Pee-ew! How Compost Restored My Sense of Smell
As I dropped a shovel into the smelly pile that had been left in front of my house, all I could think was, “Is this compost? OMG, How could I forget this is what most people think compost smells like?”
Let me give you some context:
It was my first purchase of compost for a garden, as I am not a gardener. I have a “black thumb”, as did my mother, and her mother. I can only surmise that farming during the Irish potato famine made several generations want to get as far from growing green things as possible.
On the other hand, as a 5th generation Californian, I am very aware of the role of agriculture in the history and wealth of the state.
So how did I, the CEO of a compost company, come to be shoveling fowl dreck and expressing surprise?
My first career was in finance, and after leaving a position as Portfolio Manager at Northern Trust, I spent almost a decade consulting in a variety of companies, primarily impact companies or in organic products. In this context, I met Dr. Elaine Ingham and became entranced with the role of soil microbes in the health and fertility of land.
According to Dr. Ingham, the world’s best known soil scientist and founder of the Soil Food Web Institute, healthy soil depends upon the complete soil microbe biome, and healthy soil leads to more flavorful and nutritious food, as well as plants that are stronger, more drought resistant and have greater pathogen immunity.
Before long, I founded SymSoil, with a vision for radically a different type of company, based on Dr Ingham’s measurable endpoints for biology and biodiversity. SymSoil’s vision is to become the low cost provider of regionally specific, biologically complex compost by farming indigenous microbes. This will create rural jobs and lower farmers’ costs. Today, the company makes robust compost (AKA full spectrum, BioComplete or Soil Food Web compost) widely available and offers biological soil testing.
It has been a labor of love, and for nearly 3 years I have been at the helm of SymSoil, working out the technical details to make a scalable product. There exists enormous untapped demand, held back by an artesian approach to manufacturing. SymSoil has patented a solution to the physical and biological volume limits, dubbed the “Ingham Horizon. ” (Our first batch was 250 tons.)
Like many people, during the Covid-19 pandemic, I began to think about putting a garden into my back yard. Since the startup was underfunded and chronically shorthanded and the team members and company trucks were engaged with customers, at the suggestion of a friend, I ordered 1 cubic yard of compost from a nearby nursery.
I rationalized this would be a good opportunity for a side by side comparison — plants grown in commodity compost vs plants grown in soil that had been augmented with SymSoil’s V50 (biochar and compost). SymSoil’s products enhance the nutrient cycling, which is the way nature provides nutrients to plants.
Which is how I came be standing in a street, shoveling offensive smelling dreck, wondering how anybody could think this was compost.
SymSoil has a team with 35 years of composting experience. From them, I have learned that well-made compost has almost no smell. If there is a smell, it is like leaf litter on a forest floor. Anything with a strong or unpleasant smell is, at best, unfinished. It needs time and exposure to air through turning to finish the composting process. Without this, it is more likely to initially harm plants than to help them.
Three years of working with well-made compost, and the variety of ingredients to enhance and improve it impact on plants, and I had lost my bearings. The smell of locally made and delivered compost was a great wakeup call — a reminder of the differences between good compost and poor compost.
Surprisingly, nearly all commercial compost available in the US today falls into the category of bad compost. This explains the price difference between good and bad composts — those poor in quality and sell for $30 — $70 per ton in bulk, vermi compost, based on worm castings sell for 10 to 15 time that, and high quality, biologically-active, solid soil amendment (compost) sells even higher prices, if you can find a supplier.
Earthworms are one of the best factories for making high quality compost due to the sensitivity of worms to their environment. This forces producers to use good feed stocks and maintain ideal oxygen and moisture conditions. The worms are microbial factories that consume organic matter and its surrounding microbial population, and pass this through a carefully controlled microbial community in their guts. This microbial mass breaks down the organic matter so that it can be absorbed by the worms and it multiplies its own volume very quickly. The worms pass the undigested material plus a large load of living microbes out of their guts continuously. It is this mixture of partially digested material and its massive attendant population of microbes that make vermicompost so valuable.
On the other hand the manufacturing of commercial compost is seldom maintained at optimal environmental conditions. The focus on killing pathogens often results in killing all good microbes, the production of toxic substances and poor microbial complexity.
High quality, biologically active compost is robust — it has a more diverse community of soil microbes than vermicompost. It is these microbes, bacteria, fungi, protozoa of various types, etc. which cycle plant nutrients. Nutrient cycling in healthy soils takes place due to the functioning of the complete soil food web. All the mineral nutrients needed by plants are present in the soil particles and soil organic matter. The nutrient needs of each plant are taken care of through all the phases of its life cycle via signaling proteins that the plant roots exude into the soil.
Amazingly, the web of life under the soil is a lot more complex than it is above the soil. These soil organisms live symbiotically with plants. If you would like to learn more, please read , providing nutrients and making the plants healthier and the food more abundant. It is the microbes that are the key to better tasting food, such as that farmed organically, sustainably or regeneratively.
If you are a gardener, struggling to make high quality compost, we have written some suggestions here. Bottom line? We encourage you to add biochar — raw, if you are still making or aging the material. The biochar will cut the smell and speed the decomposition process. It will condition the soil, much as it did in the Terra Preta soil in the Amazon. Biochar is an inert form of carbon and will remain in the soil for centuries. Raw biochar, like compost, needs a few weeks to become conditioned or “activated” by the biology of the compost pile, a process known as co-composting.
On the other hand, if you have already blended your compost into your garden, and want to rapidly improve the soil, consider SymSoil’s V50. This material is biochar, plus the full spectrum of soil microbial biology, covering 7 forms of life (bacteria, fungi, archaea, amoebae, flagellates, beneficial nematodes and micro arthropods). It has been through the preconditioning process, can be used on top of your soil and is ready to go to work for you.
SymSoil’s unique value proposition is the cultivation of biology based on regional indigenous soil microfauna found within high-quality, biologically active compost, creating a Robust Compost, sold as SymSoil RC, which is bio-equivalent to the highest quality thermal compost.
SymSoil Inc. is an evidence-based, soil health company with products and services for regenerative agriculture. Our flagship products are Robust Compost, Fungal Infused Biochar and Grow Cubes for the cannabis and hemp cultivators. Our science team has decades of experience developing solutions to growers’ problems based upon a deep understanding of the complete soil microbe biome.
A core belief is regional soil microbes can be restored to regenerate the soil, which will significantly increase plant health, crop yields, flavor profile and nutrient density, as the plants access nutrients the way nature intended.