Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Bioreactor Learning Adventure at The Crooked Post

Please enjoy these offerings from Josh Wright and The Crooked Post:

The Crooked Post Johnson-Su

A 24’ x 6’ chunk roughly 144 square feet; not very impressive on its own. So I set out to find a use for this “End of The Garden Strip”.  It’s outside the main fence making it easy for our local town deer to forage any attempt of growing plants (they ate the jalapenos); so what to do with 144 sq. ft. became a challenge and letting it sit idle was not an option. It had been leveled and tilled, in preparation of the unknown.
One day I was scrolling through Facebook and an advertisement caught my eye. Northern Plains Resource Council was holding a “Soil Crawl” and the subject matter was composting and organic farm practices. I am not a farmer, nor had I ever composted, but the tickets were cheap, and it sounded interesting, so I signed up. Molly Haviland and Joe Barta showed the class the workings of Johnson-Su compost. Molly gave the class a basic breakdown of the workings and why it worked, while Joe showed us how to build our own systems. Without the Northern Plains Resource Council, Molly, Joe, The Sandy Arrow Ranch, a 60-mile drive, and 8 hours of whirlwind learning, I would still have no idea what to do with that 144 square feet.
I set out to build a Johnson-Su bioreactor big enough to completely cover my 24’ x 45’ home garden. It had to be done cheaply and from easily accessible materials so I could eventually share it with my community. Pallets became a building medium, reusing pulled nails and trading labor for materials that couldn’t be found for free along the way. I ended up turning an 8’ long x 6’ wide section into a 4’ tall 7-cubic yard soil storage. The remaining 16’ is currently under construction but with a little co-operation from the weather should be finished by the end of August 2019.
The biggest drive for me behind this was to be able to prove that you can sustainably compost within city limits and do it cheaply. As people pass by, they always ask, “What in the world are you doing?” This opens the door for me to share knowledge that I have gained through my experience and hopefully sparks an interest for them to start their own. I enjoy sharing things that produce healthier crops, are good for the environment, and outdoors. I keep detailed notes of progress and can’t wait to see how winter and a bioreactor react together.
Josh Wright

Failure is Just a Learning Curve

I did not send any samples out for analysis, I really did not have to. Is my Johnson-Su teaming with biology? Probably, but it did not winter as one would hope. The army of worms I expected to see in the shovelful of dirt just didn’t materialize. There are many reasons one could theorize as to why my worms became the Donner Party. Lessons were learned though, changes will be made, and another Johnson-Su will be built.

Montana’s winter this year was not super cold but seemed forever long. We survived seven months of snow starting in September. I think that the late release of my worms led to their lack of propagation. The early cold froze the ground quickly. Well ventilated, moist dirt, suspended roughly 4” off the ground froze even faster. I would venture this is the cause for the extinction of a pound of red wigglers.

Besides the fall of inclement weather, my Johnson-Su was started unseasonably late in the year. This late start pushed my worm release back. These are the largest factors of an incomplete product. Though the product was “composted” to some degree it was by no means the targeted end-result.

While the end of this adventure did not lead to black garden gold, it was able to teach many lessons:

I was short roughly five yards of fill dirt to top dress my yard. Well, I can tell you an incomplete attempt has caused 3500 sq. ft. of sod to strive. The material I used to line my container was the wrong choice, while it allowed the transfer of and release of water just fine, it was absolute misery to deal with when trying to gather material. So, in the end I did not get the product that I was trying to, but I did learn some valuable knowledge along the way.

The material you choose to line your container is important, cheap weed fabric was not the best choice. Start early, a Montana winter is unpredictable, so the earlier in the year the better. Worms are tough but without a proper amount of time and good conditions, even they will become extinct. My temperatures were pretty constant but once a good wind caused viable circulation, I lost heat rapidly. So this year I am going to “tarp” my load and, hopefully, that will insulate the project.

All in all, I failed at turning out a good Johnson-Su compost but learned a lot along the way. This year we will adjust our methods and change some strategies. We are going to use the same composition with manure from the same farm and a fresh lot of worms from the same distributor. While some would chalk this up as a failure, I like to remind my team (wife and kids) that this was a huge success. As a team we enjoyed the experience, we used the product, and found some kinks in our process. This failure is just a learning curve towards our success!

Josh Wright

Update, September 2020

This past year we took the "failure" attempt in our garden as far as building a new JSBR we are going to start a little differently this time. As opposed to building late in the year and adding worms before winter, we are going to attempt to build the base in late fall and add worms as soon as spring thaw allows the internal temperature of the pile to rise to a sustainable level (avoiding the Donner Party scenario a second time). This round will be a slightly different mix too, roughly 1/3 wood chips, 1/3 fresh manure, and 1/3 this summer's grass clippings/straw. I am also going to set up a watering system as our previous watering schedule was halted by frigid temperatures. Hopefully, as spring sets in we can raise the moisture level and add worms, then allow to work through summer, and apply to 2022's garden as a fully finished product. I am also going to keep better track of the life of our pile. It has an amazing amount of ecology that could be seen in even our "failed" attempt. So, while the outside doesn't look that different, the wheels are in a constant state of progression at The Crooked Post. I am very encouraged that this new strategy will yield successful results!

Josh Wright