A new way to compost

For less than one dollar per acre, a composting bioreactor increases crop yield, nutrition and biological diversity in fields.

Usually composting means gathering discarded fruits and vegetables and having them decompose into healthy materials for the soil. But recently, a new composting method has evolved – a practice that uses a specific blend of grasses and leaves.

A little more than six years ago, David C. Johnson, a faculty affiliate at the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at California State University – Chico, discovered a new way of composting – he invented the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor. Since then, he’s fine-tuned, tested and experimented with this low-cost unit, and he has asked others to join him.

Isaac Broeckelman, a soil conservation technician at NRCS in South Hutchinson, decided to do just that. He is building a few bioreactors and getting ready to see how they work in Kansas weather.

Next fall, he plans to present a workshop on how to build and use these inexpensive tools.

By using this method, heavily depleted soil flourishes, and once treated with this composting extract, can withstand heavy rains.

"The research has shown that by applying one pound of the finished material per acre they have found that you can raise the same yield of corn on 15% of the nitrogen inputs," Broeckelman said.

Johnson’s bioreactor produces fungal-rich compost that boosts crop growth and carbon sequestration in soil – removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil.

"It’s all about the microbiology," Johnson said. "It (the material from the compost) starts to rebuild the soil carbon."

Johnson found that microbial diversity is the key to regenerating soil carbon. He is working with Chico to continue his research.

"We’re trying to create composting that has fungal populations in it," said Priya Tuvell, a program manager at Chico. "Fungal dominated communities are really important for plant health and important for soil health as well."

Once treated with the fungal tincture, compacted soil that was not able to hold water, can now be infiltrated. In addition, because less fertilizer and herbicides are used, less contaminants enter the groundwater. Likewise, insects become abundant, weeds die out and less water is needed for irrigation.

"We’re mimicking what happened on the Great Plains with the bison," Johnson said.

When doing tests on similar land, he found farmers made a profit by using the biology from his bioreactor and did not make a profit with conventional farming.

"As you bring this biology back, I noticed an increase in manganese, copper, iron availability of 100%, zinc and magnesium," Johnson said. "We use about two pounds per acre at about 50 cents per pound."

Johnson wants producers across the globe to be able to use this cost-efficient system that utilizes less fertilizer than conventional methods.

The word is spreading. Farmers and ranchers in Australia, Siberia, Turkey, England and Finland are using this process, which takes about one year, to help add nutrients to their soil.

"It’s a way to reduce soil erosion," Broeckelman said. "The hardest thing with this process is patience."

In addition to cotton, soybeans and corn fields, Johnson conducts research on almond and walnut fields.

"The goal is to help farmers manage their natural resources in a way that is both economically and ecologically profitable and sustainable," Broeckelman said. "This could have a huge impact on Kansas."

For more information visit California State University – Chico or if you live in South Central Kansas and want to learn about the future workshop on the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor, contact Broeckelman at NRCS-USDA at 620-669-8161.