Live from the Field with Midnight's Farm: Carbon, Composting and Biochar on Lopez Island

This #TerraTalk dives into regenerative agriculture, composting, and the process of building soil health with Faith and David who are co-owners of Midnight's Farm, a regenerative farm on Lopez Island, producing vegetables, meat, eggs, and compost and sequesters carbon through sustainable practices.

This #TerraTalk dives into regenerative agriculture, composting, and the process of building soil health with Faith and David who are co-owners of Midnight's Farm, a regenerative farm on Lopez Island, producing vegetables, meat, eggs, and compost and sequesters carbon through sustainable practices. Laney Seigner 0:00 I just started recording. Let's see. Yep, the recording has started now. Hi, everyone. Welcome to today's TerraTalk. I am here at Midnight's Farm on Lopez Island in Washington State. So I'm just going to start off with a map of our location. And then I'm going to introduce our speakers for today. Um, so can you all see my screen? Yes? hopefully?

Varun 0:28 Yes.

Laney Seigner 0:29 Yes. Great. Thanks Varun. Okay, so I hear it, we're just starting with a map of the US and I'm going to zoom into our location. And we are up here in the very North Northwestern corner of the United States on Lopez Island. And let's see, as we zoom in even more, I am going to switch to the satellite view. Um, and let's see, hopefully, this will load for me. Wonderful. So here we are at Midnight's farm. I'll keep zooming in a little bit. On Center Road. I'll give it a chance to load. Okay, perfect. And if you can see my mouse, let's see. Yeah, here's my mouse. And I'll close this guy. Yeah, get out of there. So here we are at the compost area. Up here, you can kind of see the infrastructure and some piles. And, and it's 100 acre property with about 30 acres of forest. And the rest is actively farmed. So there's this big pond right here that you can see. Up here is a small garden, and more food production space up here close to the large 100 year old barn and residence where David and Faith live. And then the rest is pasture where their cows are grazing rotationally during the non-winter months. So that is the big picture overview. There's up there's veggies, there's pasture, there's the compost operation, and these are all things that we're going to talk about in today's guest talk. Um, so it's going to be a cool hybrid of some slides and a short video and then also just live from the compost area showing you what's going on up here. And so I am just delighted to introduce my two friends, David and Faith who are the co-owners of Midnight's Farm. And David purchased the property over 30 years ago. And he and Faith have been farming it together for about the past 10 years, and the compost operation has been here for about the past eight years. So with that, I will turn it over to David and Faith to tell us more about their farming operation.

Faith 3:03 Thank you so much for having and thank you for being here and thank you for doing what you're doing of like jumping into this climate change education and looking at transitioning and so thank you and-

David 3:17 Also just want to say thank you for Laney, we it's very gratifying when we get a visit from Laney and Brett and they're here for about a month and you know, as much as we sort of mourn and and are sad about part of the reason they're here is because the California fires but um we are super grateful to have Laney you know here and, and and be able to like reminded and kind of refocused on climate, the climate aspects of what we do and sort of take it and be able to with her help take it to other directions that we that we would like to do but we we just get stuck up in the day to day part of managing this whole farm anyway, so it's wonderful to have this opportunity to talk and have Laney's inspiration, you're lucky that you get her as much as you do.
Laney Seigner 4:19 Awesome, so thank you for those kind words. I'm going to show a short video to just put out there some of the basics of the composting operation. And then we are going to kind of keep diving into the the values and the climate change aspects of the work of Midnight's Farm. So let me share my screen again, there. And we are going to go to this making compost video. It's a three minute video. Hopefully it will play there we go.

David 4:54 (speaking off screen) What you got there Lucy? What's in there? I'm David Bill, and we're at Midnight's Farm. We have 100 acres here on Lopez Island. And...[static]. The compost is what we're kind of most excited about right now, it's fairly new, this kind of expansion, we've done. Midnight's Farm compost. I've made compost here for ages, it's an essential part of soil fertility, we put that into the soil, you're seeding the soil. So this is the first step of the process to be able to drop off their rose bushes, their leaves, and grass clippings. A lot of this used to get burned - the fall, when they burned it, there was this big pile of smoke over this part of the island and that's reduced. So the next step is, is taking this material and grinding it up in the tub grinder, and it'll accept it and grind it up and make a product like this over here. So one of the advantages of getting a garden debris into your compost is that it allows air to get through to your compost. This is the zone where we'll mix it and make sure it's good enough water. We want enough water so those microbes are happy, not so much water that it becomes too heavy and dense. This piles approximately 20 days old, it's still at around 135 degrees, it goes here, and then it'll go into that middle zone, and then it goes into the final third of this area to bin. This whole bin has got the air flowing up through it and so it's constantly getting air. As it gets moved, it heats back up, it gets more porosity to it. From this last zone here, we'll move it over to a curing spot. It's essentially finished compost, but it's still benefits from additional time. We introduce air and this is pipes underneath this, this zone and from here we'll do the final stage of running it through the screener into the screen pile there.
This is the screen product. It's a much more uniform product so it's satisfying to kind of look at and work with. We just love making compost - we're emphasizing solutions for climate change - soil sequestration, carbon sequestration, and it's hot and steamy. You gotta love it.

Laney Seigner 7:50 Okay, let's see. Let me pause that. Stop share. Yeah. Um, okay, so can you all see that as I was playing about, Okay, I'm gonna share the link to that video. Also, there might have been some internet instability if it throws at all. So I'll share that link after, after the chat. And, okay, so I'm gonna turn it over to David and Faith for more on our operation, where we are, or their operation where we are.

Faith 8:26 So we're gonna start with just talking about our values because what we're think about with all of you that you're in, enrolled in that you're engaged in this value driven decision making process. And that's what we try and do as far as the farm is. And we have three main values that we that we look at when we're making our management that we look at when we're making our management decisions. And they are stewardship, education, and community. And I'm going to turn it over to David and he's going to start with talking about stewardship.

David 9:03 Yeah, I think both Faith and I have spent a lot of time; both of us have, are from the northwest area, spent a lot of time in, in the woods, on the land, and both of us have a fishing background, which is also pretty connected with sort of the, you know, sort of a sense of nature. So I think it the first part comes with just a love of nature, and part of the farm is that. I also - the climate has been in 87 I had a job writing some climate, modeling some carbon modeling for an ecology class at MIT. And I also worked during the fishing season I, or offseason, I spent a couple winters at Rocky Mountain Institute. doing work writing about energy efficiency for homes and writing a little booklet about people, so people could do that. So anyway, so it's been a long time interest in. And so I'm here Personally, I didn't plan...[static], I think it'd be hard to see on this Zoom, but there's a lot of trees we planted and and really when we came back into the doing this compost facility, it was a choice in the we'll talk a little bit more about later, but it was a choice around climate.

Faith 10:33 So, um, the other big one, well, two big ones education and community that about education, we're, we are always trying to learn. I mean, there's so much to learn in this world and so we are continually learning and we're also try and use the farm as a platform for learning both in offering it up as a platform for research, we've collaborated and Laney was a part of that collaboration on a biochar research project. And then also

David 11:11 Would it make sense to introduce..?
Ya ya I'm gettin there. So, we also, um, we've hosted people to come and live and work and learn on the farm for years. And this year, we, we started an internship program, which we're super excited about, we have this is Liz and Casey and they are here for three months living and working, and hopefully learning on the farm. So we, we really try and use any opportunity we can to have the farm be a platform for learning. We also host farm tours, and do, you know, anytime we can, like we say yes to things like this. So, and that's because of that, that value of education. So the other value is community. And that comes out and both trying to foster a sense of community of the people that live in work on the farm. And then on our little island that we live on different ways that we invite the community in, we feed the community with our, you know, our...[static], and our produce, and we feed the gardens of the island with our compost. And we also open up our land in various ways to there's trails on it, that we let people walk on, there's a yoga studio that we, community classes happen at, so we try and be open to the community in various ways. And just and the importance of relationship. And I guess that's the just the importance of relationship with among the people that we live with. And, and then out into the greater world. So....
It's also been a it's also been a venue for things like like this, but also we've we've hosted activist camp with like 100 people that came for a weekend we posted-

Faith 13:12 That was a climate change action camp that was in part hosted by Greenpeace. And that was doing, um, training for direct action. So we also go into activism. Yeah. So...

David 13:27 And we have a we have a, Laney didn't talk about, but we have we have a field, a farm stay, the house that we rent out. And being able to use that for people that are doing climate work is really satisfying.

Faith 13:45 Yeah, so those are just an overview of the things that we think about when we're making decisions. And with a farm, like with any business, there are so many decisions about there's so many different ways that you ways that you can do things, right. And so it's like, what's the lens that you look through in order to make those decisions? And so with those stewardship, community, and education, one of the main pieces on our farm is our composting operation. And David is going to talk about about that because he's the he's the visionary behind the compost.

Laney Seigner 14:25 And we may even walk around and show you some of the piles after David gives us the sort of the historical overview so you can see.
David 14:34 So I'm gonna back up a little bit to like, a career thing for me. I mean, I've done various things. I have a engineering degree. I've thought I and then I went commercial fishing for years - that's, sort of was my my career for 15 years in Alaska, salmon fishing. And, but it was like a lot really, we just burn a lot of fuel doing that, and, but it was very satisfying, like a match for me. But I wanted to do more climate work was, and for a while - I have a good friend that a lot of so works for World Bank does a lot of...and I started working with him and trying to write and I was like, ugh, this's just not it's not happening for me, it's like I've been like, anyway, it was turned out not to be. So we kind of segwayed into this climate into this compost operation, it was a long time dream, there's a lot of wood that would waste that and yard debris that gets burned on the island. So you would see that I've mentioned that. And we, it brought a lot of things together that I enjoy doing. And very, I'm a physical person. I happen to like these, you know, incongruous machines, also. So it's so and I'm also have an engineering degree. So being able to, and we had cattle, so we already sort of composting, but to, to step it up to do a really to do it in a really full way that provided a much more benefit to the island. And until basically - I'm ike trying to figure out what to tweak.

Faith 16:25 Yeah, I want to say one little piece about that - so on Lopez Island, there's a lot of wood waste, there's a lot of biomass that before we started this facility, the only way that people could get rid of it was to burn it. So all of that biomass every year was being burnt, which was releasing, you know, all this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And it was, you know, this resource that was not being utilized, because it could be turned into something that would actually sequester carbon and increase soil health. And that was what David saw was;there was this thing, there was, you know, this, there was a possibility for change. And if there was an option for people to do something different with this biomass. And that's what he saw. And that's what he stepped into and, and created this facility. So now the community has a place to bring their biomass, and we can process it. And so that that was part of his vision.

Laney Seigner 17:29 Yeah. And so Faith was basically drawing like the circular economy like I think of this as one possible intervention point where previously what was sort of a waste product that was just burned in a, in a linear upward trajectory of carbon emissions kind of became a, okay, some carbon emissions are still emitted from the composting process, but others other carbon molecules are sequestered long term in the soil, removed from the atmosphere, and then that product of that compost gets recycled back into the community as a valuable addition or input to farms, gardens, landscaping on the islands. So it was sort of that a one like crucial step to closing the loop in this woody biomass sort of cycle on the island. So I think that is cool to point out. And before we walk around, can you just explain a little bit about how you compost like, what is your system called? It's an area to static tile. What does that mean? And then we'll, we'll check it out. Okay.

David 18:27 Yeah, the lots of different ways people compost but the area is a is particularly in our kind of rainy Northwest environment or places to get a lot of rain is is the preferred method in like large composting systems and I'll just just give them a little quick Yeah, and and I'll hold okay. Okay, we'll start by the air part. Yeah.
You can see this whole [static] so there's most of the composters in this big bin. It all has all has air underneath it...[audio cutout]. Right here. It's on. It's a little bit on the video too, but there's holes like can you get it there's holes like this one. All...[audio freeze].

Unknown Speaker 20:08 Yeah you're back on now.

Varun 20:27 [unintelligible audio]

Laney Seigner 20:32 Okay, my service did get way worse over there and I'm using my hotspot. So we're gonna head on back to our, our home. Okay, Is this better? Is this getting better? See? Yes. I'm seeing some nods. Okay. Sorry about that. That was? Yeah, bad, bad service. Oh, good. This is much better. So we'll kind of like stick here, I guess because this is our home base of good service. Audio and video are working now. Awesome. Well, so David was just giving an amazing demonstration of the aeration process in the piles. I'm sorry, if you missed that. It was very engaging the mulch just went straight up into the air where the air holes are built into the pile here every four feet so that it becomes an aerobic process and not anaerobic, which releases a ton of methane. I think that was the jist of it. Yeah, it's very exciting to be here in person. You guys should all come visit some day. Yeah, yeah.

Faith 21:40 Where did we cut out?

Unknown Speaker 21:46 It was immediately before the demo, I think was where you cut out you were I kind of holding some of the sawdust or the wood waste, and then it completely cut out. So. Okay.

Laney Seigner 22:00 I summarized that. We should have grabbed some compost and bring it over to the area. So I just wanted to show what the compost really looks like. And it's really a pretty uniform product.

Faith 22:17 This is this is still in process, this has not been screened.

Laney Seigner 22:21 Oh, yeah. then it'll be even more so. Yeah.

David 22:23 But but it's, it's part of what we're up, we're, it's been in a certain zone that maybe more than you need to know. But the design - all these woody products in here, do two things. They let a lot of air in here. And they all...[static]....fungal comm- [static]...well when this goes in, it will -well, during the composting process all these little things provide places for the air to get in, which is crucial to avoid the methane and allow the air to get there so it happens fast and it goes to the soil it the fungal community in the soil.

Laney Seigner 23:09 All good for carbon sequestration and holding that carbon in the soil. So maybe we should walk over and check out the biochar that's up here talking about some of our most recent compost area, education and research collaborations. And you can kind of see the difference between the compost and maybe you see what that's....[audio cutting out]

Faith 23:33 So this is bio char, which I know you you've heard about already, but we just wanted it was like oh, yeah, they've never seen it. So yeah, they're gonna bowl it basically looks like charcoal, which is, you know, kind of what it is.

Laney Seigner 23:50 Yeah. Yeah. So the research collaboration that was started, I believe, last winter, around then was to create this biochar co-compost; so to produce the biochar that actually was produced off Island right yeah, so yeah, biochar was produced off island we're still working on producing it here. But then brought over here, added to the cattle bedding, and then put with the cattle bedding and the and the sort of soaked biochar through the composting process, and then applied to soils to grow broccoli - that was the experimental crop, and then compare how the broccoli did when it was grown with biochar or two different kinds of biochar that was co composted versus just grown with biochar, that was not co composted.
And then also just the compost that did not have come, that did not have biochar.

David 24:40 And the reason we care, it's a climate, it's another climate related deal. There's - this we overwinter our cattle in the southern part of all this poles together the farm is that our cattle need to get off of pasture in a wet winter. So we we winter them up here in this zone. And there's a lot of there's some runoff from that. And so biochar is great at collecting the nitrogen and the nutrients in their poop and pee, and where they're wintered. And so to find that and they also hangs on, the research shows that in compost, it hangs on to the nutrients that are so reduced to some of your nitrous oxides that get released by your compost. And finally, it's like a way to put the some of this woody material, like lock it up in soil and do a better job of taking carbon and keeping it, all that woody material from just simply respiring once it goes into the soil. So

Laney Seigner 25:53 Yeah.
That's exactly it is that compost, even though it stabilizes the carbon for a longer period of time, it's still going to over time respire, but you know, over over years, but then with bio char, the carbon has stabilized for hundreds or thousands of years. So it's a much, you know, it's really stable. And it also has all these other soil benefits other than that as well.
Yeah. Um, so let's see,

Faith 26:22 I guess I just wanted to bring David's kind of talking about the cattle. The two other kind of main things on the farm, the cattle -we, they're interrelated with the compost operation. And because we compost all of their manure and bedding that from when they're overwintered up here in the summer, they're out on pasture and we rotationally graze, which is another management choice, which has benefits as far as sequestering carbon and soil health. And then the other piece is veggie production. And we have a small, no till intensive garden where we produce and sell produce. And that is that way of farming utilizes a lot of compost. So again, it's tied to the compost. So the compost is kind of the heart of the farm. And all these other enterprises are related to it and either feed into it or the compost supports. So that's kind of the, how the whole system works in a nutshell.

Laney Seigner 27:27 Yeah, should we showed the slide that kind of looked at the, like the carbon balance a little bit before we go into questions?
Yeah. So last summer, while Laney is pulling this up, summer, we had some pickers on the farm and Laney was here. And we did a little project of trying to do a lifecycle analysis of the farm and we found it's a really difficult process. But we learned a lot and came up with a lot of questions out of it. But I'm, so Laney is gonna pull up a slide that kind of sums up what we-
Yeah. Oh, this is the middle one. Okay. Yeah.

Faith 28:04 And so sums up what we came to in last summer.

Laney Seigner 28:11 Yeah. So this was a sort of preliminary analysis that, you know, many people plugged into and fed data into on the farm. But it was an attempt to look at the carbon footprint of what emissions are on the farm and what sinks for carbon are present. And how do we minimize emissions and maximize sinks starting from this kind of a baseline? So this was just our sort of rough approximation of the cattle producing emissions of methane, through burping primarily, and the farm machinery and diesel use contributing emissions, so if we wanted to minimize that, you know, you could say, okay, let's, let's use, let's find ways to use less machinery or let's use more efficient or like, you know, better diesel that are input, so you can think about that. I mean, some of these feel a little bit fixed. And so then you look at the sink side, you have the compost facility, which on net is a sink, estimated between 129 and 232 - oh, yeah, let me move my face. Yeah, metric tons CO2 equivalents. And yeah, so coming from those the -

David 29:11 That was the hardest one to model Yes, it's like on our compost operation, it's very much it has a lot of elements that are off farm. Yeah, compost we sell, and woodchips we sell we move a lot most of it off farm but we use some of it then we're gathering all this material from off farm. So that was it was a-

Laney Seigner 29:29 It was a tricky box problem for sure. And so we've just estimated this based on the volume of compost that is processed and produced here annually. So that was like that. But yeah, of course, the compost materials come from off off the farm and then kind of the compost goes off the farm as well. And I'm just trying to see if anything else let me go to the....

David 29:50 And one of the huge benefits of compost off farm is is that it's possibility of seeding continue soil sequestration of carbon -

Laney Seigner 30:03 On tons of other farms, but like do we get credit for that?

David 30:05 We, I can't remember how we did that but it was one of these things it's like, there's research that shows that compost, can, n initial treatment can seed it for you fourty years.

Faith 30:17 A jumpstart.

Laney Seigner 30:19 Yeah, the carbon cycling in the soil. Okay, so then this was just a quick slide to show the principles of regenerative agriculture that are followed here.
Yeah and those are minimize soil disturbance, maximize crop diversity, keep the soil covered, maintain living roots year round and integrate animals.
Okay, and then this is just an overview of what David, we tried to walk through with the the bin system for the area to static pile composting. Yeah, things starting off in bin zero and then going 1,2,3. You can kind of see the overwinter area for the cattle up here in the far upper right. of the screen. And yeah, I think, yeah, the feedstocks

David 31:06 we should, I don't know should we go on to questions?
Laney Seigner 31:08 Yeah. So I'm going to stop sharing here and open it up to questions. So if you could just put your name or a plus one in the chat, and I'll call on you to ask your questions-
We have some already.
And there's -oh, yeah. Oh Varun, yeah.
We, do we, yes, we use the compost ourselves. But we also sell it to farms and gardens and landscape companies on the island. So most of it is all sold to people on Lopez. A little bit on one of the other islands, but we don't export.
Okay, well go Sreeni and then Sumant. So Sreeni do you want to ask your question or I can "Why did you-" Oh, yeah. "Why did you choose to call it Midnight's farm?" That's for you.

David 31:58 Oh, the kids named it after the dog Midnight. There was a there was a dog named midnight. Alight. The children named it.

Laney Seigner 32:11 Sumant - "what it what is the composting process?" Can you elaborate on that a little bit? Like what...?

Sumant 32:18 Yeah, so I'm familiar with worm composting. Mostly, you're using to be able to do this in large scales. I'm not very clear, what is the process that actually makes this happen so quickly? What is the time taken actually, from start to finish?

David 32:34 Well, with these with these ASP systems, that aerated static pile systems, you are, we're sort of assuring that the microbes, which do most of the work/heavy lifting here.

Faith 32:49 It's a different system.

David 32:52 Yeah, we're definitely not doing a, oh go ahead.

Faith 32:54 It's not, he said...

David 32:56 We're so we are not doing vermiculture. So it's, it's hot. Like there's I could show you a little thing, but some of it's a little bit warmer than we want it but it went up to 170 last night. So that would definitely kill all the worms. So we so it's called an aerated static pile system. And ours is a little modified, because we move it a number of times, but it's um, so that's that. And it's a two and a half month, you can get it down to two and a half months, ideally it's longer than that.

Laney Seigner 33:29 Yeah. So it's like the microbes and the heat and the aeration that contributes to the breakdown of the input materials, those feedstocks that were on the slide. Yeah, and it's different than windrow composting also, that's another form of the composting process that is often thought to produce more emissions than an aerated static pile. And, and one thing that David mentioned, just as we were, like, practicing was like, you know, this can scale up to be a municipal sized compost system. I think they use it for the city of Seattle, that yeah.

David 34:01 and basically, we have, I mean, they already there, it's a cool system for people that like a lot of control. There's temperatures that are ideal for the microbes. Yeah, and for the different parts of it. So there's reasons we get enough to temperature to like kill things, the pathogens and the weed seeds, but then we the microbes do best at like 110 degrees, and we can control that temperature by blowing, by controlling how much air it gets in it. So without any error, it won't really heat up because the microbes don't don't get going with, if with a little bit of air but not enough air. It can just go crazy and get way too hot and then you kill all the microbes. And with, so we can keep blowing air more more air in as we - I'll look at this this every night and temperatures every day and control the air. Try to keep it in range that is most conducive to the microbes.

Laney Seigner 35:04 Awesome. Let's do Alyssa is question Alyssa and Keisha, do you both want to ask your questions, and then we'll answer them in case there's any overlap. So let's do a listen and Keisha.

Alyssa 35:14 Sure. Thanks, David interface for this tour. It's really cool. I compost in my backyard. And it's very small. So it's like, just cool to see it huge. So congrats on all the success. My question is about, and what barriers there are to making all farms like this? And it might be you know, I'm curious if it's policy if there's like economic factors or technical barriers. But why why aren't all farms doing what you all are doing?

Laney Seigner 35:44 Okay, let's take Keaton's question, and then we'll answer both.

Keisha 35:47 It's actually similar to that. Yeah. Thank you so much. This is so cool. I lived in Victoria BC for many years, and so seeing the Pacific Northwest is just making me so happy. But on that front, like, I'm curious, like, which climates and geographies with this type of farming and composting work in and which wouldn't it? So it's kind of similar to this question, like, how can this be, how widespread can be?

David 36:16 Yeah, go ahead.

Faith 36:18 Well, okay, so there's, I think, well, we'll talk mostly about the, the having a compost operation this size, we're in a, we have a weird scale, I guess. We're, it's a large compost operation for a farm our size for like, a municipality or, you know, it's very small. So we're in this strange middle ground. And that is probably the barrier too, to- it's very capital intensive to get into.

David 36:53 Yeah, we have we we have a fancy facility with a lot of machinery. That is that were that was were able to pull off because I love doing this. So we did a lot of it ourselves. We bought used machinery and fixed it up. And we had some money from getting out of the fishing business. So um, so and we have the economics to sell our compost for a lot of money because they are competition all hauls it from the mainland. So they've got to come across on a ferry. Right. So it's, so we so it's a little bit of a unique thing. But there are, we- there's definitely ways to do aerated static pile composting that are a lot less intensive, than what we're doing here.
Yeah. And if you're interested in that we have plans and resources that we could send in your direction, that are like smaller scale that are more applicable to a small scale farm or like, you know, or even a, you know, a farm that is, compost isn't their main thing. Mm hmm.

Laney Seigner 38:00 And I guess sort of relatedly like, is the composting and farming enterprise here profitable? Like, is it an eco- do you think it's an economic barrier? Or do you think it's more like an education willingness, like maybe policy barrier?

Faith 38:12 Well, I think, I mean, we're, we have some, some parameters here of being on Lopez Island, which are very different. So in many places, if there's a large scale municipal composting facility, you're going to be able to buy compost, very cheaply. Mm hmm. We don't have that option on Lopez Island, because as David said, it shipped in. So because of that, we can have higher costs and making it and we can still have our competition, you know, we can still sell it a Lopez island for much higher than if we were doing this on the mainland, or if we would be competing with a large scale municipal composting operation. So for many places, the economics would not work. We have some- and the utilization of compost or the making of compost on the farm, but maybe not going into collecting yard debris from the community or kind of going the next step. Still, making compost on the farm and utilizing compost on the farm can definitely be economically viable, or purchasing it. Mm hmm from a municipal composting operation, which many farms do.

David 39:30 Are there and there are a number of I mean, there are this is a common model and it's well supported by Washington State's Department of Ecology. We're a permitted facility and they have a permit that's specifically for on farm composting. Dairies have a lot of high nitrogen material, they really need the woody material so that would get out of yard debris. We- and most compost operations, this may be getting too detailed, but most compost operations in terms of economics make their money from drop off fees. We kind of, because of our sort of interest, we haven't done that we've we've basically made free drop off. This is partly a community interest in reducing wild, you know, fires and making a interest in carbon. But it makes us focus entirely on the quality of our compost, which is which is unusual in the business.

Laney Seigner 40:29 Yeah. And is this like unique to up here? Are there more places that could do it like geographically? Is this? Is this?

David 40:37 All through California, ASP, area static piles, are common.

Laney Seigner 40:43 Yeah, no, California needs this too. They need to.

David 40:45 They have a lot. The guy that helped design mine does a lot of work in California, all across the country.

Laney Seigner 40:51 Mm hmm. Okay, let's see. Bruno, want to go ahead and ask your question.

Bruno 40:59 All right. You mentioned earlier that the bio bio char was good at absorbing the nitrogen in the in cattle, output for want of a better word. Can you do that with any animal sewage? The reason I'm asking is the original call for me in France has a lot of pig farming and they just, I mean, it's we have a problem of what we do with it.

Faith 41:32 Yeah, yes, yes. Yes. And actually, there was one time when we were just starting to get into biochar and I had some and the I hadn't cleaned out the pigs and they were kind of stinky. And I just like, put a bunch of biochar and it was amazing. Like, it was just like, the smell went away like the within hours. I was like, wow, so that was my like, personal like, yeah, works.
Yeah, it is used on manure lagoons for odor control on large dairies, as far as I probably also would work for, yeah, pigs and pig operations. Yeah. It has a lot of interesting properties, one of which is odor neutralization.

Bruno 42:16 Oh that'd be fantastic.

David 42:20 Does that, does that answer your question?

Bruno 42:25 It does, yes. Thank you.

Laney Seigner 42:28 Great. And so we have a question from Samyak, which I will read since you wrote it out. Do grass fed cows provide any methane savings due to lower and fermentation as compared to factory farm cows? This goes exactly into...

Faith 42:44 Want to take this?

Laney Seigner 42:45 Sure. Well, so our, yeah, a friend of mine did a lifecycle analysis on grass fed versus factory farm fed cows, and looked at this very question. And he actually found that the methane emissions from a grass fed cow are greater, for several reasons. One being grass fed cows typically live longer than cows that are raised in factory farms. So they have more time to produce methane, burp, fart. And also they, when you having a grass fed diet, it's healthy for the cow. And so they do burp and fart as part of their like ruminant digestive system. And when they're grain fed, it actually suppresses that so they don't burp and fart as much and they're kind of like bloated, unhappy, sort of, not, not so great for the cow kind of outcomes, but good for the methane perspective. But then on net, when you look at the whole life cycle, you know, the grass fed animals can definitely, like make up for that aspect by being part of your regenerative ecosystem by contributing their manure and urine, to seeding grasslands to having a healthy perennial grassland ecosystem, you know, regenerating the soil and the native grasses that are there. So and yeah, depending on how they're processed, you know, it can, that part kind of washes away. I've also heard interestingly, that feeding cows biochar or feeding cows seaweed, yeah, can reduce methane emissions from non factory farm fed animals.
And the way we've done that a little bit without any science associated with, they'll, they will eat some of it, interestingly.
Yeah, good. Good to know.

David 44:22 Oh and the other part is the grain production is both energy intensive and probably a big carbon emitter.

Laney Seigner 44:32 Yeah. Yeah, that's a big component. Grain production is I think, one of the biggest carbon emitting contributors for factory fed animals. But I can tell you all that lifecycle analysis if you'd like to check it out, I read that nitrogen is a challenge in Region farming as in you need to add more nitrogen in soil to build stable soil carbon, which in turn, can produce nitric oxide and other GHG is this an actual problem that you've run into at all the nitrogen

Faith 45:01 I've read about that as well.

Laney Seigner 45:04 And I...I guess we're not- I mean, we haven't measured the nitric oxide emissions from the soil.

Faith 45:16 So we may be running into it, but we don't have the tracking in order to know what's going on.

Laney Seigner 45:24 But I think just the part of the healthy crop rotation, incorporating legumes and cover crops in the winter, and adding, especially this, you know, biochar co-compost, like you have to add that nitrogen back in a non nitrogen fertilizer way when you're growing plants, especially in the garden, the Market Garden aspect of the farm. So managing the nitrogen cycle by adding in nitrogen from biochar compost, or from leguminous plants or winter cover crops is important to allow it to keep doing its thing year after year.
It's a little- having too much nitrogen that we're having nitrous oxide is not usually our problem. Our problem is we have too much woody material. And not enough- you know, there's there's a range that you want to make compost and keep the bacteria happy and, and they need some nitrogen, and we often are trying to figure we're often shy of the ideal amount of nitrogen in our compost.

Faith 46:24 And as far as on the pasture, we overseed legumes for our nitrogen needs and the cattle provide the nitrogen needs.

Laney Seigner 46:37 Okay, moving on to the next question, how does the compost quality contribute to soil health?

Faith 46:46 Okay, so, soil, um, multiple ways. One, we're providing food for the soil microbes from the nitrogen and the carbon that's in the soil. I mean, in the compost, when we add it. Two, we are, when we're applying compost, we are seeding the microbial community into the soil. So the compost like a teaspoon has billions of different bacteria, protozoa, and fungal hyphae that are just, they're ready to move into the native soil that they're applied to and jumpstart that process or add to the process that's already going. And so those are, whether you're just top dressing, or you're incorporating the compost into your soil, it's, it's going to be um, yeah. Well, you're actually feeding the microbial community that creates the health of the soil.

David 47:55 I might say three, three is a is adding more structure to the soil allows air to get into the soil more to we the soil microbes also need air. So if you can, people, so anyway, that the structure and the compost, the woody material in the compost allows air to get in better.

Laney Seigner 48:19 Mm hmm. So I think it's roughly like biological, chemical, and physical benefits to the soil. If you want to think about it in those three buckets.

Unknown Speaker 48:32 You know, could ask a follow up. And, of course, I'm not a farmer. So I'm revealing my ignorance here. But how do you get the compost in if you're not tilling? So if you don't if...

Faith 48:47 I don't, I just talked trash, I just put it on top of the soil and the earthworms bring it in it. But some people utilize and till it in so um, but I don't in our market garden.

Unknown Speaker 49:02 Okay. Got it. All right, thanks.

Laney Seigner 49:08 Okay, do you spot or find a plastic in what you guys use?

David 49:12 Yes, we do. I mean, we, we don't take food waste. It's part of the regulations that so we get way less than a lot of facilities. We've kind of done a tour, we went to one farm that took food waste, and it was like, Oh my god, you drove in to their site, and it was just strewn with garbage from the minute you drove in and just it was so sad but we get so we we are not. This is actually, I wanted to do this blog post with all the plant tags. So I've been kind of collecting them. And so we get a lot of gardeners bring their stuff. So these are all The plant tags. And these guys, one of them is a particularly I wish they would. I wanted to make a point about T&D Farms, which is on Lopez. I get a lot of T&D Farms' plastic things. Yes. Yeah. Yeah, there's a lot of plastic out there. It's a bummer. And I spent a lot of time. You know, my back pockets are always full there. Here's, this is what I picked up this morning. A little bit of time. I'm constantly picking it up.

Faith 50:27 Yeah. And what we deal with is so much less than what most compost facilities deal with. And we do a lot of education with the people that bring and drop things off. David, like we have their cell phone numbers, if they like drop stuff off David takes a picture of it texted to them and says you need to come pick this up. So we like we educate, and we like call them on it and still pick things out all the time.

Laney Seigner 50:55 Yeah, I've heard that's a big issue too, with the compostable plastic bags and a lot of municipal facilities. They just look at it and even like they're not, they just see plastic. And so it's just like taken out and removed and dumped into a landfill. So, so far, I don't think those compostable plastic bags are like winning.

David 51:14 Oh this is sort of a fun one, these are plastic, these are plastic leaves that somebody brought me. I'm like, "Oh, good God",

Faith 51:23 That's what we get, artificial plants.

David 51:25 Like really?

Laney Seigner 51:32 Okay, what type of climate is conducive for the ASP process? Is it like all climates? Like?

Varun 51:39 Oh I'm still picking this stuff up, it's my work. It is particularly conducive to climates like ours, which are rainier, because they're more compact. Too much, too much water on, like, if you're the other more common place way to make compost in large scale is windrows. And they're basically, you know, you just make a long pile and air can get in from the sides, and then you keep turning those there's special windrow turners. But they they require more land, and they if they're if it's really rainy, then they don't work well, in the winter. The compost can get too wet, the machinery can't really operate on a wet surface.

Laney Seigner 52:29 And but yeah, my sense is that like it controlling the moisture in the air, you know, will vary based on where you are, but I think it is conducive to a wide range of climates. It's not like just the Northwest or just the US West Coast. I mean, at least across the US, I think it's used widely south, north, east, west, middle of the country.
And one thing with the ESP system is it does take a lot of water, you have to have enough water in that material to have the little because that's where all the microbes live is in the films of water around the particles. So if you're in a really dry environment, and you don't have access to water, it's gonna probably be tricky to have an ESP system.

David 53:13 Well, I mean, actually, any kind of compost. Yeah, I mean, all compost operations require the water. So I don't think it's unique to ASP.

Faith 53:22 Yeah. You're not.

Laney Seigner 53:27 Okay. And Mary has a great question about no till farming, which we alluded to a little bit. But if if yes, if you practice no till farming, then what factors helped to make it work? Because I've been talking about it with a few people here in India, and it mostly hasn't been successful, especially at scale? Yeah, that's a great question. So

Faith 53:43 we, as far as no till we have a very small Market Garden. So I'm doing it the small scale intensive, but then we have done some no till practices as far as like pasture renovation using a no till seed drill to try and get some different different grasses and legumes into our pastures. And you are, right at scale it's a tricky thing and it's being figured out right now is I think that answer. I mean, it's like, at scale, there are some great resources like Gabe Brown, and that are and we can get you some resources after this. But it is, and Rodale Institute has a lot of really interesting information. And we're not really, we're not doing that. So I don't have personal experience with that. And, and I know it's, it's really a fascinating process that's going on right now. Because in the large scale, kind of no till world, especially in the US has been really dominated by or it's coming out of conventional ag. So it's like no till, but there's a reliance on herbicides to, to kill the cover crop or to kill the weeds. And so-

David 55:06 And that is super common, like it's become dominant.

Faith 55:09 It's dominant and so and so they figured out the no till part, but there's still this reliance on herbicides, and then the organic world, they've figured out how to not use herbicides, but they're really reliant on tilling. So these two kind of farming systems are coming together and having a conversation right now. And that's what's really exciting. And we don't have we don't have the answer. There's various answers that are coming out. But it's, also David Montgomery's "Growing a Revolution" is a great read on it on just that process that's going on culturally in the farming world.

Laney Seigner 55:50 Yeah. I'll write down a few of these titles and put it in the chat. But we have about yet two more minutes left. There's one other question that we haven't answered yet from Bruno. And so if there's any other lingering ones, you can just feel free to direct them to me, and I'll, I'll get them answered. But Bruno's question, we were talking about the problem of rice straw being burnt on fields near Delhi the other day. Could a composting operation be a possible way to deal with the problem, bearing in mind that it is a very seasonal issue, and farmers don't really have the capacity to transport the waste to a centralized operation?

Faith 56:21 Yes. And the other thing is to leave it on the field, which is a lot that is one of the tenants of region regenerative agriculture is to leave those materials on the field. So you're not burning it, but you're leaving it and then it's like you're planting into that material. And so leaving it on the field is going to protect that soil, and also feed the microbial communities.
You have to like knock it down first. Right? You don't just like...?

David 56:49 If it's rice straw, a straw it's already, it's just leaving it out there.

Laney Seigner 56:55 That's exactly why I was asking about the climate stubble burning in North India. Yeah. Yeah. I think in a lot of places burning of agricultural waste is common in the not hot season, the wet season.

Faith 57:12 And that, yeah. And that's a big piece of figuring out how to work with it. By leaving it.
Yeah. Yeah.
So you're basically composting it in place. Yeah, yeah. You don't even need to gather it up.

David 57:26 And also straws, actually kind of a hard product to compost because it will matte down. It's hard to get air through it. Yeah.

Laney Seigner 57:38 Cool. Um, well, this was a really fun session. Thank you, everyone for your great questions and participation. And thanks for bearing with us as we tried to walk around the compost facility with our hotspot. But luckily, we're here and you can see enough of it that it feels kind of exciting and context grounded in context. And I'll share the recording afterwards and save the chat. And yeah, we'll be excited to follow up on any any other follow ups that you guys want to keep thinking about and talking about at Terra. And David and Faith since they are here with me. Easy access to our guest speakers.

Faith 58:18 We'd be happy to answer questions. If you have more later you can reach out.

Laney Seigner 58:21 Yes, and they're also mentors so you can talk to them one on one. Okay, thanks, everyone. Have a great rest of your day.

Faith 58:28 Thank you keep up the good work.



About the speaker is a climate school and community founded in 2020, set on a mission to get 100 million people working to solve climate change by 2030. is a climate school and community founded in 2020, set on a mission to get 100 million people working to solve climate change by 2030.

More like this

4 min read

Climate Anxious? Try Climate Action.

We know what it's like to worry about the climate crisis. Doing something about it often helps people feel better.

4 min read

How Will Help Me Land a Climate Job?

Insights from our first four years of our Climate Change: Learning for Action fellowship

4 min read

What’s a Typical Week Like in Our Learning for Action Course?

Here’s what you can expect as a fellow in our flagship climate action accelerator.