Piling on the knowledge

Composting builds the soil, WorldVeg builds sustainable skills!

Paul Zaato (orange shirt) explains the composting process to the participants.

World Vegetable Center Research Assistant Paul Alhassan Zaato, Field Technician Dickson Desire and farmers participating in the African RISING Sudano Sahel project built new foundations for sustainability during a composting training session on 14 August 2019 in Nyangua, Upper East Region, Ghana.

Soil in the project communities is generally low in organic matter. The dense, hard-packed soil is difficult to till, doesn’t hold water well, and provides few nutrients for crops.

By making compost and incorporating it into the soil, the 27 smallholder farmers who participated in the training (9 women and 18 men) will be able to improve their soil’s structure and capacity to absorb and gently release water. Enriching soil with compost adds nutrients to promote healthy plant growth and increase crop yields.

“We focus on low-input compost preparation with the use of local materials and implements that are readily available in the community,” said Paul.

The participants began by clearing a 1.5 × 1.5 m space of all vegetation in an open field. The soil was dug slightly to loosen it up, to allow any excess liquid produced during composting to drain away.

Alternating layers of green waste such as freshly cut grass, tree leaves, and vegetable residue (high in nitrogen), and dry waste such as dry grass, sawdust and animal manure (high in carbon) were laid over the prepared space. The pile was dampened with water to help decomposition begin.

Heat is created by hungry microbes at work decomposing the layers of high nitrogen and high carbon materials. When a compost pile is “cooking”, the farmer knows the decomposition process is working. Paul and Dickson demonstrated how to check the temperature of the pile by inserting a long sharpened stick at a diagonal through the center of the pile. The stick should be removed every week; if it is hot to the touch, composting is well underway. They also explained the need to “turn” the compost pile occasionally to provide oxygen for the microbes and promote more even and thorough decomposition.

“To produce compost efficiently, you need to monitor the pile,” Paul said. “If the stick is not hot, the pile may need more water. Or the pile might need to be turned, to let more air in.” The composting process is complete when the pile that was once a loose stack of green leaves and dry grass becomes a mound of rich, dark brown, crumbly soil.

Most of the participating farmers were aware of the benefits of compost. But before the training, many said they thought composting was a complicated, costly, and labor-intensive process. They now know that setting up a compost pile is a simple, low-cost, low-labor way to enhance soil quality and increase crop yield.  They plan to gather materials to produce compost for vegetable production in the dry season, and to share their new knowledge with other farmers.

Building the layers of dry and wet materials.

Story and photos: Paul Alhassan Zaato, Dickson Desire

Return to FRESH!

Adding cow dung to the compost pile: Animal manure helps to get the pile “cooking”!

Collected materials for the compost pile: green leaves and dry grass.