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Lauren Weston, Kate Wethergreen and Matt Choinere. (Kate Barcellos)

HIGHGATE — There’s a strange and special brew bubbling away on the Choiniere Family Farm, and it may be the beginning of a much-needed solution for growers’ wallets.

“One of the biggest and most immediate issues on the farm is the rising cost of and availability of nutrients and fertilizers,” Matt Choiniere said. “We’re looking for ways to make the most out of nutrients that we have.”

On Wednesday, a small group of farmers and composters gathered at the Choiniere Family Farm with the Natural Resources Conservation District, the Composting Association of Vermont and Land Care Cooperative, to learn how to brew a healthy-bacteria-laden, all-natural, ultra-concentrated concoction that transforms compost and manure into top-notch fertilizer.

The idea for speeding up the composting process began when Matt and his father, farmer Guy Choiniere, were running low on one of their most precious resources: manure fertilizer. The manure from their certified organic, certified grassfed and animal welfare-approved dairy cows is composted and used to fertilize their fields and to create a healthy, thriving pasture, but needs to compost before it can be used, which takes time.

The pastures are the key to the Choiniere operation and one of the reasons their products are so desirable. So when they found themselves in need and unable to find suitable, healthy alternatives for nutrients and fertilizers, the Choinieres decided to brew their own.

“The best part about this is the low cost,” Guy Choiniere said. “And it’s so easy.”

Whenever there is foul odor coming from a pile, paddock or pen, that smell is an indication of nutrients like nitrogen being released into the air, Matt said. So by introducing preferred, lacto fermented bacteria, they’re inoculating the matter which can then colonize and prevent the release of nutrients while killing the smell. Because the bacteria is sprayed intentionally and in larger amounts, and is already a strong and thriving colony, the idea is to beat other developing bacteria back by occupying the pack first. Then the manure can begin composting throughout the winter and some will be ready for spring, theoretically replacing the need for store-bought fertilizers.

Ideally, farmers would have more composted material to spread on their fields during the growing season and not just in the fall. One quart for every 13 yards of land diluted in a dump truck full of water was suggested to inoculate composting material.

“We’re really trying to create this idea around healing the land,” said Lauren Weston, district manager for the Natural Resources Conservation District. “It’s critical to support the viability of the agricultural economy in Franklin County and to support the farmers … These [methods] are ways to build on local economy instead of outsourcing for fertilizers.”

Ingredients

The first SPICE (Static, Pile, Inoculated, Compost Extender) brew that the Choinieres made was completed last year with the goal of spraying it onto the bedded packs as they’re built through the winter. The bedded packs are the accumulation of manure and bedding that gathers throughout the winter to then be composted in the spring.

The brew is made up of simple ingredients that anyone can find at a store. Things like oats, rice, bone and blood meal, leafy greens, molasses and salt are combined to create a perfect brew to encourage the growth and development of lactobacillus bacteria like the ones in yogurt. Also added are a week-old fermented rice mixture as a starter bacteria whose cultures consume the nutrients and begin to reproduce.

The greens and molasses provide the starter cultures with carbohydrates and the bacteria grow and ferment the liquid, creating a teeming pool of hungry life. The colonies of bacteria are perfect for encouraging the digestion of compost piles, whether they’re manure or plant waste-based, providing more opportunities for farmers to fertilize their compost with store-bought materials.

The concoction will bubble and ferment for about one month before it is ready to use. Because of its high concentration, very small amounts can be added to water and sprayed over the composting material. The bacteria in the brew then begin fermenting and digesting the compost, creating a low-cost, high-yield, nutritious compost that produces better grasses and greenery while strengthening the soil.

On-site bacteria brewing

A week and a half ago, Matt Choiniere began his fermenting rice mixture with one cup of rice in one quart of water. Now fermented, on Wednesday he strained out the rice and mixed it with dairy. He began filling a large sap tank with water from a hose before presenting several large bags filled with rotten, squishy cabbage heads.

Audience members jumped to help with the process, peeling wrappers off of the cabbage heads and throwing them into five gallon buckets. Using a tall gardening spade, Matt mashed the softened cabbages into a soft slush, releasing juices that were already beginning to ferment. He filled a large cloth sack with heads before tying it off and securing it to a metal crossbar over the sap tank so it would steep in the water like a tea bag.

Matt did the same thing with two other bags, filling them with bone and blood meal, oats, kelp and other nutrients for the bacteria to consume in order to grow into a dense colony. He poured in his fermented rice mixture, and bubbles began to form. Audience members helped Matt pour ingredients into bags and poured five-gallon buckets of molasses into the mixture while Matthe began to stir what would become a new batch of inoculant.

Letting the land heal

Presenter Abe Collins is part of Land Care Cooperative, runs LandStream and Collins Crazing, and is part of the Soil Carbon Coalition. His mission as a former dairy farmer is to teach others how to naturally heal their soils to produce better, higher yields and increase biodiversity.

He is one of the inspirations behind a tractor addition called a “rip-sower” which operates much like a discer or tiller. It’s a tank, hoe and seeding combination that follows behind a tractor and drives deep cuts into the soil, all the while spraying inoculants from a tank and planting inoculated seeds in the ground. The goal is to increase biodiversity and help grow the topsoil and increase microbial biodiversity.

Farmers very typically will sow legumes and grasses to help rebuild the soil, but Collins argued that biodiversity and forbs (herbs and other broad-leaf plants that aren’t woody or grass-like) are the key to the healthiest grazers and pastures. Animals prefer them, herds remain healthier and farmers see higher yields.

“The prairies are not really grasslands, they’re forbs lands,” Collins said. “Grasses are minor components.”

Incorporating more families of forbs into pastures and paddocks was directly linked to an increase in biomass production and soil regeneration, he said. The more forbs, he said, the better.

“Diversity equals healing,” Collins said.

With the help of the Choinieres and their fermented inoculant and local farmers willing to try out his methods, Collins said increasing biodiversity will quickly lead to much healthier soils and animals. Through the process of subsoiling, spraying the inoculant, seeding with inoculated forbs seeds over time produces more top-quality, rich topsoil and longer use of compost to cut costs and conserve nutrients.

“No-turn compost is what we’re talking about here,” Collins said. “This is a zero-odor system.”

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