Composting and Biomimicry

Composting may be one of the earliest forms of biomimicry.  Composting is an imitation of nature’s decomposition process, but in a more directed way, for faster results where bacteria do the heavy lifting.

Photo Credit: Artur D at Unsplash

Consider a forest floor, littered with leaves and small plants, where animals eat the greens, step on and crush leaves. They leave saliva and urine. They defecate. There are insects and small animals burrowing through the organic matter. The material on the forest floor maintains moderate humidity and is rotated and cut by small animals.  Only the material on the surface is exposed to light, with lower layers moist, insulated, and dark – an optimal environment for slow microbial decomposition. In this environment, there are bacteria, archaea, molds, yeasts, mushrooms and other fungi, algae, amoebae, other protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, spiders, ants, and other insects. 

There are no big piles of uneaten food or yard waste, and the material does not get extremely hot.

In contrast, commercial composting speeds up the conversion of trash to organic material, with a goal of killing pathogens and completing the process as quickly as possible.  The key is bacteria, which causes the compost to get quite hot, while rapidly reproducing as they consume the nitrogen and break down sugars. The heat sterilizes the material and ultimately, one hardy, heat resistant bacteria strain takes over the entire pile. This is smelly, material you know as commercial compost. 

Many people sing the praises of compost, but large scale manufactured commodity compost has only the single species of bacteria. The species that could survive the heat and the decomposition process.  This compost has little value:

  • Little economic value to the composter, who is eager to get rid of it as their revenues and profits are primarily found in pickup to tipping fees.
  • Little value to the plants, who cannot access the key nutrients without additional biology.
  • Forcing the farmer to use large quantities to see meaningful benefits.  

In nature, a critical piece of how plants are fed is the robust microbiome, which is missing in commodity compost. The various types of soil life in a forest floor (biodiverse bacteria, archaea, molds, yeasts, mushrooms, algae, amoebae, other protozoa, nematodes, slime molds, spiders, soil mites, ants, and other insects) contribute to the decomposition process by creating acids and enzymes and carbon chains that include and bind the key elements the plants need (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N-P-K), as well as Calcium, Sulfur, Magnesium, Iron, Boron, Manganese, Zinc, Copper and Nickel.) 

Each element is initially bound by bacteria and fungi, with robust biodiversity playing a key role: different microbes have different preferences.  These nutrients are released in a plant available form as the bacteria and fungi are consumed by other microbes, or higher trophic levels, further up the food chain.

Since commodity compost has only one species of bacteria, unless there is additional soil biology, the nutrients stay trapped. For damaged soil, to not reseed the complete microbiome is akin to farming corn without planting seed kernels.  In many home gardens and long-standing organic farms, these microbes are in place and quickly begin to digest the compost.  But in farms that have been damaged by tillage and agrichemicals, these microbes are often missing, and the land can be described as “tired”.

It would be difficult to replicate all the steps that occur in nature.  Large scale composting, with an eye to efficiency and speed, has been successful in rapid decomposition food and garden waste, raising the temperature to 150°Fahrenheit or higher, killing microbes that could cause disease.

Other processes are focused soil health or collecting and cultivating the “wee critters,” not cooking the microbes.  The 3 main ones are:

Like commodity composting, Soil Food Web composting also uses thermophilic composting but requires more control than possible with large scale commercial decomposition.  All thermophilic composting is driven by bacterial reproduction, which raises temperatures, often to 145°F (63° C) and beyond. 

The key to Soil Food Web composting is to manage the temperature, the moisture, the microbial access to oxygen and time. Complicating things, the center is hotter than the outside of the pile, requiring regular turning.  All of the composting material must go above 135°F (57° C) and stay there long enough to kill the pathogens and cause the beneficial microbes to go dormant. 

At 135°F long enough is measured in days. At 165°F (74° C), long enough is measured in hours.  Above 165°F all life dies, except for the single, heat resistant bacteria strain which will feast and reproduce until there is no food left.

SymSoil’s senior management team’s observation, after several years of experience and interviewing more than 100 prospective employees, is conviction that after learning the science of the SFW process, it takes about 1,000 hours of experience, with trial, error, and guidance to become skilled enough to become a fully qualified Microbe Herder.  That is, it takes six months of 40 hour weeks, to gain the experience to consistently make a truly biodiverse, compost with a full range of soil biology.

The process has kept production to small batches, and the tacit knowledge required has kept SFW the domain of skilled craftsmen.  1,000 hours is about 6 months working 40-hour weeks, mastering a skill that requires experience, like riding a bicycle or playing a musical instrument, where the theory alone is insufficient to do the task. Despite demand and a high value to farmers, SFW supply has been constrained.

This artisan approach, with skilled craftsmen, is the only way to gather the complete ecosystem. It remains a key component in the SymSoil process.

SymSoil’s process, which combines the two techniques. Using SFW to collect regionally specific, indigenous soil microbes, while killing pathogenic microbes, these wild sourced microbes are then grown in bioreactors and large volumes of each type of life are added to commodity compost.  At its core, this is same process used to make new batches of sourdough bread, using yeast from prior batches. (Although, instead of one species of yeast, the concept is applied to thousands of species, across multiple kingdoms and phylums of life.)

The result is mass production of the bioequivalent of Soil Food Web – and for the first-time conventional farmers can use compost tea, with the complete soil microbiome, as a cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilizers.

SymSoil’s Patented Production Method
Preparing Soil Food Web in Ladora Iowa

This is the key to moving 1 million acres of Iowa corn and soybean farmland to regenerative farming.

We offer farmers a cost effective alternative to chemical fertilizers.  Lower input costs and higher profits, where the crop yields will be based on plant nutrient cycling from a biodiverse soil microbiome.

We are working on developing an easy way for midwestern row crop farmers to be paid for the carbon sequestration which occurs while they farm. Because the plant extrudates, the fungal hyphae growth, the enzymes and the rest of soil ecosystem is the key to soil-based carbon sequestration and mitigating climate change.

Published by Elizabeth Pearce

Soil health is my second career. I spent 25 years running a mutual fund, working as a portfolio manager for Northern Trust and San Francisco investment firms

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