Trialing On-Farm Windrow Vermicomposting as a Mechanism for Reducing Producer Dependence on Off-Farm Inputs

Progress report for FW23-416

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $24,240.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2025
Host Institution Award ID: G279-23-W9982
Grant Recipient: Watershed Ranch
Region: Western
State: Colorado
Principal Investigator:
Rick Bieterman
Watershed Ranch
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Project Information


In Colorado's Upper Arkansas River Valley, agricultural producers are looking for innovative ways to improve soil health to build resilience against drought and other growing challenges. Currently, many farmers and ranchers rely heavily on off-farm inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers, to maintain soil fertility and yields. This reliance is financially and environmentally costly and is a significant barrier to building economic and ecological resilience. High fungal compost is emerging as a biological soil amendment that can minimize/ reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers, and local interest in it is growing. However, unless agricultural producers can produce high fungal compost themselves with locally available ingredients, they remain dependent on expensive off-farm inputs, and at the mercy of market prices and availability. 

This project explores the feasibility of producing high fungal vermicompost on-farm in a cost and labor effective way in the semi-arid, high mountain environment of the Upper Arkansas River Valley. Producers and researchers around the world are developing strategies for on-farm production of high fungal vermicompost, but there is no local model for doing so. This project recognizes the need for a local producer to trial a high fungal vermicomposting system, giving other farmers and ranchers a blueprint for producing their own soil amendments. This would help farmers and ranchers boost profits, build resilience, and reduce dependence on environmentally harmful synthetic fertilizers. 

Building on knowledge gleaned from other on-farm composters, we will construct static pile vermicompost windrows with cheap and readily available local materials, adapting methods to fit our particular environment. The findings of this research will be disseminated to fellow producers and the broader community through workshops at the demonstration site, an instructional video series and how-to manual, and ongoing educational events coordinated with community partner organizations. 

Project Objectives:

Research Objective 1: Trial on-farm windrow vermicomposting with locally available materials and evaluate product quality through compost testing. 

Research Objective 2: Conduct a basic economic analysis comparing the cost of production of homemade vermicompost versus the purchase of off-farm inputs (synthetic fertilizer and commercial high fungal compost). 

Education Objective 1: Increase awareness among local agricultural producers and community members about the biological approach to soil fertility and how biological soil amendments such as biodiverse, high fungal vermicompost can be used as alternatives to synthetic and other off-farm inputs. 

Education Objective 2: Lower the knowledge barrier for producers interested in implementing their own on-farm windrow vermicomposting systems.




Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Sarah Hamilton - Technical Advisor
  • Annie Overlin
  • Andrea Coen (Educator)
  • Deana Namuth-Covert (Educator)


Materials and methods:

Research Objective 1: Trial on-farm windrow vermicomposting with locally available materials and evaluate product quality through compost testing. 

Research Design
Windrow Construction: We will draw on composting methods from Nicole Masters, Dr. David Johnson, and the Mosca-Hooper Conservation District to inform the construction of our vermicomposting windrows. We will build two 15 foot long by 6 foot wide by 5 foot tall windrows. Following Nicole Masters’ recipe, we will layer the following materials (using a tractor with a front loading bucket) on top of a geotextile fabric: 

  • 18 inch thick layer of white wood chips (chipped on site from dead Aspen trees) and hay. These are both stable, non-heating materials with a high C:N ratio. This will serve as the worm bedding.
  • The next layer will be the worm food, 24 inches thick consisting of a mix of horse manure, goat manure (from neighboring farms) and rotten straw/hay (from Watershed Ranch), aiming for a 30:1 Carbon: Nitrogen ratio (measured by volume). We will add small amounts of lime, fish hydrolysate, humic acid, coffee grounds, commercially produced high fungal compost, and forest leaf litter collected from the ranch as additional inoculants to promote worm digestion and microbial biodiversity. 
  • The final layer will be 6 to 24 inches of dry hay for insulation in the winter (24 inches) and to trap moisture in the summer (6 inches).  

We will wet the layers to a 70% moisture content as we add them to the windrows, and set up the watering system to maintain 70% compost moisture, per Dr. Johnson’s instructions.  The windrows will be winterized in late fall by adding one foot of hay to the top of the piles and covering them. This has been shown to be sufficient to insulate and feed worms throughout the winter at temperatures below -30 degrees fahrenheit. 

Temperature and moisture will be monitored daily until the windrows have completed the thermophilic phase, and the temperature has stabilized to 80 degrees fahrenheit or below. We will then add Red Wiggler worms (1,000 worms/ 3 feet of windrow) to begin the vermicomposting stage. At this point, windrow temperature and moisture data will be collected weekly.

Variables: All conditions between the two compost piles will be kept constant, with the exception of aeration. We will test whether the action of the worms provides sufficient aeration, or if extra aeration benefits the vermicomposting process. To introduce extra aeration into one windrow, we will install three inch pipe (breather vents) with additional holes drilled every six inches upright in the windrow, with 12-15 inch spacing between the pipes (per the Mosca-Hooper Conservation District’s static pile fungal rich vermicomposting method). The other pile will rely on the base materials of wood chips and hay and the action of the worms for aeration, according to the method taught by Nicole Masters. The difference in progress and results between the two piles will be measured via compost sampling and video-recorded visual observations.  A backup aeration system will be installed on the Nicole Masters windrow consisting of 6 inch irrigation pipes with 2 inch perpendicular offshoots that lie at the base of the pile.  If needed, a solar fan will blow air through the base of the pile and into the wood chips.  We will decide to utilize this system if the pile shows early signs of anerobic respiration.  

Project Site: The windrows will be constructed at Watershed Ranch, on a flat and sunny piece of land. Though compost leachate is not expected, the windrows will be situated to avoid any potential water contamination should leachate occur. 

Data Collection: We will record daily windrow temperature and moisture readings for the first week, or until the windrows have completed the thermophilic phase (131-170 degrees fahrenheit for at least three days). We will then take weekly temperature and moisture readings with 36 inch compost moisture/ thermometer probes. We will take compost samples at 4 months, 8 months, and 1 year. These samples will be submitted for laboratory analysis.

Data Analysis
Compost samples will be analyzed as follows:

  • Ward Laboratories, Inc: Soil Health Assessment (Nutrient analysis, total nitrogen, total carbon, and inorganic nitrogen)
  • Earthfort Labs: Compost Basic Test (moisture percentage, pH, electrical conductivity, aerobic and total fungi and bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes). 

This data will be used to analyze our product’s nutrient profile, C:N ratio, fungi:bacteria ratio, and how these metrics change over time as the windrows mature. Annie Overlin, our research collaborator, will work with a Colorado State University microbiologist to consult on sample analysis and determine the quality of the vermicompost. Data from the lab analyses will be compared to compost sampling data from the Mosca-Hooper Conservation District's commercial high fungal vermicomposting facility, in order to compare the quality of on-farm versus commercially produced compost. 

Continuing Research: The windrow vermicomposting trial will be replicated in Spring 2024, with the assembly of two new windrows. We will follow the same research design, incorporating data analysis from Year 1 windrows to make adjustments to windrow materials and construction methods as needed.  Year 2 windrows will be monitored, sampled, and analyzed according to the same methods used in Year 1.

Research Objective 2: Conduct a basic economic analysis comparing the cost of production of homemade vermicompost versus the purchase of off-farm inputs (synthetic fertilizer and commercial high fungal compost). 

Data Collection: We will track all material and labor costs associated with building and maintaining the windrows.
Data Analysis: Based on the cost of making on-farm vermicompost and the recommended rates of application, we will calculate a price per acre. We will compare this to current synthetic fertilizer and commercial high fungal compost prices. While this will not be a complete economic analysis without yield data, it will give producers a realistic idea of how much it costs to produce on-farm vermicompost, and their potential savings. 


Research results and discussion:

Research Results Objective 1: Trial on-farm windrow vermicomposting with locally available materials and evaluate product quality through compost testing. 

Temperature Data and General Observations:  Modified Bioreactor

3-12-2024 Bioreactor Compost Temperature Data (year 1)

The Bioreactor Compost Pile achieved thermophilic temps within the first two to three weeks of creation hovering around 131 degrees, eventually settling into the low 70's.  Worms were added at that time and the pile continued to slowly cool as the air temps cooled.  Unfortunately the pile underwent some freezing temps on the northern side.  Temps on the southern side stayed above freezing and moisture levels remained around 70% throughout the winter under the cover of a foot of hay and black landscape fabric.  When collecting soil samples at 4 and 8 months, I was able to find red wiggler worms moving slowly at different depths in the pile.   

Modified Bioreactor Lab Results at 4 and 8 months:

10-17-2023 Earthfort Compost Bioreactor 4 month sample results

2-1-24 Earthfort Compost Bioreactor 8 month sample results

3-12-24 Ward Scientific Lab Results (8 months)

When comparing the 4 month sample to the 8 month sample, we see many positive numbers and trends.  Moisture and pH stay consistent, electric conductivity increases, total fungi, protozoa, and nematode levels are above typical and trending upwards except total fungi which remained very close to the same from month 4 to month 8.  We will keep an eye on month 12 samples and hope to see a dramatic increase in fungi numbers as weather warms and in turn the pile warms (as it is frozen in some parts and just above freezing in others).  

One other problem to solve is with Earthfort testing center.  Their nematode lab tech just retired between my 4 and 8 month samples.  We have a lead on another company (Trace Genomics) in hopes that they can fill the missing gap/data at a reasonable cost.  

Temperature Data and General Observations:  Windrow Compost:

3-12-24 Windrow Compost Temperature Data Year 1 Report

The Windrow Compost Pile, even after 2 rebuilds and added nitrogen boosts never achieved temperatures in the thermophilic phase.  The highest temperature achieved was 82 degrees.  Despite my best efforts (as documented in the attached YouTube videos), I introduced the worms around 80 degrees and moved forward with the experiment with some worry and skepticism.  Similar to the modified bioreactor, temps in the pile slowly cooled as air temperature cooled ultimately showing a low of 44 degrees in late February and early March.  When collecting soil samples at 4 and 8 months, red wigglers were present and moving slowly at different depths and layers in the pile.  

Windrow Lab Results at 4 and 8 months:

11--23 Earthfort Compost Windrow 4 month sample results

3-1-24 Earthfort Windrow Compost 8 month lab results

3-12-24 Ward Scientific Lab Results (8 months)

In comparing the 4 and 8 month samples, we see many signs of stability and fungal and microbe growth.  pH and moisture levels are a constant.  Electric Conductivity nearly quadrupled and fungal and protozoa numbers nearly doubled from month 4 to month 8.  We hope to see these same trends at 12 months.  

Research Results Objective 2: Conduct a basic economic analysis comparing the cost of production of homemade vermicompost versus the purchase of off-farm inputs (synthetic fertilizer and commercial high fungal compost). 

Watershed Ranch Time and Materials Year 1 Data Collection

Bioreactor Time and Materials:  36.5 hours of manpower, $1,345 dollars to create approximately 4,000lbs of finished compost.   That's roughly .34 cents per pound of compost.  

Windrow Time and Materials:  27 hours of manpower, $1,060 dollars to create approximately 4,000lbs of finished compost.  That's roughly .26 cents per pound of compost.  

Raw Compost and Fertilizer Price per Pound Comparison:

Compost/Fertilizer: Cost per pound:
Watershed Ranch, Bioreactor .34 cents with no pickup/delivery costs; .75 cents with my hours baked in
Watershed Ranch, Windrow Compost .26 cents with no pickup/delivery costs; .57 cents with my hours baked in
The Fungal Link (Dave West) $3 plus a day drive and $150 in fuel. 
Synthetic Pellet Fertilizer $1.60 including delivery

Based on the above information alone, the cost to make my own raw product is dramatically lower than any of the other alternatives.  Even when working my time at $45 dollars an hour into the equation, both Watershed compost products come in at .75 cents and .57 cents respectively per pound. 

As it relates to field applications and turning the raw compost into extracts, here is the breakdown by acre. . .

Compost/Fertilizer Application Rate: Cost per acre:
Synthetic Fertilizer ($1.60/lb) 150lbs - 200lbs per acre $240-$320 per acre
The Fungal Link High Fungal Compost ($3/lb)

Mix 3lbs/10 gallons of water;

Recommended 20-100 gallons of mixture per acre

$18-90 per acre
Watershed Bioreactor including farmer time to construct (.74 cents/lb)

Mixture same as above

$4.50 -$22.50 per acre 

Watershed Windrow including farmer time to construct (.57 cents/lb)

Mixture same as above

$3.42 - $17.10 per acre

Again, we see a dramatic reduction in cost with the DIY Watershed compost product.  

Participation Summary

Research Outcomes

Recommendations for sustainable agricultural production and future research:

Finding ways to migrate away from synthetic chemical fertilizers has been a passion of mine since Covid hit.  For one, prices of fertilizers skyrocketed as the world and its supply chain came to a crawl.  And secondly, I wanted a product made in the USA and not mostly overseas and mostly in Russia. For these reasons I, along with my friend at the local conservancy, partnered up to see what greatness we could conjure up locally and from mostly on-farm waste.  What I have learned in year 1 is what I assumed all along--that there are plenty of very intelligent local resources in the ag world that are accessible.  This grant is not just producing quality compost at a very cheap cost, it's connecting me, a newbie of 8 years in the farming industry, with experts in the field passionate about long-term sustainability.  I was craving this and have already found many others locally wanting the same.  

I have also learned that when you can find a way to make a quality product on the cheap in agriculture, that can break down many political barriers and boundaries that often divide the new and the old farmer in my part of the world.  

Another one of my aims with this SARE grant was to produce compost not only for my hay fields but for the backyard gardener as well.  Similar to the social and economic goals of a farmers' market, I am aiming to become a presence not only in the agriculture world but in the mainstream as well.  I am aiming to cut out the middle man and the big box store in order to create a more economical price-point for myself and my fellow gardeners while becoming their "local expert" in ag education and making our farm and other farms in the valley less mysterious and more open to the public.    

The elephant in the room when it comes to my compost and its application method on a large scale:

When it's all said and done, I hope to produce a fabulous high fungal compost that will reduce my (and others) dependency on synthetic chemical fertilizers that travel a long way to get onto our fields.  If I achieve that this year and next with SARE, I will be very excited to not only use the product myself but to share it with the community!!  But my ultimate goal as a hay farmer is figuring out the best application method of organic nutrients on a grand scale (hundreds of acres).  Right now, it's hard for me to conceptualize creating a compost pile a football field long and spreading the raw compost onto a hay field, but I'd like to if I could!!  Over the last two years in the STAR Producer program, I have used others compost and created extracts in a large 225 gallon tote and spilled them onto my fields in differing quantities and concentrations.  The yeilds just are not there.  And the lab results/soil samples are all over the place. 

As this grant is meant to educate and promote soil health, I cannot help but think of the skeptics and what might turn them into believers.  The data most farmers in our valley want to see is yield per acre or cost of inputs per bale of hay.  Unfortunately, from my STAR producer experiments I have come to realize the yields from extract applications I have seen over the last two years with synthetic vs high fungal compost (The Fungal Link) are 5:1 in some cases but mostly a 3:1 hay yield leaning towards synthetic.  I am hoping to one day create an affordable organic product or application method that can achieve the same (or close to) yields as the synthetic options and grow soil health over time.  More time, research, and experimentation will tell.  

Considerations for further and future data collection, manipulation, and experimentation:  (1) after the hay season, determine a price per bale of hay--i.e. quantity of hay/product yield correlated with fertilizer types and/or application methods, (2)determine quality of hay (metagenomics) correlated with fertilizer types, and (3) long-term soil testing to determine how the different products are affecting the long-term health of the soil.  

As I mentioned above, I would also consider creating a massive windrow or bioreactor so I could apply the raw compost directly onto the large hay fields via a manure spreader or slurry spreader.  My assumption is that the microbes would appreciate and thrive with a little bit of their birth home compost upon transition onto a new field better than the cold water bath and shot into sandy loam I'm asking of them now.  

Other variables to consider testing/manipulating in the future would be (1) tunnel or greenhouse for one of the compost piles to better regulate temp/humidity, (2) compost specific types of manure (3) compost different ages of manure.

1 Grant received that built upon this project
2 New working collaborations

Education and Outreach

6 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
1 Online trainings
2 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
5 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days
2 Other educational activities: Visits to classrooms and lessons to local students (elementary and high school).
Career day celebration at Avery Parsons Elementary School.

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
100 Ag professionals participated
Education and outreach methods and analyses:

SARE Project Timeline Update:

Timeline update
Year 1 Timeline Update

3-14-24 SARE-Timeline Update Year 1 Progress

Education Objective 1: Increase awareness among local agricultural producers and community members about the biological approach to soil fertility and how biological soil amendments such as biodiverse, high fungal vermicompost can be used as alternatives to synthetic and other off-farm inputs. 

  • Vermicomposting Presentation and Agrisummit Tour at Watershed Ranch, March 8-11, 2023; Spring 2024 (Target Audience: community members and producers)
    We are partnering with Guidestone Colorado, a local agricultural education non-profit, to host a tour as part of their annual Agrisummit Conference. This event draws 80-100 participants from diverse backgrounds, ranging from curious community members to backyard gardeners to farmers to local food enthusiasts. This tour will revolve around our efforts to build healthy soil on the ranch by focusing on soil biology and moving away from synthetic inputs. Though the 2023 Agrisummit tour will happen before we receive notice of this grant, and the vermicomposting windrows will not be built yet, tour participants will be educated about the potential project and learn about the principles behind it through observing our Johnson-Su bioreactor and small-scale worm bin. Collaboration with Guidestone will continue with the Spring 2024 Agrisummit Conference, during which we will lead a windrow vermicomposting workshop at Watershed Ranch and presentation of project results at the lecture portion of the Agrisummit conference. Powerpoint presentation link below (slides 37-51)
  • 2024 Watershed Ranch Agrisummit-Rick Bieterman
  • Media Outreach and Communication
    We will write at least two articles (initial project announcement, June 2023; project results, June 2025) for local Conservation District newsletters (Lake County Conservation District, Fremont County Conservation District, Upper Arkansas Conservation District) and the Central Colorado Conservancy agriculture programs newsletter. Members of the local media will also be invited to attend all project outreach events. 
  • 3-24-23 Central Colorado Conservancy Blog Post and Website Update
Chaffee County Times article
Chaffee County Times 4-6-23
  • I have partnered with The Midland Stop Coffee Shop taking all their spent coffee grains for the compost piles.  Below is the card they proudly display next to the register. 

From Grounds to Ground Notecard Laminate

  • School Field Trips to Watershed Ranch and In-School Lecture/Labs (Quarterly- Fall 2023, Spring 2024, Fall 2024, Spring 2025, Fall 2025)
    Watershed Ranch has many connections to the public and private schools in Buena Vista, and has already hosted school field trips. The ranch will continue to be an educational resource in the school district, and will add a tour and discussion of the demonstration project to their curriculum. This will give local students the opportunity to learn and get excited about the wonderful world of soil microbes, as well as gain an appreciation of the many ecosystem services that agricultural lands provide.  Once the vermicompost from this project is ready, Watershed Ranch will lead a “take and make” experiment comparing growth rates of native grasses and flowers in traditional high mountain soils to those in soils with high fungal windrow compost amendments.  

Completed and on the Horizon:

  • To date, Watershed Ranch has hosted two separate school groups--public and private.  We have talked compost (utilizing the 2024 Agrisummit powerpoint above, handled red wigglers, and dug into both compost heaps searching for worms and microbes under a microscope.  We have utilized pieces of the lesson plan below and adapted it to grade level.  One school group has invested in their own red wiggler compost bin and worms.

Compost lesson plans

  • In April 2024, I will attend the elementary school career fair and present with Central Colorado Conservancy on our SARE grant with worm interactives, compost art (organic finger paint), and "under the microscope" activities.  
  • Soil Health Field Day at Watershed Ranch (June 2024; Target Audience: local agricultural producers).
    This field day will be open to the public, but will target local agricultural producers. It will be a collaborative event with Colorado’s STAR Soil Health program. It will be widely promoted to the broader agricultural community through networks including local conservation districts, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and Colorado Cattlemen's listservs, as well as other farmer/ rancher social networks. The goal of this event will be to introduce biological soil health concepts and provide a technical overview of the demonstration vermicomposting windrows with the goal of enabling producers to build their own. Colorado State University (CSU) Extension Range Specialist Annie Overlin and local rancher Steve Oswald will speak about their current SARE project (FW20-371) applying high fungal compost on high elevation hay meadows. Hearing from a fellow producer will be a powerful educational opportunity for farmers and ranchers attending the event. Ms. Overlin, Mr. Oswald, and Mr. Bieterman will lead a discussion on compost application equipment and methods. Ms. Overlin will lead an interactive microscope activity, where participants will be able to observe the microbial communities present in soil and compost samples. Local NRCS and CSU Extension agents will be invited to attend this event to learn about the project. Handouts will include soil health factsheets developed in collaboration with CSU Extension, and copies of the how-to windrow vermicomposting manual developed during this project.  

Education Objective 2: Lower the knowledge barrier for local agricultural producers interested in implementing their own on farm windrow vermicomposting systems. 

  • Organize Soil Health Field Day at Watershed Ranch, with windrow vermicomposting demonstration, discussion, and distribution of how-to technical manual (see full description of this event under Education Objective 1).  Coming Next Year
  • Produce a how-to technical manual detailing equipment, costs, and procedures for building an on-farm windrow vermicomposting system. Print and distribute to any interested producer. This manual will also be available for free on-line, through CSU Extension’s website, for distribution through local Conservation Districts, and at the local NRCS office.  Coming Next Year
  • Produce a how-to video series that documents all the steps of building an on-farm windrow vermicomposting system. These videos will be available on CSU Extension’s youtube channel (current videos about commercial scale high fungal composting on the channel have received almost 100,000 views, demonstrating the need for producing more resources on the topic) and local conservation district websites and social media. 
  • Watershed Ranch - YouTube
  • Raw Videos are currently on Youtube and will go live March 15th.  Links provided below.  These thirty clips will be kept in this format but also edited into one longer video next year for Central Colorado Conservancy's website, the CSU extension website, and other educational outlets (preferred format for viewers with experience in the field).  As is in its current format (1-3 minute clips), this seems to be the preferred method for the curious with less background education.  The Newbies we hope to inspire!
Education and outreach results:

Education Objective 1: Increase awareness among local agricultural producers and community members about the biological approach to soil fertility and how biological soil amendments such as biodiverse, high fungal vermicompost can be used as alternatives to synthetic and other off-farm inputs. 

Education Objective 2: Lower the knowledge barrier for producers interested in implementing their own on-farm windrow vermicomposting systems.

To date, we have many satisfied ranch goers looking to broaden their education and experience in the field of agriculture.  Emerging themes we notice when people attend our ranch tours and workshops are that they are impressed at (1) the diversity of accomplishments in just 8 years on the property, (2) how many agency partners we have, (3) how many government dollars we have utilized and leveraged, and that we do it (4) while being part-time and holding other careers. 

In terms of environment, the best lessons and feedback happen at our Ranch.  Students of all ages are engaged in the beauty of the property which then hooks them into comprehending how and why Watershed Ranch is so beautiful--i.e. water, soil experiments, and forest health.  When it comes to the virtual environment, I am still learning.  YouTube has proven to be a great place to post videos and gain exposure with the younger generation.  It's also a great place for people to explore their curiosities in a free low stake's manner.   

In terms of age groups, I find the goal with elementary and middle school students is to build excitement and interest and to create a "take and make" so students can bring them home and show off/explain what they learned to their parents.  The goal with the high school students is to gauge interest in the field, explain the composting process, and to get these students evaluating their behaviors as they relate to the environment.  The goal of the adults in the field is to network and pick their brains, but to also impress them with my consistency, use of the scientific method, and routine.  Coming off as a professional to the professionals indicates quality and inspires others to get involved too!  We often spend more time looking at the lab paperwork with this group followed by materials and methods questions.  

In terms of socioeconomics, I always prioritize the public school system because they have the highest concentration of underserved youth in the valley.  And, we (Watershed) never charge a fee when working with Agrisummit or hosting our own classes/workshops.  We believe our ranch and our knowledge should be accessible to all walks of life. 

5 Farmers intend/plan to change their practice(s)
2 Farmers changed or adopted a practice

Education and Outreach Outcomes

Recommendations for education and outreach:

As a former full-time science teacher and a current part-time teacher, I feel very comfortable talking science in front of groups both in and out of the classroom, young and old, experienced or not.  I believe the best way to communicate the science behind the project is to meet people where they're at and follow a SEE, SAY, DO method.  First, see the compost (macro and micro) compared to our other local soils.  Second, explain in words, pics, data, and diagrams the science behind it.  And lastly, interact with the product--touch it, feel it, experiment with it. 

At Watershed Ranch, I have numerous stations around the farm set up to explain all of our works in progress.  Specific to compost, I have 6 stations beginning with the classroom and worms in the old potato shed, moving to the forest of raw materials (logs from a forest management project, a sawmill, wood chips from the chipper, manure from the chicken coop), moving to the hay shed, down to the compost, up the creek along the irrigation system, and circling back towards the house for a look at the brewing, extraction, and application station. Ranch tours and student groups get a "willy wonka" experience and when time allows, they can plant starters in a compostable cup before heading off to their home inspired to experiment more. 

When the show goes on the road, we take the worms with us, the moisture meters and thermometers, a variety of soils and composts, and a planting kit.  For example at the career night in the public elementary school (in a rural underserved community), student will begin their lesson by meeting and feeding the worms, feeling the different soils we have on the property, applying water to them, squeezing them to make note of moisture retention.  Then, adding compost to the soils and repeating.  Next, students will write their names with their wet soils, including an all compost mix.  They should notice the rich dark compost makes for the best writing tool!  A conversation about organics and humus follows. Lastly, students prep a soil and compost mix and sow a local seed suitable to our climate (from our pollinator habitat mix).  

As I write this, I'm realizing I need to build in some pre-lesson questions as well as an "exit ticket" with questions that address demographics, prior and post knowledge, and general interest in sustainable agriculture practices.  I will do this before my next educational outing. 

In addition to the classroom and ranch tours, I have developed a set of video clips that shows the process of making each style of compost and shows the compost and its evolution throughout the year.  I encourage people that show interest to follow up our classroom time or ranch visit by watching the videos over the next week and contacting me directly if they have a desire to create their own on a large or small scale.  Not only do these quick video clips outline the process of constructing compost, the short format attracts a curious random crowd of youtubers often surfing the web.  A longer video compilation will be produced for those with a little bit more knowledge and bandwidth in the farming and gardening world.  Data can be collected using youtube metrics, collecting comments and responding in kind.  

24 Producers reported gaining knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness as a result of the project
Non-producer stakeholders reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
20 General public
60 Students
4 Ag Service Providers
Key changes:
  • Alternatives to synthetic fertilizers

  • Excitement about a NO Turn Compost--"it seems fairly easy"

  • Becoming more drought tolerant

  • Cost Benefit Analysis of compost vs synthetic, high vs low yields, quality vs quantity

  • There are tremendous and accessible resources available to us in this valley and beyond.

  • Excitement about developing an experiment on a small piece of land of managable size and scale.

Information Products

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.