The power of compost

Our regenerative farming journey so far

Our work with compost is the latest chapter of our regenerative farming journey. We have been robustly practicing regenerative farming for over five years now. We use the word “robust” because we have been doing more than just making incremental changes, such as just using cover crops, or slightly reducing our fertiliser usage.

Rather, we’ve gone all in. We’ve implemented a wide variety of new practices – for example, minimum tillage, cover cropping, inter-cropping, or the pasture cropping we described in a previous blog.

All of these practices are contributing to the regeneration of our farmland soils. This in turn has delivered big environmental benefits, whether that’s in terms of climate change and carbon sequestration, or on-farm biodiversity.

However, after five years, we recognise more than ever that this is a long process. It will take years or even decades to get our soils where we want them with just these practices alone.

Lack of life in the soil

What we have done so far on the farm has started to regenerate soils. However, this is not the full story. When we study the soil under a microscope (more on this later), it is not as alive as it should be.

Soil is like its own, below-ground ecosystem. Healthy soil should have hundreds of different species living in it. However, conventional agricultural practices have eliminated most of this complexity.

Specifically, until recently, the soil at Wild Ken Hill was very bacteria heavy. It comprised too much bacteria and lacked the levels of fungi and protozoa that would make it healthy, or microbe dominant. We’ve analysed soils around the country for friends and colleagues, and this situation tends to be the norm.

How do we know this? Thanks to our brilliant Estate Director Nick Padwick. Nick recently became the first British farmer to train and qualify as a Consultant for the Soil Food Web. The Soil Food Web is a trademarked programme developed by global leading soil scientist Dr Elaine Ingham. Nick has also furthered his learning by recently completing another prestigious soil science course with Nicole Masters.

Nick is now able to take soil samples, search for microbes under a microscope, and quantify their numbers. This mean Nick can definitively measure whether a soil is healthy and doing what it should, or whether it is unbalanced or lacking life in any particular area.

Why is this important?

When soil does not comprise a healthy balance of microbes, the benefits it provides to plants – including crops – are limited. For example, a bacteria-heavy soil will typically provide negligible or no nutrients to plants. As farmers, we’ve often turned to fertilisers to make provide these nutrients. Fertilisers are costly, mostly produced abroad, and can be damaging to the environment.

Conversely, a soil teaming with microbes will make nutrients available to plants, particularly plant-available ammonium and an abundance of trace elements. Plants benefitting from this interaction with soil microbes will be healthier, higher-yielding, and more nutrition-dense.

As such, restoring the Soil Food Web could hold the key to addressing a number of challenges in the UK’s agriculture and environment sector.

Turning to composting

Composting is the only means by which we can quickly bring back soil microbes. We’re celebrating International Compost Awareness Week 2024 by sharing in detail our work with compost so far.

Effectively, the way we make we compost is designed to grow soil microbes within the compost. Unlike most garden and farm composters, we are not interested in the nutrients or fertility benefits of the compost. We just want the right number and mix of microbes.

The idea is that the compost will actually add back life to the soil, accelerating the pace of regeneration. And we’ve already managed to turn this idea into action. For the last 18 months, Nick has been performing a range of trials.

Firstly, by performing small scale trials, Nick has ascertained that applications of compost will improve the yields of agricultural plants. Nick has done this on miniature plots of different vegetables, and also with wheat.

Nick has then also developed an end-to-end process for manufacturing compost at scale. This is no mean feat. It combines the need for total precision to create the living conditions for the microbes, and also the efficiency and speed to make this cost effective at such a scale. We touch on this next. But first, a little word from Nick:

“It has been two years of learning and hard graft, but utterly worthwhile. I truly believe this process will become a huge leap forward for food production and soil health without the need of artificial inputs. Our soils are now starting to come alive as we move forward with this project. The benefits for us as farmers, for consumers of our food, and for the environment are potentially massive”.

How we make compost at scale

First, we collect biomass – mostly woodchip, grassy & high-nitrogen material – from around the farm, and sometimes from our neighbours.

This biomass is laid into windrows, hundreds of meters long. We use windrows so that we can turn the compost. To do this, we tow a top of the range composter behind a tractor. The composter turns the compost just how we want it, and is also capable of adding water to the compost if conditions are dry.

At each stage in the process, we examine the compost or the extract under the microscope to ensure it contains the right assemblage of soil microbes. By counting the different microbes at specific magnifications, we can ensure that the compost or extract is on the right path for application across the farm.

After several turns, the compost is usually “mature”. It contains the right number and mix of microbes.

Getting the compost out onto hundreds of acres (or more!) of arable land is the next challenge. For this, we’ve created a proprietary methodology, unique to the UK. Without fully giving away our secrets, we mix the compost with water to create what is known as an “extract”. This extract is sprayed onto fields using a bespoke piece of equipment, the only one in the UK.

For those interested in learning more about this process, you can watch Nick on stage with our Founder Dom and good friend Rosie Begg at Groundswell 2023.

What’s next?

This is a very exciting time. We have now applied some form of compost to all of the farmland at Wild Ken Hill. Early tests suggest that these applications are working, and that the microbes we applied are colonising the soil.

Over the course of this year, we will be able to understand the impact this has to our crops. In particular, we’ll be looking at how the crops perform in terms of yield, and commercially. What we are expecting to see, of course, is better yields where compost has been applied, and crops with higher quality and greater nutritional density. But we need to gather the data to prove this.

Our Founder Dom summarised: “I am incredibly proud of the team for their commitment to continuous learning and ability to keep innovating. We think we’re on the cusp of something hugely exciting, and hugely impactful here. We’re now hoping the results will come as reward for all this hard work”.

Interested in compost?

This blog is complimented by visual content on our main social media pages (Instagram, Facebook). We’ve also sent out a special newsletter on the compost. You can sign up to our newsletter in the footer of our website.

If you are a land manager reading this and interested in applying our compost in your farm, please do get in touch – contact details can be found here.

We are also running a Regenerative Farming Workshop on the 24th September. This is aimed at those working in land management or related professions, and will get into the knitty-gritty of our compost manufacturing programme, as well as our wider regenerative farming work. The Workshop can be booked here.

For now, that’s it from us. We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our compost work!