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.

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.


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

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.


Thriving food

I have never eaten this good for this many days in a row as in the last ten days. And I am sure the kitchen staff did an outstanding job in cooking delicious food, but there is something else about the food here that makes it very special.
The immediate locality and freshness, the flavor complexity and the well being of the land, plants and animals around this place. It is impossible to explain because I would need to write in a language that touches all your senses.


Getting settled in

This morning I got to help Gustavo with the chicken and cow moves. We drove up to the eggmobiles at 06:30 and let out the hens of one egg mobile and had to move the other one onto fresh pasture. The hens move around every two days following the cows over the pasture. That way they get to pick out the maggots and spread the manure from the cows evenly to fertilize the soil.
We took down the electric fence that surrounds the egg mobile, moved it over and set it up again after moving the egg mobile with the rhino (a powerful quad). Then after we let the hens out. It is important to let them out after moving because otherwise they wont find back into the egg mobile in the evening.

Then we moved the cows onto fresh grass and it was incredible to se the difference of just one day of cow mow machine action. They have four cows here at ridgedale and there will be a bull coming later in the season so they have four calves this year. They are kept for pastured beef.

After chores we got breakfast wich included some incredibly intense smoked ham from last years pigs.

For the rest of the morning I was in the market garden with Gordon and Rob. This year is the first year that they have the paperpot transplanter system which is a machine that is pulled over the beds and transplants into the bed directly. The plants are started in a paper chain which allows for them to unravel quickly.
Since the system is new there where still some things to figure out in order to get efficient and quick with it. There where some rows where the transplants did not sit in the soil properly after transplanting and we had to go back and bury them by hand.
So I helped with that and moving netting from the peas and I got to test the transplanter aswell.
Since it was still arriving day for all people from the Permaculture Design course and the internship I decided to spend the rest of the time with bringing out woodchips in between the raised beds. That way Rob and Gordon didn’t have to explain everything to me and then later again and I felt like I could be helpful.

After lunch Richard arrived with a batch of 500 day-old chickens around the same time most of the people from the PDC and Internship arrived aswell. So we got to watch how Richard settles in the chicks and he explained some key points.
The essentials are clean, good quality water access, a heat source with temperatures around 32°C and food.
To encurage the chicks to get active and run around, the heat lamps are seperate from the water and food, which will force them out from the heat lamp to scavange for food and water.

With the others arriving we spread tha woodchips way faster now and spent some time in the gardens together before dinner. After dinner we gathered in the training Yurt to get to know eachothers names and for Richard to give an overview of the organisational stuff. Everyone also said three things that they where most interested in and it was fascinating to see so many different intersts. I am really excited to learn about all the different projects people have going on.

To end the day there was sauna which really is one of the best ways to end a day here on the farm.