Compost – a Smart Way to Better Soil Health

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the December-January issue of AgMag magazine

Photo courtesy of normanack

Compost – a decaying mixture of organic matter that can include dead leaves, food waste, animal manure, even coffee grounds – is a solution to many soil-related problems.

It’s long been used to help enrich soil. As early as 1760, George Washington – a farmer himself – used compost to improve his soil and restore its nutrients.

Erosion is one of this country’s most serious soil issues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says erosion causes the United States to lose more than 2 billion tons of topsoil each year. This causes loss of soil productivity and creates water quality problems from sediment run-off.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that sediment contamination of surface waterways is the biggest threat to our water resources. Eroded sediment carries fertilizers, pesticides and other contaminants attached to the soil particles.

A study showed that applying compost helped reduce soil loss by 86 percent compared to bare soils. Compost also decreased sediments reaching nearby surface waters by 99 percent when compared to silt fences, and 38 percent when compared to hydro seeding applications.

Incorporating composting:

  • increases water infiltration to the soil surface.
  • Increases the soil’s capacity to hold water, which reduces runoff
  • Helps prevent pollution
  • And buffers soil pH.

But it does more than this. It helps alleviate compacted soil by increasing soil structure and increases plant growth and soil cover.

Soil erosion – photo courtesy of US Dept of Transportation

In South Texas, there are only a few sources of good quality compost.

The Cities of McAllen and Brownsville are the only municipalities in the Rio Grande Valley that offer compost.

McAllen is by far the largest facility for this. The majority of its customers are landscapers, small-scale organic farmers, a few larger farmers and homeowners.

“It’s a great quality product,” said Robert Trevino, Renewable Resources Manager for the City of McAllen’s Public Works – Recycling Division. “It’s dark, moist and (doesn’t) smell,” he said.

FYI – good rich compost never smells.

McAllen’s compost is thoroughly analyzed every three months, Trevino said, before it gets certified.

“It’s a great product for producing food,” he said.

“Compost would be a plus to add to practically any soil,” said Brad Cowan, Texas A&M AgLife Extension Service’s County Extension Agent – Agriculture, Hidalgo County.

The heat and a long growing season keeps our organic matter depleted here, he said. “I’d love to have more organic matter in our soils.”

But cost and necessary volume are obstacles farmers face.

With 1 million acres of cropland in the four counties, Cowan said, to make composting viable for larger acreages, the price would have to come way down.

Another problem is not having enough organic sources out there.

Compost facility, photo courtesy of Earthwise Organics

East Texas has plenty of pine bark from lumber operations, and other areas are experimenting with mushroom sourced compost.

“We’ve been looking for cheap sources of organic matter down here for a long time,” Cowan said.

There used to be several other sources for commercially produced compost in the Valley.

One long-term farmers go-to source – Earthwise Organics – was recently purchased by Dennis Holbrook, who’s company, South Tex Organics, is an organic grower / producer of citrus and vegetables.

One of Earthwise’s largest customers, Holbrook wanted to protect their ability to have that product available long-term. So when Earthwise decided to sell its composting division, Holbrook purchased it.

“We’ve been using compost for a long time”, he said, “for fertility and overall health of our soils.”

Compost’s nutrients are very stable in soil. It stays in the soil longer and doesn’t leach like synthetic fertilizers, said Holbrook.

“Compost is broad-based in its nutrient make-up. You have nitrogen, phosphorus, potash, and a percentage of micronutrients,” Holbrook, said. “more than if you buy a conventional product that’s basically nitrogen or sulphate.”

Many growers are concerned that compost isn’t high in nitrogen.

But, says Holbrook, because you don’t have the leaching, you get a higher percentage of consumption of that source of nitrogen.

Composting farmland improves soil health and greatly reduces erosion

“When you look at the overall cost, the cost/benefit ratio is substantial,” he said. “You’re getting not only the nutrient but also the live biology which has enormous benefit to the soil. You’re replenishing the live system in the soil.”

“A lot of the synthetic fertilizers – some of the pesticides / herbicides used – are detrimental to the lifecycle in the soil,” said Holbrook. “You create issues like compaction and lack of oxygenation. There are a lot of other factors that have to be looked at,” he said.

“You can find cheaper means of fertility but you’re not getting the entire package,” he added.

“It’s improving the nutrition as well as the microbial content of the soil. That’s the whole purpose of compost – regenerating recyclable materials back into your soil just like Nature does in the rainforest or in the redwoods.”

Compost isn’t as cheap as buying regular nitrogen-based products. But, Holbrook points out, over time “what we’re doing is significantly better than what traditional production (will yield)..”

McAllen’s Recycling Center, located at 4101 N. Bentsen Road, and Brownsville’s Landfill, located at 9000 FM 802, have compost as well as mulch available to the public. Price depends on the amount needed. Brownsville sells it in bulk while McAllen sells it either by the cubic yard or by 40 pound bag.

Utilizing compost is definitely worth considering, especially when you’re talking about long-term soil health and production.

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