Business & Development

Vermicomposting. Whaaat?

Bruce Elliott stands in front of a compost tea brewer. Elliott is the founder of Sustainable Agricultural Technologies in Cottage Grove, which focuses on vermicomposting. ALIYA HALL/THE CHRONICLE

COTTAGE GROVE – It’s all about soil biology, Bruce Elliott of Sustainable Agricultural Technologies explained. ”Everything about farming is about biology,” he said. ”If you don’t take care of the biology you have all these other problems.”
For conventional farmers, as soon as problems in the field start, they talk to their fertilizer dealer, who suggests putting some nitrogen on the plants; but then the insects start to come, so farmers use insecticide; then, when the fungus shows up, the plants don’t have any protection because it was all killed off by the chemicals.
This lack of sustainability cycle is one that Elliott wants to break.
Sustainable Agriculture Technologies started in 1997 and focuses on creating sustainable solutions for the biological management of agriculture and organic waste processing. Elliott was always interested in going chemical-free, and did so when he and his wife, Kristi Norris, opened a fruit and vegetable stand. From that he took an interest in vermicomposting – composting with earthworms – which he said worked well until he tried to take the compost out of the bin on the ground, because he would accidentally take the ”workers” (earthworms) out.
He read an article in The Worm Digest about a flow-through system called the Worm Wigwam, and a year later decided to invest in one. When he called the manufacturer, however, the inventor was building his last one before closing down the business. He sold Elliott the rights to the machine, and Elliott started to build templates.
”One thing led to another and within a few months, I had requests for larger machines,” he said.
Elliott, who is not an engineer or designer by trade, worked with some friends to add more machines to the lineup. There are now seven preset sizes.
In 2002, Elliott added a new product, compost tea, to his production. That year he had attended a conference where he learned about the soil food web and saw a small compost tea brewer.
”I thought, ‘We’re not going to feed America with that. If the soil food web is so important there needs to be a bigger machine,’” he said. From there, he built a 500-gallon compost tea brewer. The brewer and Worm Wigwam have been sold all over the world.
”Due to environmental problems and farming practices, soil biology is not what it used to be,” Elliott explained. ”What the compost tea does is add millions of microbes per square foot of soil with regular application. It repopulates with soil with beneficial compost.”
Vermicompost is what is used to make compost tea, and if a farmer asked him to choose between the products which would be most beneficial to invest in, it would be the vermicompost because it’s the ideal soil.
”Everything in Mother Nature is to return organic waste to humus,” he said. ”The closest thing to that is vermicompost.”
The benefits of vermicomposting include soil compaction going away, nutrients cycling better and fertilization being cut anywhere from 50% to 80%. The biggest difference from traditional compost is that vermicompost has bacteria and fungi.
Being one of the pioneers in this field wasn’t always easy. Elliott said his neighbors were happy with their fertilizer companies and when he started to do something different, their reactions toward him changed.
”They chastise you. You used to meet them for coffee in the mornings and then your chair is gone, literally,” he explained. ”So there’s peer pressure. It’s gotten a lot better since organics has taken hold.”
Elliott has an 83-acre farm and ranch where he raises cattle and goats, and he only uses compost tea. His whole focus has been centered on soil biology, and for that reason he said he feels good about this business.
”I get up in the morning and I’m proud of what I do,” he said. ”I’m not hurting the environment; I’m an advocate for eating healthy food. I’ve been in other industries and there’s nothing more rewarding than this.”



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