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.

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.



Every day the participants rotate to a different area on the farm in order to split the chores. I was in the market gardens in the morning and we spread some more woodchip before breakfast.
Then in the morning Richard took us all on a farm tour and showed us around all the different fields. Most impressive was the difference between Ridgedale land and their neighbors land. When Richard and Yohanna arrived and bought the farm six years ago the grass was stunted in growth like it still is on their neighbors land. The reason it is stunted is that there is no more animal interaction with the land. The grass does not get grazed and can’t express it’s true physiology. We could see the grass was thin and there was a lot of dry dead grass matter in between the green grass with a layer of moss under that and very little soil activity.
On his land where Richard has been grazing cows and chickens and moving them after a grazing plan that let’s the grass recover it was about 30 cm tall and had thick dark green leaves. And the species of grass where all the same. Cows act as mowing machines and chickens follow them, flattening the grass which creates a shield that keeps moisture in the ground. The chickens also love to peck into the cowpats and eat the fly larvae, which are high in protein and would hatch to bug the cows otherwise. While foraging for larvae the chickens will scratch the cowpat with their feet spreading the manure evenly across the pasture. It’s a nice integrated system.

After lunch we whipped out the big straw chopper and chopped straw. A team collected cow manure of off the padocs and another team collected green matter and Richard showed us how to make compost. The chopper did a good job of chopping up the straw and green matter to create a bigger surface area. Then the material was layered in a cylindrical fashion with taking very good care of having straight edges.
First layer was a layer of straw (carbon material) which acts as a buffer for fluids seeping from the top. Then we added a layer green material (higher in nitrogen) and on top of that we spread out cow manure before putting on a layer of straw and so on. After each layer of straw we watered the pile since it was pretty dry material. It is important to keep the edges straight and work with your hands in order to get a feel for the right ratios in the compost.
Furthermore Richard pointed out that when the compost is finished half of its mass will consist of life (bacteria, nematodes, athropods, etc.) And the count of life will outnumber the number of humans that have ever lived on this planet so it is important to take care to make it a good process and take time.

The compost is a hot compost which we turn often because the middle part heats up to about 55-65°C and that is what degenerates the material and kills of any pathogens or weed seeds. So we are going to take the outside part and layer it in the middle and take the middle and put it on the outside about every two days depending on the temperature.
It was nice to do on the first day since that way the people that are here for the PDC and leave after ten days can still see the most change in the compost. And we interns get to use it later and even make compost tea from it which I am really excited about.