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"Piles of Dirt" by Beth Weick, as published in North Country News, May 2011

In light of a forecast filled with heavy downpours and dark skies, the weather wasn't so bad. For each intermittent bout of showers, there were equal hours of warmth and almost-sunshine. The day began with trellis building and pea planting in our upper field, a warm-up before we headed to the bulk of our day's labor: compost turning.

Now, compost is nature's process of decomposition. It's happening all around us. Maintaining compost piles is simply a means of harnessing the nutrients in various "waste" products, then using the natural breakdown of organic matter to our benefit. Compost becomes soil – plant food - that then becomes human food. Turning compost is part and parcel of planning ahead for your next dinner gathering.

So it was to this task that we turned our attention. Here at D Acres we have a handful of disparate compost piles that have accumulated over the fall and winter months. Some are small, needing the addition of more material to successfully become a steaming pile of compost (…rather than lumpy conglomerations of odds-and-ends detritus harboring the last of the snow and ice beneath their loads). Some, however, loom large.

These blue-ribbon piles are full of microbial action. Wisps of steam rising from the piles' zenith are modest indicators of internal decomposition. If we want to talk science, compost can be understood in terms of two elements: carbon and nitrogen. In layman's speak, this is the "brown" and the "green." Regardless of linguistic preferences, a healthy compost pile should offer a robust mix of woody materials (woodchips, straw, old hay, dry grass clippings, woody debris) and fresh matter (food scraps, weeds, manure, fresh grass clippings). In combination with oxygen introduced into the pile through frequent turning, a hot, active microbial environment is fostered, essentially "cooking" the pile's contents. Decomposition happens fairly rapidly in this manner, providing quality soil for use in the gardens within a season or two.

And this process is essential. Finished compost releases nutrients slowly over time, preventing soil from becoming depleted and helping to ensure plant health. Compost, therefore, is a key component to a healthy garden system.

So back to that looming compost pile. (Are you familiar with our ox hovel? Well, the oxen have had a lot to eat. Check out their heaping, steaming compost mound on your next visit to the farm.) At the time, heaving pitchforkfuls of partially-aged ox manure overhead, the mental mantra isn't more than a rhythmic scoop-and-pitch-and-scoop-again. With this round of turning completed, though, it sure is satisfying to think of the plants it will grow and the meals it will provide. Just a few more turnings to go between now and then…

And the thing is, this tale could be your story, too. Start a compost pile! Already have one? Build it up, turn it regularly – it will only be to your benefit. With soil on hand, any plant will be more willing to grow.

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