“Can I put my hand in there?” I asked.
Randy Van Kooten turned to me with surprise.
“Do you know what is in it?”
Randy dug his calloused hands into a long sweeping pile of compost, around 6 feet high and 100 yards long. It smelled a bit like a farm and a bit like rain when it first touches warm soil. He made a hole one foot deep and five inches wide into the pile. I stuck my hand in the hole and felt the warm humidity rising from the heap.
“Whoa, that’s cool” I said.
“If you dig deeper in, it gets too hot to touch,” said Randy.
Curt and Randy Van Kooten have a family farm outside of Pella, IA. It is a balmy fall day and I am visiting the Van Kooten farm as an observer to learn more about their sustainable practices. This field trip is intended for Dr. Benedict’s Conservation of Biology and Ecology of Iowa students. Dr. B shuttled them in from the nearby Central College in Pella, Iowa. Most of the students come from small towns across the state and a few of them grew up on generational farms. A couple of the students expressed interest in farming themselves. They line up to feel the heat from the compost and inspect the thermometer plunged into the center of the pile.
Earlier in the trip Curt showed us a stretch of prairie on his acreage. He used a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) seed mix to create a beautiful rolling sea of native grasses and flowers. I asked Dr. B, “can your students identify what is in this prairie for me?” He said, “Most of them could.” They spread out in different directions, crunchy fall leaves beneath their feet. One student showed me a big bluestem (Andoropogon gerardii), another student Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), another brought me a hand-full of seeds. She told me to grind them up and smell them. A beautiful citrusy herb smell filled my lungs and I asked if I could eat it. Four students in alarmed unison said “don’t eat it.” I am in awe of the students’ willingness to not only share their knowledge with me, but to take in everything Curt and Randy have to share with genuine curiosity. And trust me, there is a lot to take in.
Curt practices no till farming, meaning he leaves his topsoil intact year-round. Once his primary crop is harvested, he plants cover crops on the entirety of his 3500 acres. Cover crops reduce erosion and allow for diversity in root systems that help the ground hold water among other perks. My favorite part of our field trip was learning about Curt’s large-scale compost system. Curt and Randy spread this compost over their acreage as fertilizer, reducing the amount of other inputs required to keep their soil fertile.
I remember the compost pile in the back of my mother’s house. It was illegal to have an open compost in Blue Springs, Missouri at the time, but that couldn’t stop her. Pitchfork in hand, she thrusted the prongs into the pile and with great effort, lifted and turned. I remember pressing the warm dark stuff through my fingers and feeling its tingling heat.
Composting on this scale is a bigger undertaking and let me tell you, Curt is one resourceful farmer. He gathered wood from trees downed in the last Derecho and had them milled to sawdust. He uses manure from his own farming operation and most impressively, he utilizes food waste from local grocery stores nearby. All these components come together to form house
high piles of compost on his property. The students gather around and Curt explains the delicate balance of nitrogen and carbon required for composting. He stresses air and moisture as a requirement for a speedy and effective breakdown of material. He describes how he would like his composting operation to function in the future. Curt gives a mental sketch of a cement slab with holes that, once compost is on top, will aerate the mixture providing it with the necessary oxygen to keep the bacteria in the compost happy.
I asked, “how many other farmers are using food waste to make compost for their fields.” He said “none, farmers need to learn more about what compost is and how to use it.”
It occurs to me how similar the process of composting is to the process of learning. Curt brings raw materials together and with method and patience produces a digested substance teeming with life. The students are taking in “raw material” from Curt and Dr. B in the form of education, digesting it in their own minds and making it anew through the lens of their own experience. In a compost pile heat is an indication of change. You can feel the heat coming from the minds of these students. Like Randy said it can be “too hot to touch.” Their metaphorical compost will be spread across the fields of Iowa for years to come, until they pass on their knowledge and the whole process starts over again. It’s a never ending process of recycled thought that, with every turn of the material, gives life to future generations.
About the Author
Rachel Burke is an artist, farm enthusiast, and sustainability nut. She is currently serving a term as a Land and Water Steward for Green Iowa AmeriCorps at Practical Farmers of Iowa. Rachel recently moved to rural Iowa with her husband and cat. Together, they dream of having their own little creative farmstead.