Leveraging Biodiversity to Improve Profitablity on a Small-scale Vegetable Farm

Progress report for FNC21-1262

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $17,425.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Wild Pansy Farm
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Ann Carnes
Wild Pansy Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Wild Pansy grows on an acre with permanent 3ft-by-100ft beds, which are intensively planted with specialty crops. The specialty crops include; strawberries, legumes, brassicas, nightshades, herbs and cucurbits. They use a low to no till system and organic practices on rented land that was previously conventionally row cropped. This is their third season on this property. During this time they have been improving the soil by growing cover crops, mulching, and working on reducing compaction and low fertility.

Nightfall Farm rotationally grazes sheep, meat chickens, laying hens, pigs and turkeys on pasture. This is their eighth year farming on their family's land. They have been planting trees and bushes to create silvopastures while also working to improve their pasture lands with more diverse, nutritious crops.


Our goal is to create high-quality compost from the bedding of our partnering livestock farm, using the Johnson Su Bioreactor model in a production capacity, and to document our methods for use on other farms. Creating compost in this way will lower the cost of inputs, reduce labor, and provide an additional source of revenue for small-scale farms.

This project applies recent studies for increasing soil biodiversity, taking the research into the field to standardize procedures that fit the realities of a working vegetable farm. We will develop and share on-farm procedures that use the Johnson Su Bioreactor design, and the compost output will be analyzed using the methods of Dr. Elaine Ingham of the Soil Food Web. This approach will reduce costs by replacing potting soil and fertilizers with our own compost. Labor is saved by introducing the compost through tasks the farm already performs: transplanting vegetables, direct seeding, and foliar sprays. It’s an inoculation strategy, not an amendment strategy, so it eliminates the labor needed for large applications of compost. The excess compost will be sold to diversify the farm’s revenue streams and make this practice economically sustainable.

Project Objectives:
  1. Reduce the cost of inputs for two farms, while encouraging soil biodiversity. 
  2. Develop efficient compost production and application methods that fit the workflow of small-scale farms. Our procedures will be shared in the form of a guide on our website. The guide will include feedstock types, input and output quantities, and the resulting biodiversity for two years of making compost and one growing season. 
  3. Share three educational videos on social media and our website, addressing:

                         1) Workflow set-up and development; 

                         2) Labor and cost-saving application of compost; and,

                         3) Address the benefits of analyzing  soil biology on-farm with a microscope. 


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Liz and Nate Brownlee - Producer
  • Ann Carnes - Producer
  • Sean Cox - Producer


Materials and methods:

Wild Pansy grows on 80 permanent 3ft-by-100ft beds, which are intensively planted with specialty crops. To produce our compost needs we will house 10 Bioreactors in a 14ft-by-100ft high tunnel. Each Bioreactor’s footprint is 4ft by 4ft and requires approximately 1,700 pounds of feedstock to produce 400 pounds of finished compost. The 400 pounds of finished compost from a single Bioreactor is enough for approximately 7,200 transplants. Wild Pansy Farm averages 400 transplants per bed, or 32,000 transplants in a season. Five bioreactors will produce compost for the transplants and output from the remaining five will be utilized for direct seed coating, foliar sprays, and sales.

Nightfall Farm uses 18,062 lbs of bedding each year: 220 straw bales for sheep (9,900 lbs) and 371 bags of pine shavings for poultry (8,162 lbs). The sheep bedding will fill five Bioreactors, and five Bioreactors will be filled with poultry litter. These will be filled throughout the season, about every 3 weeks as Nightfall delivers bedding. 

We believe it is important to analyze the soil and compost on-farm, using a microscope. This empowers the farmer to see real-time changes to their soil health and make adjustments quickly to meet crops’ needs. Our project will instruct on these methods with educational videos posted on social media and our website, for farmers to watch on-demand. We will also create an easy-to-read guide aimed at integrating low-cost Bioreactors into their production workflow, to produce high-quality, biodiverse compost for their operations. The guide will be shared with local universities, as well as staff at area Soil and Water Conservation Districts, so they can share this with other farmers. 


Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

In the first year of building and creating the compost we learned about timing and what didn’t work in the production and work-flow. We had to make several pivots from the projected workflow such as when and how the Bioreactors got filled as well as some design modifications to the Bioreactors themselves. The Bioreactors design, even though it is simple, was cumbersome to build and difficult to fill. The tunnel was too difficult for the truck maneuver to deliver the bedding and the Bioreactors had to be filled outside. The feed-stock material is delivered later in the season than is reasonable to add the worms even if they were to be protected with the tunnel and straw. Also, keeping the feed-stock types separate will not create the biologically diverse compost that is required for it to offset the need for fertilizer, pesticides, and potting soil. The bedding with the manure has often already sat and lost its thermal properties and needs to be woken up with some additional ingredients. To develop the kind of compost we require we are going to shift to Dr. Inghram’s soil food web approach. It has many similarities. It is a slightly more active process but produces usable compost in about a month compared to the static 8-12month process with the Bioreactors. It will not require any additional materials and ultimately use less materials to construct. This compost method will be done in the cover of the caterpillar tunnel so we can control the moisture level.  I am glad that we started with the most passive approach first to rule it out but more management will be required to create the compost that can replace the need for external inputs and reduce costs. Our goal is to have biologically diverse compost to use by October of 2022 to begin building the biology for the 2023 season to off set the input costs. 


Ann completed the Soil Food Web Foundation Course and now has begun the Farmer Training Program to help her better use the microscope and get support in the making of the compost. She had some trouble observing the biology this first season, but is receiving more education and training to better use the microscope going into this season. She feels much more prepared to analyze the compost moving into the 2022 season.“I think the microscope is a useful tool but it does require knowledge and skills that need training. I am still undecided whether farmers should be trained to do the analysis themselves or if we need to encourage the development of labs that analyze the soil biology for the farmers similar to the soil testing services that focus on the chemical components of the soil.”


Liz and Nate from Nightfall Farm’s update on how the grant has helped their farm so far in the process. 


Participating in this SARE Farmer-Rancher grant has been good for our farm personally and financially.  This project has been just the push we needed to improve our systems around spent bedding and to better utilize the bedding as a useful product for our farmland and our community of farmers.  We’re so grateful that our spent bedding will have a positive role in growing nutritious vegetables for our community. We also value that this collaboration can mean improved fertility as well as financial viability for our farmer collaborators (Wild Pansy Farm) because of decreased input costs – and fewer carbon emissions (because compost is not being shipped).  The financial aspect has been important for our farm as well.  Offsetting the cost of bedding this year was crucial to mitigate restaurant sales lost during Covid as well as the rising costs of every single input that our farm relies on. We were able to pass this benefit along to our customers: we didn’t have to raise our meat and egg prices as much, despite our increasing expenses.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.