Monday, June 3, 2013

Mita-san's Composting Method


One transferred compost pile!
A few weeks back we took a trip to help out on a natural farm in Nara Prefecture. Hamma Farm only needed us for four days, though, which left us with a tiny bit of extra time. We tossed around a few different ideas, and then decided to head down to Okayama once again and visit our friend Mita-san.

We'd gone down last year to see how he was doing after a year of farming and to lend a hand. We indeed got dirty working in his fields, but we also had one of the most wonderful experiences ever with he and his
family. It remains a highlight of our time here in Japan. Trying to recreate something so special  is risky, but since we had our farm clothes, boots and gloves it seemed logical to carry on just a little bit further south and help again.

Spouse 'dancing down' the compost.
Much to my delight one of our jobs during this visit was to turn Mita-san's compost. (I'm fully aware of how geeky that sounds.) Using a method taught him by a neighboring organic farmer, Mita-san constructs compost piles at various locations around his fields. (Like many Japanese farmers, his fields are not all together in a single piece of land but are scattered a bit hither and yon over the landscape.) Then as he needs or wants the compost, it's ready and available.

Starting with a frame, Mita-san alternates layers of leaves, twigs, and grass with healthy handfuls of momigara (rice hulls). As the layer builds up to about half the height of the frame, he walks on the contents to firmly press them in place. Once it's packed in, healthy handfuls of komenuka (rice bran) get liberally spread over the whole. Then the materials are thoroughly soaked before starting the process all over again. As the pile gains height, the frame is pulled up to allow for more stacking. The tight packing makes for a good friction fit so that by the end the frame sits about a meter or so high ringing the top layer.

Our job during was to turn a relatively young pile near his carrot patch where he was also experimenting with burnt rice hulls as a mulch and a soil warmer. Turned about every two weeks, the piles gradually break down into a lovely crumble of goodness that can be plowed into the fields, layered next to the plants as a mulch, or the main ingredient in a refreshing summer beverage for plants. Total time required to achieve this lovely crumble that in its final form stands roughly a quarter of the stacks original height is about three months.

Spreading the komenuka.
The pile we're dismantling is in the foreground.
The whole process of turning - setting the frame in a new location, transferring the materials, and layering - took two of us at least an hour. We learned quickly that packing the corners is pivotal to create a firm shape for the frame to ride up on, and that soaking helps activate the bacteria that break everything down. Most materials were still identifiable, a testament to the youth of this pile, but the interior of the pile was warm. Thin streamers of steam drifted up  into the cool early evening air, a sure sign that beneficial bacteria and microbes were busy feasting. It was a pleasure to lend a hand.

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