SARE Grant: Results

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Winter has finally afforded a chance to look back at last year's SARE grant, and it's fair to say that the experiment produced some interesting results. The field looks a whole lot more white right now than the photo to the left.

To recap, the scope of my research grant was to look into the use of spent brewers' grain - the main byproduct of beer production - as a soil amendment for crop production. I was investigating, in particular, a way to prevent the spent grains from going quickly anaerobic, which any farmer or home gardener can tell you is not ideal. You can read more about the bokashi composting process in the previous two blog posts.

It was a remarkably slow fruiting season for us in Maine last year, but a yield increase of 26-29% was noted in the experimental bSBG/SBG huskcherry groups over the control, respectively. I'm unsure, though, if the yield increases were a result of greater fruit set. The experimental groups certainly grew more vigorously (see the previous blog post for photos), but a surprising thing happened when the fall frosts settled in earnest in autumn. The bSBG/SBG huskcherries fared far better while the control withered, allowing almost a month longer for ripening of harvestable fruit. This, despite all three being under the same frost protection row cover.

This image shows the control huskcherries [right] compared next to the SBG experimental group [left] after the second frost in October. A few errant kale plants in front of the control give a misleading sense of the control's vibrancy.

So, was the yield increase the result of plant size and fruit set or the longer harvest season? And what is it that the huskcherries were able to take into their bodies from the SBGs that offered greater frost protection? Not sure, but it sure feels good to come away with a few more questions.

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As for the Salanova, all but one the varieties showed increases in yield. The % yield difference of the compared to the control group is suggestive, but varied more widely than I feel comfortable drawing solid conclusions from. It was a mistake, I think, to try to grow multiple varieties of Salanova versus a single variety of head lettuce. My hope was to gain efficiency by combining my farm's crop production with the grant research, but instead it complicated the experiment. A good lesson on the importance of limiting the scope of future experiments.

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I took soil samples as a final piece of last year's work to compare to the spring test results, which together give some indication of the qualities of spent brewers' grains and their lasting effect in soil. Important to consider using these results is that the spring soil tests were taken only a week after SBG/bSBG incorporation.

The spring tests show an increase in phosphorus, magnesium, nitrogen, manganese, and zinc, as well as .5-1.5% increase in organic matter, and a 2-4% increase in cation exchange capacity [CEC]. For those unfamiliar, CEC is a measure of a soil's ability to hold positively-charged nutrients. One way to think about it is that CEC is a storehouse plants, microbiology, and fungi draw on for their growth. The soil test results also show a decrease in potassium versus the control, and mixed results for calcium and sulfur levels.

The post-harvest soil tests indicate the following about using SBGs as a soil amendment:

  • End of the season testing show strong measures of increase of phosphorus, manganese, zinc, and OM in the soil. Magnesium trended towards increased levels in the soil.
  • Some tests – for potassium, iron, sulfur, and CEC – showed mixed results of both increases and decreases that would benefit from further study.
  • Soil pH showed increases, but I believe this is likely a result from lime applied in 2016. This is supported by the fact that the pH control groups also increased during the season.
  • Finally, and curiously, where calcium levels showed a decrease in the experimental SBG plots, the levels in the bSBG plots showed increases [+9#/ac. and +60#/ac.].

So, this is where things stand with the experiment. It's certainly an amendment I intend to continue working with, and the bokashi composting process proved to be an excellent way to stabilize the SBGs for use on the farm. The 55-gallon drums were an easy way to transport and inoculate the grains. What I'm interested in now is sending samples off of SBGs and bSBGS for direct analysis at the University of Maine. Having a more precise sense of the constituent parts of the spent brewers' grain is critical for myself, and hopefully other farmers, to make informed choices as to an appropriate application rate based on soils' needs.

Summer Update

A Valley Oak wheel hoe to cultivate between direct-seeded salad greens.

A Valley Oak wheel hoe to cultivate between direct-seeded salad greens.

Weed pressure has been the biggest challenge this season. The land speaking its history through witches' and quack grass. And loudly so. The pressure built to the point that I decided to turn under the first succession of greens. It was a better choice to give up the crop than to face a mature, established stand of grass.

I'm still learning this land. It's And the seed bank from the field's history in corn silage aside, the grasses are letting me know that I'm not doing a good enough job. They're growing to fill the empty spaces created through my disturbances. They are literally re-covering the earth. If I'm to farm well, it'll be through observing and understanding this process, fitting myself into it.

That said, I'm working to figure out the tools that work best for our farm. Stirrup hoes and wheel hoes (and many hands) for manual weeding, but also things that will prevent that from being necessary in the first place. Seeking to perfect stale bedding using a 5-torch flame weeder, where the flush of weeds after a soil disturbance are eliminated through just before the intended crop emerges. Also making use of landscape fabric to artificially keep the soil covered for transplants.

My new/old 1986 John Deere 1050 full of spent brewers' grains. 36 hp, and it fits just-so over our 30" beds.

My new/old 1986 John Deere 1050 full of spent brewers' grains. 36 hp, and it fits just-so over our 30" beds.

I'm anticipating the farm's new tractor to be one of the biggest tools in this process. I say new in the new-to-us way. At 31-years old, this  little John Deere is old as I am. It made it's way to the farm through the help of my farm mentor Ian of Stonecipher Farm. The evening of its arrival was quite a production finagling a couple implements out of Ian's box truck with the tractor's bucket: a bedshaper and an old horse-drawn disc harrow. Even with limited implements, though, the tractor is already changing what's been possible this season on the farm.

I can't, for one, imagine what it would have taken to haul all the brewers grain out into the field for the SARE grant. Twenty or so 400 lb.+ 55-gallon barrels. 

If you're reading this blog for the first time, the gist is that I'm looking at the use of spent brewers' grain from Oxbow Brewery in Newcastle as a field amendment for plant growth. In particular, I'm looking at a form of composting called bokashi to work with the spent grains' high moisture and tendency to go anaerobic. If you're interested in learning more about, click here.

A step by step overview of the process below.

And we're already seeing interesting results three weeks! Below are representative photos I took yesterday morning of the huskcherries that were planted on June 14th/15th. The far left image is the control, the center is raw spent brewers' grain [SBGs], and the far right is bokashi'd spent brewers' grain [bSBGs]. Not much noticeable difference between the two trial groups, but the growth difference contrasted with the control of no grain is quite noticeable.

Meanwhile, the cotton patch geese are growing up. They're out in the field now, happily gnawing away at the grass and clover. As far as having them effectively weed the strawberry plots, though...seems like I need quite a bit more. Having thoughts about mob grazing the plots with large numbers of geese over a short period of time. Just need to figure out what the appropriate number is...

Animal-wise, the last of the Silver Appleyards ducklings are just starting to hatch. LIttle pips from the incubator even as I write this. The parents of these little ones have been reunited in the yard. And they're stoked.

And as far as little ones go, the cherry tomatoes are just around the corner. They've been growing rapidly themselves. Also with spent brewers grain, but composted slowly with autumn leaves.

Autumn compost pile of leaves and spent brewers grain in the caterpillar tunnel.

Autumn compost pile of leaves and spent brewers grain in the caterpillar tunnel.

Now if you're wanting to enjoy some of our salad greens, consider heading on up to The Miller's Table, which just opened up in Skowhegan. The restaurant is off to a running start, and is already planning to expand the space for the fall. Wood-fired pizza ovens, a courtyard with outdoors seating. Word has already gotten back to me about the quality of the food. Well worth the trip.

SARE Grant Introduction

I want to take a moment to introduce you to one of the bigger projects at Full Fork this year. Above is a photo of spent brewers' grains from Oxbow Brewery in Newcastle, ME. In the fall, I submitted a research grant proposal to SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education), which is part of the USDA that awards funds for farmers seeking to test an innovative idea in the field.

For me, that's using a particular composting method called bokashi with the spent brewers' grain [SBG], applying the composted material as a field amendment, and then monitoring its effect on plant growth and yield. Backing up a bit, though...

What are spent brewers' grain?

SBG is the major byproduct of beer production. It's what's leftover after what's called the masher steeps the grain and malt in hot water and converts the grains' starches into fermentable sugars. To breweries, SBGs are a waste product. To farmers, it's a potential source to significantly increase a field's organic matter.

The problem...

While SBGs have a long history as a feed supplement for pigs and cows, it isn't without its challenges, especially for vegetable farmers. It emerges from the masher essentially pasteurized - in other words, with very few living microorganisms - with both high nitrogen content (around a 9:1 to 12:1 C:N ratio) and high moisture content (depends on a brewery's equipment, but 70% isn't atypical). All in all, an excellent breeding ground for anaerobic bacteria, which, if you keep a compost pile at home you might be familiar with. They are the culprits producing the foul smell when your pile is too wet and needs adjustment. The finished product of typical anaerobic decomposition is of poor quality for farmers, can possibly be too acidic to apply directly to plants, and carries a health concern of harmful anaerobes such as E. coli.

The potential.

There's a burgeoning craft brewery market in U.S.. According to the Brewers' Association, the number of craft breweries has more than doubled nationally to 5,300 since 2012. Finding ways to use SBGs safely and effectively would present an excellent, free source of organic matter that farmers can use to improve their soils.

More broadly, building soil and working with spent brewers' grain is a way to mitigate climate change. When people think of climate change they often think of fossil fuels, energy production, and transportation. Conventional agriculture plays a part as well. It currently accounts for about 9% of CO2 emissions in the U.S.. Farming, though, also offers the very best storage space for carbon: the soil. This is the concept of carbon sequestration. With proper practices we can take atmospheric carbon, grow crops, and put that carbon back where it belongs.

So, burgeoning craft brew scene. Burgeoning local food production. Seems like a good match.

The SARE grant.

Now, there's already a working model for composting SBGs on a large-scale. Gowan Batist of Fortunate Farm in Caspar, CA, in partnership with North Coast Brewing Co., is doing it. Using a big windrow turner and a 45hp hydrostatic tractor, her farm is actively aerating the SBGs to prevent them from going anaerobic. It's an excellent setup if you have the tractor equipment and a are seeking to partner with a larger brewery.

The purpose of Full Fork's study is to trial a model better suited for a farm pairing with a modestly-sized brewery, and one that doesn't require specialized equipment to handle the SBGs, which could be a major deterrent for those seeking a relationship with their local brewery. The way I think this can be done is by working with the SBGs high moisture content rather than fighting against it.

Enter bokashi.

In simple terms, bokashi is a form of beneficial anaerobic decomposition that originates from Japan. The primary player is lactobacillus, the same bacteria used to make sauerkraut. By incoulating the SBGs in airtight 55-gallon drums, letting it ferment for two weeks, you can till it into the ground and it will fully integrate in another two weeks. The lactobacillus colonizes and predigests the biomass, and when exposed to aerobic conditions, dies, and is consumed by aerobic bacteria itself. It's a microbe eat microbe world out there.

So, that's the gist. And I have fair confidence that it will work. So far this spring, I've been stockpiling the bokashi'd-SBGs for the project. As you can see from the photos below, the winter's snow is nearly gone. It's about time to get out into the field.

I'll do a future post on the actual process of working inoculating the SBGs, as well as later posts about findings, results, etc.

2016: Year in Review

With things beginning to gear up for Full Fork's second growing season, it seems proper to start this blog with a review of 2016. It was something of a whirlwind. A year and a half of planning finally set into motion.

Lots of projects happened. Last year we built:

  • A 9'x12' Walk-In Cooler (not pictured)
  • A small seedling greenhouse
  • A wash/pack station
  • A farm sign
  • A caterpillar tunnel for tomatoes and greens
  • A double deer fence to protect the produce (not pictured)
  • Established a 1/2-acre of strawberries for u-pick
  • And we had a well drilled! 260 ft. & 25 GPM!

That last project, the new well, was in part a move out of necessity. Last year was dry, with rain often predicted in the weather forecasts only to pass by as clouds overhead. Definitely one of the big challenges of 2016. Installing an irrigation system is a big project for this coming season, making sure the water is where it's needed when it's needed to ensure the farm's success.

Our workaround for the drought where there was such difficulty germinating seed through direct-seeding in the field - aside from carting water out in a 275-gallon IBC tote - was switching over to Salanova lettuce. It's a variety of lettuce that grows as a head but breaks down into baby leaves. I continue to have a love/hate relationship with it, but what it meant was being able to start seeds in the greenhouse and transplanting them out into the field. Salanova also allows the use of landscape fabric, meaning a LOT less weeding.

Ducks also happened last year. And a dog. And a house rabbit. And two geese. And chickens. And worms (for vermiculture). Full Fork is now home to a menagerie of animals.

And it's become/been a home to a stellar group of people already. Blessed to live with such kindhearted, humorous, and thoughtful individuals. All of us working on our projects, coming home to cook family meals over The Beach Boys or Michael Jackson or somesuch. Wonderful neighbors often stopping by to say hello.

Zak, Max, & Janel have pushed off, but there are reminders of them everywhere. Much missed. Haley & Emily arrived in the fall. Elliot is about to move over to Belfast. Emily & Jay, our newest housemates, will be staying for a year and landed just yesterday.

Winter was a welcomed change. Full Fork sold out of its last bit of salad greens the second week of January. Pretty good for a first growing season in the Northeast. It's been a time to read, to sleep in, to spend with Lindsey, to work in the woods, to snowblow the sides of the caterpillar tunnel. The pace of things ebbed ever so slightly, enough for introspection and restoration.

Now, tomato, huskcherry, and edible flower seeds are getting their start indoors. The days are lengthening. The caterpillar tunnel was seeded with baby salad greens, spinach, and arugula just yesterday. Almost feels like things are gearing up.

And then we hear about 10" of snow in the weather forecast for next Tuesday. A little bit more of this winter thing...

There's still time to go.