Brewing Beneficial Bacteria: Soilsmith Services’ Compost Tea

One of the fundamental tenets of organic farming is that the farmer should feed the soil, not the plants. In other words, the farmer should pour his or her attention into building a rich and balanced soil, thick with organic material and nutrients and, perhaps most important, teeming with microorganisms. With such soil and soil life, plants have a strong and fertile foundation from which to better withstand pests, disease, and drought.

Soilsmith Services, owned and operated by Shepard Smith and based out of Philomath, has dedicated itself to the mission of bringing biology back into our farming regimen. While the company offers services such as consultation and evaluations, soil tests and program development, Soilsmith Services’ main purpose is the production and application of compost products: compost and compost tea.

Compost is the impressively rich material made of decomposed organic materials. Compost is a key ingredient in organic farming because it improves soil structure and reduces chemical fertilizer needs. But it’s also active with beneficial microorganisms: billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, rotifers, and nematodes.

While we all know someone with a backyard compost pile, compost tea may be less familiar. It’s a liquid extract of high quality, mature compost. To make his compost tea, Smith mixes regular, thermal compost and vermicompost (or worm tailings) into a large “tea bag” and dunks the bag into a large brewer. The compost is steeped and aerated for a 24-hour brewing period, creating a solution chock full of microorganisms.

The power of compost tea hinges on the fact that it is biologically alive. In an interview conducted by Dan Armstrong of Mud City Press, Smith said: “We’ve been so dependent on chemistry and chemical additives that we’ve forgotten that the heart of the soil is its biology. There are activities that go on between bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes that are highly productive and that make minerals and other by-products available to the soil as an ongoing process. The soil is literally alive and enriching itself all the time. It’s time to regroup and look at the biology and how we can best manage that. That’s what I concentrate on.”

And, because the compost is now a microbial-rich liquid solution, it’s easy to apply. Smith employs a truck with a 200-gallon skid-sprayer and 300 feet of hose. He also injects it straight into existing irrigation systems. The volume and timing of the application—and whether it’s applied to the foliage or roots—is specifically formulated to the conditions of the season, weather, site, and crop.

Of course, the quality of the compost tea depends on the quality of the compost. Smith, who studied entomology at the University of Florida, worked as an Integrated Pest Management specialist, served as a farm inspector for Oregon Tilth, and served as manager of local Sunbow Farm, makes high-quality compost. Like many residents of Corvallis, Smith takes advantage of the public leaf collection service, which dumps vast piles of leaves in his composting facilities. He’s also alert to other local opportunities, whether it be broiler litter from a meat-chicken operation in Mollala or sawdust or rice hulls for bedding. With proper air, water, and temperature management, Smith can produce quality compost in only about 12 weeks.

“In the end,” he said, “the composting process is an art.”

by Nathaniel Brodie

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