The Charlotte alchemist: An interview with Steve Wisbaum

“The medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy that focused on the attempt to change less valuable metals into gold, to find a universal cure for disease, and to discover a means of prolonging life indefinitely is called alchemy. It was practiced in much of the ancient world, from China and India to Greece.”

Hard to imagine, but we have one right here in Charlotte…Steve Wisbaum and Champlain Valley Compost. Really, poop into gold. I spoke with Steve recently about his work.

Steve, you have been doing this since 1996. What attracted you to this?
My interest in compost really started about 40 years ago when I was an environmental studies student at Sonoma State University in northern California. As the assistant manager of the university’s organic garden, making compost became a big part of my job. Watching this alchemical process of turning garden waste and manure into dark, crumbly compost that then produced such bountiful harvests left me trying to figure out how I could turn making compost into a career after I graduated in 1982. And, while it took 14 years for the many pieces to all fall into place, in 1996 I started Champlain Valley Compost Co.

For the first few years, I was only doing “custom” composting, which means I was hauling my compost turner and skid-steer around Vermont, making compost for my customers to use and/or sell. But after my friends and neighbors started asking to buy compost, I realized that there was an opportunity to make and sell my own compost. It’s even hard for me to believe, but over these past 22 years I’ve transformed over 50,000 cubic yards of horse and dairy manure into over 25,000 cubic yards of compost and compost-based topsoil and raised bed mix that’s been used by at least a few thousand home gardeners, farmers and landscape contractors throughout northwest Vermont.

How do you make the compost?
I could write a pretty hefty book filled with all the lessons I’ve learned about making compost over these past 40 years. But it pretty much all comes down to starting with a good mix of relatively fresh materials that have an optimal amount of moisture (not too much or too little) and then keeping the process going by maintaining an optimal amount of moisture and oxygen by turning (and sometimes watering) the piles every few weeks with my tractor-pulled compost turner.

Where do you get the raw material?
The raw material I use is exclusively horse and dairy manure (along with the bedding) that comes from horse and dairy farms in and around Chittenden County, with the majority of these farms being located in Charlotte.

How long does it take?
When the compost microbes have lots of fresh manure and bedding to eat and sufficient water and oxygen, the process takes as little as two to three months.

How does this improve the Charlotte clay soil?
I wrote an article that’s posted on my website called “Compost and the Living Soil” that provides a more comprehensive answer to this question. But basically, compost improves both sandy and clay soils in a variety of ways.

First of all, compost contains and adds to the soil the macro- and micro-nutrients that were in the original raw materials that were used to make the compost. Compost also contains high levels of semi-decomposed organic matter that is essential for maintaining soil fertility. This organic matter also improves water infiltration and reduces compaction in clay soil, while it improves the water- and nutrient-holding capacity of sandy soils. Compost also contains high populations of beneficial soil micro-organisms that improve nutrient cycling in soil.

There are a variety of ways to increase the organic matter content in soil, including growing cover crops and using management-intensive rotational grazing. However, adding compost is the most practical way for home gardeners to increase the organic matter content of their soils.

Compost, rather than mulch, is in the opinion of many the preferred topping for gardens. You know what is in it, and it can be dug into the soil with ease.

So, let’s get out and create alchemy of our own… and wait patiently for the spring. Hey, time to sharpen tools, draw maps of our gardens, and dream.

Vera Maroney has lived in Charlotte for 45 years and in the same house in West Charlotte for 40 years—plenty of time to make every gardening mistake multiple times. She cherishes the local nurseries, the UVM Extension Master Gardener Program and the uncertainty of gardening. And she’s an avid reader of The Charlotte News.