It's all about the dirt

Last season I wrote down some of what I’ve learned about growing tomatoes and made certain to highlight the importance of soil health. Unfortunately this season’s tomatoes aren’t doing as well as I would like, and I’m relatively certain I know the culprit, despite not having the time to correct it: soil health.

Frequently when I’m gardening, thinking about gardening, or just letting my mind wander, a memory will pop into my brain of the lecture I attended last summer about the Johnson Su Bioreactor presented by Dr. David C Johnson at Healdsburg SHED (video below). In the lecture Dr. Johnson discussed his work on a new form of no-turn composting which promotes significant fungal growth in the soil compared to traditional turned or rotated compost.

The benefits are multiple, but of primary interest to me are:

  • Increased performance by crops planted into compost with high fungal content.
  • Significantly amounts of carbon captured and sequestered into the soil.

When my mind wanders into this space, I think about commercializing the bioireactor design for “mass market” usage. A significant problem which comes to my mind for “green” commercial composting operations is that they rely on trucking to ship heavy soil to their customers, such as myself. Trucking not only reduces the benefits of carbon capture, but adds costs to the soil. For large gardens or small-scale farms, a generally accepted rule of thumb is that you want to keep as much “on the property” as possible. If you’re “importing” something, that means you’re probably “exporting” some of your cash. In order to keep costs manageable; trucking in compost, or fertilizer for non-permaculture oriented operations, is another out-of-pocket cost affecting the bottom line.

Basing something commercial off the Johnson Su Bioreactor design, to me at least, would mean that a vertical system standing in a 5-6 sq/ft portion of the garden were able to produce a yard, or more, of viable compost every nine months, that would be more than sufficient for my garden’s annual composting needs. Alternatively that same output could be converted into an extract to innoculate a significant amount of seeds or spray a large plot of soil.

Letting my mind day-dream even further, I consider the soil health challenges for large scale permaculture and organic farms. Imagining how this design could be scaled up, whether vertically or horizontally, to increase yields and capture more carbon, thereby benefiting consumers and the climate.

Rather than thinking about selling soil, I dream of ways to sell shippable “on-premise” networked systems for manufacturing high quality soil. The relation between what I envision and existing large-scale composting operations is similar to to the relationship between residential/small-scale solar panel installations and large-scale solar or wind power plants: bringing the output closer to the consumer and thereby increasing the overall production of the aggregated system.

There’s a common question people working at technology companies in the Bay Area like to ask each other, paraphrasing: what would you actually want to do if the company goes public/gets acquired/etc? For many, they might buy some big things (house, boat, etc), some may travel the world, others would start a restaurant or other passion project.

For me I think it’s a safe bet that if I leave ever the tech industry you’ll find me playing in the dirt.