Note: I wrote this post in June 2018. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it at the time… anyway, it is still as relevant.
In my “previous life” I have always been made aware of productivity. In the IT industry your soul is sold for so many dollars per hour. As long as your bum is on that seat and your fingers are hammering away at that keyboard, the money flows and other people are happy – whether you are happy or not. Bob Dylan wasn’t wrong when he sang “Money doesn’t talk, it swears”.
However, when you try and make a living out of growing things, you seriously have to consider productivity too. When I did the Organic Market Gardening course, we literally covered how many seeds you can sow per row, how long the seeds take to germinate, how many bushels of carrots you can harvest per hour and many, many more metrics of productivity.
As in any other business, there comes a tipping scale where some things just don’t make sense to do yourself anymore – that is, if you only look at it purely from an economical viewpoint. You just get a better yield by either outsourcing some of the work or buying in some of the materials.
Black is the new gold
Take composting as an example. We are now focussing on making as much of our own compost as possible through hot composting. We have burnt our fingers (unfortunately not literally!) by using “cold” compost and after months and months of waiting, had to pay dearly in the time and effort doing weed management. We have now started using the first of our batches of hot compost, and it is really rewarding to dig that damp black gold out of the compost pile – knowing it is fully organic and home-made – and then applying it back onto the no-dig beds, knowing it will regenerate a healthy new growth cycle.
But what about the input costs? It currently takes me a quarter to half a day per week to turn and manage the compost heaps. How many rows of carrots could I have planted or harvested in that time? Furthermore, despite pumping “free” greywater into the heaps (if I ignore the cost of the more than 75m of pipes and the pump’s power), in the dry season in order to keep the heaps warm and working, at times I have even had to add some town water to it when I turn it. Especially at the end of a very long dry summer, the few drops of rainwater we have left in the tanks has to go onto the vegetables. I haven’t calculated the hours, litres and dollars, but I know my time and the water that went into the compost is quite a substantial direct cost. So at the end of the day making the compost comes at quite a price. (And if you really want to skew the maths, think what I could earn instead if I was staring at a radiating screen and hammering away at a keyboard all that time.)
Interestingly enough, during my PDC course we visited Hobart City Farm and during my Organic Market Gardening course, Olivier Sofo, our trainer, described their operations at Living Earth Farm in detail. Neither of these productively growing businesses made their own compost. For both it is more cost- and time-effective to buy in organic compost. At the time I wondered why they were doing that, but when you analyse the economics in some detail, you realise how much goes into making compost.
Now we’re not even addressing the fact that you can never fully “replace” everything that you use – but that’s another long story about energy inflows and outflows.
At the time I had a really good read of a very good and very motivational article titled “Beyond Sustainability? — We are Living in the Century of Regeneration” by Daniel Christian Wahl on the resilience website.
Daniel reasons that although we are focused on sustainability, we need to open ourselves to “the possibility to deepen our practice and go beyond merely being sustainable to actually regenerating the damage humanity has wrecked on the planet since the dawn of agriculture, city states and empires.”
I quote further: “Regenerative development goes beyond not just doing any harm. The aim is to also regenerate healthy ecosystems functions, top-soils, forests and waterways, while also nurturing thriving communities and regional economies.” In short, in my mind anyway, it’s about taking the permaculture ethics and principles to the next level.
In the end, he gets, let’s say emotionally motivational about it on a grandiose scale: “It is time to play your part in this work of civilizational importance. Let us come together for the healing of the Earth and her people. Let us ensure that the current epoch as we transition from the age of empire into the planetary era will be remembered as the century of regeneration!”
But let’s put it into perspective – here we are on our meagre two little acres debating whether composting is cost-effective or not, while there is a whole world out there that needs saving from itself! However, where Daniel obviously has it spot-on is that if everybody takes that “cost-effective” back door, then no regeneration will take place and we will slowly “cost-effective” ourselves out of a place to live, breathe and grow healthy foods. Commercial agriculture has illustrated that concept only too well.
The joy of local
In addition to our responsibility, cost-effectiveness can never replace the joy of digging out that home-made damp warm black gold and applying it back to our own vegetable boxes and fruit trees. I recently planted 20 nitrogen-generating Tagasaste treelets in our own compost. It will be hard to put a monetary value to that feeling of joy and fulfilment. My very experienced neighbour even commented how rich and dark the compost looked…
The other aspect that “cost-effective” can never provide is “locally tailored” – local compost made from local materials that is tailored by our local worms and other local critters especially for our local soil and temperature conditions. I mean, besides our regenerative responsibility, that is exactly what happens in a natural forest. In effect, that is exactly the process we’re trying to mimic in our forest gardens.
Of course, by producing our own compost, we also reduce our “compost miles”, and through that our food miles as well. Wheeling in a truck of organic compost isn’t so bad in my eyes, besides the kids love it when big trucks manoeuvre through our tight spaces to dump huge loads of warm stuff they can play in. But man, it gives me great joy not to have to buy compost in a plastic bag at a dear price from the green shed.
So, with that all said and done, I can happily put cost-effectiveness out of my mind for the time being, and I’ll gladly spend my few hours a week making, minding and mining that new black gold.