, Hendrik became ill however. And we had to sell the company.
As far as we can tell, not much of our original intention survived. Apparently it is hard to understand our composting method and to apply it appropriately. We were not there, of course, also, to adjust it.
In recent years we have looked into this several times. And as far as we can see, this method is not difficult. You just have to understand how bacteria work. One starts small and scales through mechanization later. We went through the same process in our business. And of course one has to invest. But if the result is a good product, then this should not be so difficult.
Hendrik: "What I find so exciting about composting? We know that everything around us is full of bacteria life, but we do not see it. If I start a compost pile, I inoculated with grafting fluid, of which I think it is full of bacterial life, that is functional for composting. But I do not see it. Within all that hay, very many bacteria must be present, but can you see them? No.
According to the German professor H. Krans the bacterial process begins with a few, but by division (each bacterium divides within 30 minutes) the few, will be very many within a few days. According to the known bacteriologist Löhnis, in 36 hours 1000 m3 of bacterial material may be formed out of one single bacteria. Only lack of food, weather, temperatures, drought, which means wrong circumstances and also bacteriophages can stop this." (Bacteriophages eat the bacteria, of which there are most, leaving a balance so that there is not any specie that will prevail.)
"Now, in my small setup, I graft in the immersion barrel, drain in the dripping barrel and store in a third barrel. Here the multiplication of bacteria begins. It remains about a week in the store and then it goes into a big bag. And after three days, heating already starts. I can feel it and measure it with a thermometer. However, I see nothing. That process now, I find so fascinating that it still does not bore me to make compost.
The composting process allows us to change organic material, that we can not eat, into growing food which we can eat. This metamorphosis, to make this possible, by applying some knowledge and some patience, this fascinates me still hugely. That is why I think composting is so exciting. Still now; now having been working on this for at least 40 years."
Tellus Natuurkompost BV 1992 ... The Compost Product:
(Lute in this video: Robert Barto with a part of Sonata 5-Alemande by Silvius Leopold Weiss.)
What we would like, on a large scale, is that the grasses from extensive, apparently non serviceable areas, would be used for composting. By this we mean the composting of grasses from areas that are not suitable for growing crops: Small wastelands, or larger areas, such as savannas, prairies, pampas and pusztai. The grasses that grow in those areas could be used for the production of food when composted. By mowing the grass and transporting it to a closed composting system we ultimately can compost and grow food on a CO2 negative basis. By good pasture management, with fallowing and proper mowing, one can make the fires manageable, that may occur spontaneously in savannas and prairies. This gives us a very different view on the world food problem. And technically it is possible. Our composting method is particularly suited to this, because it can be done very small up to completely industrialized. Also read: 'Principles and some food for techies'.
Food and phosphate.
Hendrik: "The world population increases so that food shortages will occur, one way or the other. And because through increased food production, with the current methods, there will be a shortage of phosphate especially. So we must do everything to adjust this. The composting of herbaceous, of grasses, would be part of a solution. This in conjunction with recycle 'cradle to cradle' agriculture and horticulture. Recycling together with agriculture, can basically provide a good food production. The use of natural grasses for composting would be a substantial addition. Actually I am quite sure about this. I can see what we are doing here. With my composting, I not only make fertile soil, I increase the volume of available fertile soil. This must have an impact on larger scales..."
We have spent a lifetime working on the composting of grasses. And now we have retreated to the Portuguese countryside. We compost on a small scale, to investigate local conditions. We now have a small measurable experimental design. We share this on this blog.
Compost from grasses is a good raw material for the production of food in greenhouses and horticulture. Our composting can be a means, a way to compost grasses from lands that are not suitable for agriculture. Our way of working we call compost-farming. We want people to take note of the idea that grasses from non usable areas can be utilized for this usable cause. We would like people to think through the theoretical and practical aspects and practice it; do feasibility tests. We would like people to take it to a level where something is done with this, politically and economically, thus practical.
Our composting method can be scaled up and can be mechanized. We have already done this in the past. We want to share this information with anyone who can contribute constructively. And we like to share this information with you.
We ourselves are not interested in making profits from any project. We live a good life and we are happy. We only have a good idea. Good enough to tell about. What we can do is think with you.
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