Can You Dig a Dirt Prize? Contest out to unearth the best compost around

18.04.2012 19:57


By Jackie Jadrnak

   Of the Journal

     If you’ve got some really good dirt, you might be able to score some cash for it.

   No, we’re not talking about selling scandal to tabloids. We’re talking about real dirt — compost crawling with microscopic life that makes your soil crumble and your veggies grin.

   A compost contest is being offered in conjunction with Carbon Economy Seminars being held April 13-15 at Santa Fe Community College.

   Iginia Boccalandro, founder of the series and resident of Agua Fria village, said the idea for the contest grew out of seminars held last October. Participants had been invited to bring in samples of their soil or compost to examine under a microscope.

   “When we looked under the microscope, what we’re looking for in healthy, vital soil wasn’t there,” she said. “The best one was from a dairy farmer south of Albuquerque — and it was OK, but not great.

   “We were stunned. These were people from all over New Mexico, some from Texas.”

   Well, maybe it isn’t too surprising that New Mexico’s soil is a little lacking — a good portion of it blows over to Texas each spring. Problems can be caused by overwatering, salt, or lack of carbon-rich material (usually plant matter) in the soil, Boccalandro said.

   They’ll have a chance to prove their compost talent with the contest, even though Boccalandro said Wednesday that only three have called her so far with the intent to compete.

   The compost will be judged by having a sample diluted and then examined under a microscope. The variety and number of microscopic beasties seen that are favorable to plant growth will determine the winner.

   The ingredients of an ideal compost include bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes. A detailed balance is provided by Elaine Ingham, Rodale Institute chief scientist, contest judge and April’s seminar leader, at

   The ideal proportion actually depends on what you’re growing, Boccalandro said. Grasses and vegetables like a higher level of bacteria, which thrive on green waste such as fresh plant or vegetable scraps in your compost, than conifers, which favor fungi,   whose growth is encouraged by brown matter, such as cardboard or dried leaves, she said.

   Besides that green and brown matter, the only other ingredients needed for compost are air and water, she said, along with a source of nitrogen, generally from horse, cow or goat manure. When the temperature in the covered mix builds up to 160 degrees, it should be turned to evenly cook the compost, killing harmful pathogens and weed seeds, according to Boccalandro.

   “Good compost can be made in three to six weeks, depending on how hot it gets,” she said.

   While bacteria and other such beasties make many people think of disease, those microbes in the compost and soil are essential to life — our own and the food we eat. They help make essential minerals available to plants, as well as create air space in the soil,   allowing roots and water to penetrate for strong, large plants.

   The better the soil, the larger variety of plants you can grow, Boccalandro said. “Building resilience into the landscape — that’s what we want to do,” she said.

   How much can you win if your compost shines above all others? That depends. Boccalandro said she’s still gathering sponsors, but she estimated the prize will be between $100 and $500.

   And the winner, she said, will be asked to provide samples of the compost to other participants who can use it to inoculate their own piles with the precious microbes — sort of in the way aficionados of sourdough bread or yogurt share their starter mixes.

   For each participant, the first compost entry is free, but a $5 fee, which will go into the prize pot, will be requested for each additional entry.  

   If you go

   WHAT: Carbon Economy Seminars WHEN: 7-9 p.m. April 13, “Living Soil Is Where It’s At” 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. April 14, “Introduction to Soil Foodweb” 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. April 15, “Soil Foodweb and Compost Tea Technology” WHERE: Jemez Rooms, Santa Fe Community College, 6401 Richards Ave. COST: Friday seminar, $10; Saturday or Sunday, $175 each; All three, $300. REGISTER:  




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