The Holistic Compost Reaction Lab

In the year of 2021 I worked at Steingrubenhof helping to raise the chickens, holistic grazing management of the cows and all other tasks in between. The farm in southwest Germany lies in St. Peter in the Schwarzwald region and is led by Isabell and Tim. It is roughly 50ha in size with grassland and forest which was used for milk cows by Isas family before they retired the business in 2014. The whole farm got „revived“ in 2021 when Isa and Tim took over. I had met them both in a regenerative permaculture design course at Ridgedale Permaculture in Sweden and we kept contact ever since then exchanging ideas about farming and life.

During the season Andreas came to buy some chicken and meet us. He lives about 15 minutes away from the farm near Freiburg and found us by looking for regenerative farms in his area. He has a great interest in regenerative farming and a deep understanding of microbes, soil life and a lot of other things.
We connected well and the idea of the Holistic Compost Reaction Lab was born. We want to explore soil life, it’s importance on the farm and how we can improve it. We believe that soil life is a key factor to a healthy farm and is a field where a lot of research can still be done.

Soil life analysis using microscopy

Our first analysis of soil life in the meadows of the farm showed that not a lot of life was present. I would have expected at least some microbes to be present since the meadows looked good. They where usually mowed up to three times during the season for hay or silage and fertilized with cow slurry.
We immediately marked out some test plots of 1m x 3m on a piece of pasture, took samples and begat treatment with compost extract and broadfork. The first plot was control which only got water, the second plot got a compost extract treatment, the third plot got extract and broadforking and the fourth plot got extract, broadfork and compost spread out.
We repeated the treatments a couple times in hopes of getting some soil life to flourish on a test plot.

The HCRL is an exciting project through which we want to find out more about soil life, it’s role on our ecosystems and how to actively improve and nourish it on our farms through good practices.

Arriving at Helle Bauer

A lot has happened since my last blog article. I finished the internship at Ridgedale in Sweden and tried hitchhiking home which didn’t really work out that well. I managed to get to Gothenburg almost directly from Sunne and spent two nights there after meeting Edmund who had also been on the internship and took the train to Gothenburg. He had to spend four days there waiting for his flight.
Trying to get out of Gothenburg was hard hitchhiking and I ended up booking a bus to Hamburg and hitching on from there. I wanted to get home quickly and get some stuff sorted out before leaving for the European Juggling convention and on to my next big stop the Helle Bauer farm in Höxter.
And I have already been here for over seven weeks now living with Jasper and Anna who own the farm and Jakob who is from Austria and lived here from March till the end of September.

Helle Bauer market garden
entrance to the garden

Jasper and Anna purchased the Helle Bauer Farm in autumn of 2017, together with Annas father and three siblings, after Jasper had come back from the Ridgedale internship. The farm has two big barns, one small barn which is not being used, one small barn which is being renovated to be the chicken winter stable and a big ‚Fachwerk‘ House. Fachwerk is an old style of building houses in Germany which is a wooden frame house with clay plaster walls.
The family renovated one side of the big house which is the side we are currently living in. The other side has a separate entrance and still needs a lot of work which will probably be started this winter.
One of the big barns is a former pig stable which is planned to have space for a farm shop and a conference/yoga room. Jasper is a yoga teacher and would like to offer classes there some day. The other big barn has a workshop and storage for chicken feed, wood, building materials, etc.
The farm has about 2 ha of land which is mostly grassland with old fruit trees scattered on it. Jasper has 200 hens which he grazes holistically on the pasture between the fruit trees. The other big enterprise of the farm is the market garden which has about 80 20m*0.75m no dig vegetable beds and one polytunnel.

The Fachwerk House and old pig stable
The Fachwerk House to the left and old pig stable to the right in the background.

There is a washing station for vegetables in the center of the garden right next to the greenhouse which gives easy access to the delivery van. The vegetable beds are arranged in blocks of ten beds with a bed in between each block that has trees flowers and perennial shrubs on it. This makes the garden even more colorful and diverse and gives habitat to more creatures. In the future the fruit trees will grow big enough to give shade to the gardener and house birds and other animals.

two big barns and the main house in the middle
two big barns and the main house in the middle. The winter chicken stable is the small building to the very right.

I am enjoying working here a lot and feel really at home in the small team we have. There is a lot to do every day since next to the day to day running of the farm infrastructure needs to be built and routines put in place. It is nice to be able to have such a big impact in the building up of a place like this and to work on a farm that is very similar to what I can imagine having.
I am learning a lot and it is really valuable to me to have a structure that I can orient myself on when looking for my own place.

looking from the garden towards the house
the vegetable beds with greenhouse and washing station to its left. The big pole is for birds of prey that use it often to hunt small rodents and the like around the garden.

Making air pruning pots / root trainers

We made plant pots which automatically prune plant roots when they hit the air. The outside wall is made of building plastic which has dents in it and is normally used for separating a cellar wall from the earth around it.
We came up with various designs and then brainstormed for the best one which needed to fit our criteria.

Setting parameters for making root trainers
some thoughts before prototyping

The pots needed to be:
– easy to assemble in an efficient production line
– made out of the available materials on farm (Richard had bought two rolls of the cellar plastic)
– 40 cm high with a diameter of 20 cm and round
– have a base that air prunes and is not sitting on the ground
– easy to take apart for planting
– cheap material cost
– moveable


Microgreen seeding

We seeded some microgreens today. Microgreens are the baby shoots of plants which are harvested about two weeks after sowing and used as garnishes on dishes for decoration and flavor.
Here at Ridgedale we have sunflower, pea and radish microgreens which are sold to private customers and chefs every week. They are seeded into the same flats which we use for the paper pot transplanter with a layer of compost compacted into the flat.


Thoughts on solving complex problems

With climate change and other complex problems getting more and more important to us humans a lot of ideas are created to finding solutions to these problems. There is a pattern to be observed with technical solutions failing to provide good, long lasting solutions. Often times we apply the same pattern of thought onto solving a complex problem to solving a complicated one. So what are these patterns and what are complex and complicated problems?


Busy farm life

There is a lot going on on the farm as the season progresses and we, the interns, got more settled in. I am on turkey, cow and sheep team, which means we feed and move the turkeys in the morning and then go up into the pasture to move the sheep and cows.
The turkeys are still young little six week old birds but are out in the pasture already where the cows have grazed the land a couple of weeks ago.

Hungry turkeys

Super Soil Science

tilthing the beds to even out lumps

Today we set up a science experiment on the farm. Last week we had prepared six 50 cm x 800 cm beds next to the barn where a pig paddock had been last year. There was some weed which needed clearing and a rancid smell from some pig food which had gone anaerobic and manure.


We made real compost

The market gardens needed some restructuring in order to really get the season going so everyone on the farm was in the gardens for one day doing lot’s of little things that desperately needed doing.
In the morning we removed a lot of greens from the big poly tunnel which has the tomatoes and cucumbers. The greens where taking over and bolting and it was hard for the tomatoes and cucumbers to set foot. Yohanna had called up all of the restaurants to sell what we could but there was a lot left over. We had a meeting right after breakfast in order to efficiently divide everyone up between the tasks that had to get done. Gustav and I where tasked with building a compost from the greens.


Glaskogen nature reserve

Richard organized a trip to Glaskogen nature reserve for the group of interns. We packed up and left the farm right after breakfast on Monday for a two day trip. Packed with lot’s of food and a couple of fishing rods we headed out stopping for gas and at a supermarket along the way.
It was strange to be in a supermarket after two weeks of living on the farm with abundance of great produce all around. Seeing everything packed up and sorted in shelves seemed disconnected in a way. Most of us just bought lot’s of chocolate and off we went.


Forest hike

I went on a hike through the forest with my headphones on and Saku, the farm dog, and the neighbors Labrador following me. After a while of walking right into the forest and still knowing where about the farm was relative to me. Since I had some time before having to be back for dinner I decided to let the dogs lead me and get a little lost. Wherever they went I followed and sometimes they would run off far away playing catch with each other but whenever I called they came right back.
It was a little strange listening to music with my big headphones which block out the surroundings almost completely. Usually when hiking in nature I enjoy the sounds around me but now I just had electronic beats with some chanting intermixed, a new album I hadn’t heard before.