Farmer John: Waste not, want not by growing a recycling mindset


SIGMA — The first law of thermodynamics, also called the law of conservation of energy, says energy cannot be created or destroyed in isolated systems. We can think about this in terms of soil. As I’ve written here in the past, it is packed with life, making it so much more than mere inanimate dirt.

We can apply this idea to soil, and we are in an isolated system. We are contained within our atmosphere, stuck with what we were given at the beginning – with the exception of a little space dust that continues to arrive.

Nature is the great recycler, the ultimate model of sustainable regeneration. And it may be more complex, interesting and essential than we know. Everything is being remade all the time. It is certainly bigger than I understand, but there are connections we can draw to see how adopting the recycling ethos helps us strengthen our soil for our farms and gardens.

I recently read a version of our solar system’s creation story, which included supernovas, exploding and imploding stars, asteroids, meteorites, billions of years of elapsed time, and – voilà – here we are. Planet, people, microbes and all. All of it is recycled star stuff. Suffice it to say, full comprehension of the whole complex story is above my pay grade. Or, as Reba McEntire says, above my hair spray.

But the master recycler, nature itself, does not waste a thing and everything is in balance. The occasional event, an earthquake or volcano, does make big change, but equilibrium is reestablished.

Lets bring the discussion back down to earth. 

A good place to start is a study of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s publication, The Soil Food Web, which walks you through the life cycles of all the critters unseen in the soil. 

It details the ways in which everything is used, eaten, digested, eaten by something else and so on up the food chain to larger, visible soil organisms. It starts small and grows. Microbes are responsible for all the food we eat. 

People, on the other hand, waste just about everything. Me included. My F-350 compost hauling truck gets about one mile per gallon of gas. I haven’t checked, but it’s not good. We all play a part, and we can all do better.

I compost just about everything – kitchen waste, cardboard, garden weeds and prunings. Everything biodegradable goes in the pile. When the microbes are eating the material, due to cell metabolism, it heats up to as much as 150 degrees. Then I flip it over. Soon, the parent material is unrecognizable. It is a rather amazing process to witness, all those little invisible things creating compost then soil.

We throw away 40 percent of our food in this country, according to a 2012 report from the National Resources Defense Council. This so-called garbage could all become ‘black gold.” When compost is made well, it could be keeping some wastes out of our landfills, making better soil and putting life-giving energy back where it belongs. When thinking about farming and using compost, imagine the fertility increase and reduction or even elimination of outside inputs. It can be done. I have seen it done. 

Consider water. We drink the same water the dinosaurs drank. Yes, the very same H2O. It has been recycled many times over by now – in and out of animals, in and out of the ground, plants, streams, rivers, oceans. And now, like carbon cycling, we have upset the balance. The heating of the world makes more water evaporate.

Bigger rain events and storms tell us a story. More issues arise all the time over water, water pumping even sinking land on top of aquifers. One of the best remedies is good soil stewardship. It can change our relationship with water for the better. 

One acre of land with 5 percent organic matter carbon can hold tens of thousands of gallons of water. That builds resilience against dry times. I grew tomatoes through two months of no rain and no irrigation just to see what would happen. The result was only slightly less yield. Big success.

That’s where these might appeal to some of us. This isn’t just feel good stuff. Investment in sustainable practices can bring real returns when farmers need them.

Wilson, a farmer and consultant who lives in Sigma, writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News. Reach him via

© 2017 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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