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The Bug Whisperer

Mark Sturges doesn’t advertise—clients have to find him by word of mouth, but find him they do. He’s become a master of an agricultural art as old as agriculture itself: basic compost.

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Mark Sturges doesn’t advertise and clients have to find him by word of mouth, but find him they do. He’s become a master of an agricultural art as old as agriculture itself: basic compost.


Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in our Winter 2015 issue. It is being republished as originally written, without new reporting.  

Mark Sturges handed me a pair of green plastic gloves to handle his compost, but had no qualms about plunging his own bare hands deep into one of his aluminum bins. He emerged with a dripping fistful of organic matter that would discomfit a squeamish person—say, the woman who owned the Air BnB home in Bandon, Oregon, where I stayed that night and who shrieked and shivered when I described the scene.

“Does your compost look like this?” the 67-year old Sturges asked me. No, I’d never seen any compost that looked quite like his.

His compost reminded me of a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the 16th-century Flemish artist who loved scenes teeming with humans and other creatures—eating, working, slaying, fornicating, sleeping, gossiping, squiggling their id all over the canvas. In Sturges’s cupped hands, there was the backdrop of what most of us think of when we think about compost—a crumbling, black mass resembling dark-roast coffee grounds—plus shreds of the materials that had gone into making it: eggshells, the paper-bag-like skin of a nearly dissolved pumpkin, carrot tops, and a pouf of potato salad from the town’s organic deli. More to the point, Sturges’s entire workforce was well represented in the handful. The dark mush was visibly alive with rove beetles, spiders, daddy longlegs, tiny white worms called enchytraeidae that looked like lively fingernail parings, and the gray blemish of a fungus called beauvaria bassiana, which feeds on the beetles.

“These are the best workers in the world,” Sturges said with satisfaction. “They don’t have drug problems, they don’t beat their wives—although they might eat them, of course—and they work 24 hours a day. You just have to make sure you keep them alive.”

Dung beetles are just one of the thousands of microscopic animals that Sturges farms here.

Sturges makes compost for clients, and a highly unusual sort at that. Some clients are local, some are scattered around the country. All are at some stage of weaning their land from the chemical dependencies and other problems of what is often called conventional agriculture. He doesn’t advertise and clients have to find him by word of mouth, but find him they do. He’s become a master of an agricultural art as old as agriculture itself—an art that is increasingly a science, as researchers from different countries turn their instruments to understanding the world’s most fundamental natural partnerships. These are the first connections we unwittingly began to disrupt when humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to planting.

According to Elaine Ingham, microbiologist and former science director of the Rodale Institute (the leading U.S. think-tank-plus-laboratory for organic farming), people have been making compost since the dawn of agriculture. The first instruction manual was likely penned by Cato the Critic at around 300 BC in the midst of a back-to-the-land movement by city folk—déjà vu all over again!—by which Cato intended to give these fledgling farmers the tools to thrive.

When we make compost, Ingham told me, we are replicating a process of decomposition and regeneration that goes on constantly in nature. “There’s natural composting in every single ecosystem,” says Ingham, who is the author of the USDA’s Soil Biology Primer and has taught hundreds of people the principles of making good compost. “The earth has a huge compost pile, but it’s only a couple of millimeters thick and spread over thousands of miles.”

In nature’s compost pile, dry and green plant material mix with oxygen and animal waste—dung, hair, even dead bodies—to form an almost magical growing medium. People have appreciated the benefits of compost for millennia without knowing exactly why it’s so transformative. Now, microscope-wielding biologists—and compost makers like Sturges—can point to the magicians themselves. Back in the 1990s, biologists discovered that compost summons a community of small life forms—the beetles and spiders, sure, but also bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes, micro-arthropods and other microscopic organisms—to a great feast. Everything on the table contains the vital core of their meal: carbon. Both living and dead plant materials are loaded with the carbon that plants snatch from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Anything that eats those plants is also dense with carbon. Finished compost is not only the carbon and nutrients that these tiny workers eat and break down (thus creating yet another feast for others)—it is also, and importantly, the microorganisms themselves.

There are many recipes and passionately debated fine points about making good compost (and let me say here that Sturges ferociously disapproves of several nuances in Ingham’s processing techniques), but everyone in the sustainable agriculture world agrees on one basic principle: it has to be pulsing with a crowd of oxygen-loving bacteria, fungi, and their micro-predators, because that’s the force that created the conditions for all the life forms that followed. These microorganisms liberate nutrients from rock and deliver them to plants in exchange for the carbon sugars streamed from the plants’ roots. The world as we know it wouldn’t exist without these miniature laborers. If compost isn’t teeming with aerobic microorganisms, “It’s just decomposed vegetables,” Ingham says, “or putrescent slime.” That discovery is what turned Sturges into a farmer—that is, one who grows microbes.

Sturges grew up in California’s Sacramento Valley, amid the chemicals and tools of modern agriculture. He began to take issue with the ways of that world as a teenager, when his father—a landscaper—was tasked with protecting the homes in a subdivision from olive-stained shoes. Olives are beautiful trees, Sturges says, and developers often either planted them near new homes or just built the houses near old orchards, but residents complained that the juice from the ripe fruit was being tramped into their homes. So his father began spraying the olive trees with a chemical commonly used to make peach trees shed some of their blossoms and thus produce larger fruit. Sturges helped his father apply the spray and was sick to his stomach for hours. “Organic wasn’t a word that was out there much,” he said, “but I became anti-chemical.”

He went on to attend Chico State University (“the greatest duck-hunting school in the country!”), had adventures in Afghanistan and India, and wrote his first unpublished novel entitled, “It Happened Somewhere Else.” Then he was drafted and spent 18 months at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, where the local chemical fertilizer industry prompted a second novel, called “The Fertilizer King,” about a future people so desperate to avoid chemical fertilizers that they steal chicken manure from farmers. (“I consider myself a child of [Richard] Brautigan,” Sturges says. “But the publishers considered it a little quirky.”) In 1973, Sturges moved to Oregon with his wife Maryanne, ultimately settling onto a piece of clear-cut forestland near Bandon.

He named the property Chili Nervanos—to represent their hope for nirvana among the many chiles he planted there—and embarked upon a long and successful career selling wine. Around 15 years ago, an old college roommate showed him the compost he was making in a bin, and Sturges was intrigued. He took some classes, including one from Ingham, and started corresponding with biologists about insects and other denizens of the pile. Soon he became obsessed with perfecting his own microbial blend. At a certain point, people started saying his was the best compost they had ever seen. Some called him “The Fertilizer King,” in honor of his book. For his part, in honor of his raw materials, Sturges calls himself an “entramanure.”

Sturges’s compost begins with manure from alpaca and llamas that have never been dewormed, and that live in nearby pastures he regularly visits with a rake. He then trucks the manure home and puts it in 23 lidded, aluminum bins. (He salvaged the bins from local dairies and breweries that went out of business, and they snake through the woods near his home, looking something like a silvery trailer park. Or a graveyard for alien ships.) Within two to three days, the manure heats up to 140 degrees; when it cools down a few days later, Sturges starts adding ingredients: first, a big dose of finished compost to inoculate the bin with microorganisms, then comes their food. The steady fixings are the discards from the local deli’s kitchen, and his own. In the fall, however, they get a special treat. Sturges is big on pumpkins and other members of the “cucurbit” family because they attract beetles. And he wants beetles and other predators there because life is one long lineup of predators and prey, whose mutual violence moves the world’s nutrients around. So he haunts post-Halloween pumpkin patches and loads up.

As Sturges flipped open bin after bin for me to inspect, I was struck by their unusual smell. He didn’t think they had any odor at all, but I just think he doesn’t notice it anymore. They smelled umami-good and actually made me hungry.

Sturges begins his piles in the fall and they don’t mature until sometime in the spring, when no recognizable bits of vegetation remain. He then begins shipping boxes of the stuff to clients around the country, who make a tea from it. No, they don’t drink it—they spray it on everything from vineyards to potato fields to golf courses.

Sturges’s clients put the compost into special brewers which they can buy, make themselves, or order from him—his own gigantic version is called the Nervanator. These contraptions look something like hot-water heaters and burble a small amount of compost in water, along with some extra nutrients for the microbes to feed on while they luxuriate in their new spa. All good brewers pull in a lot of oxygen to keep the water highly aerobic; Sturges compares the air flow in his Nervanator to Class IV rapids. The rationale for all this stewing? The compost that Sturges can make would hardly be enough to service one farm, but he and his clients believe they can scale up the benefits by making compost tea—essentially, a liquid shot of microorganisms. “I couldn’t take care of all these people if they were just spreading compost,” Sturges says. “By making tea, a minute amount of compost can cover acres and acres.”

Could that be true? Despite Ingham’s proselytizing for compost tea—she says that “compost and tea are the best tools to replenish life in the soil”—other researchers have investigated tea and sniff at such claims. Ingham’s crowd argues that these researchers are not making the compost properly, nor the tea. It’s also possible that the reductionist enterprise of science is poorly equipped to understand the myriad, invisible interactions among plants, soil, microorganisms, insects, larger animals, and on up the food chain. “It’s easy to study the impact of factor X on phenomenon Y,” says Jim Nardi, author of “Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners,” and an insect physiologist at the University of Illinois who has helped Sturges learn about the critters in his compost. “Scientists want to reduce these investigations to simple factors, but these are complex systems and hard to study. We need a holistic approach, and that’s difficult for us.”

So that leaves tea proponents with anecdote—not such a bad space, though, since science grew from simple observations.

One particularly compelling anecdote comes from Mimi Casteel, the daughter of Oregon winemakers Ted Casteel and Pat Dudley who founded Bethel Heights Vineyard in Salem. Mimi Casteel left a job as a Forest Service botanist to return to the vineyard in 2005. “I decided to shackle myself to the family business because the world is not going to be saved by wilderness areas,” she tells me. “The only way we can save ourselves is with agricultural land and by doing things very differently there.”

Casteel knew Sturges from the wine trade, but hadn’t paid much attention to his compost tea until her mother got hold of some. She spritzed it on an orchid plant, which went on to bloom for the first time in 8 years. Casteel started trying the tea on her own houseplants and was amazed at the results.

Then a plague in the form of phylloxera—a tiny, aphid-like insect—made its way to Bethel Heights. Casteel describes phylloxera as the HIV of the wine business. It weakens the root system of grape vines so they become susceptible to pathogens. There is no cure or chemical control for the outbreak, and winemakers usually deal with it by uprooting sick vines, planting phylloxera-resistant hybrid varieties, and then grafting the old varieties to them. But Bethel Heights had some of the area’s last vines that were “own-rooted” (meaning without grafts). They had been planted when the vineyard was founded in 1977, and Casteel wanted to keep them. “When a vine enters adulthood, it starts to express something more consistent,” she told me. “Something that resonates regardless of winemaker influence and vintage variation. It’s what most of us spend decades waiting for.”

By this time, Casteel was brewing her own tea from Sturges’s compost, and she sprayed it on an old section of pinot noir that was afflicted with phylloxera. The section not only survived the disease, it also had twice the yield the following year. Casteel says the quality of the grapes from that section remain high and provide some of the best barrels in their cellar, year after year. The bottles produced from the embattled section—Flat Block Pinot Noir—command the vineyard’s highest price and are well-regarded by critics. “It’s the opposite of what you’d expect from a ‘failing vineyard,'” she says.

Casteel went on to spray compost tea over the entire vineyard, and today the whole place is thriving. She now makes her own compost—using Sturges’s method, of course. “We still have phylloxera, so it’s not as if there’s been any sort of magical cure,” Casteel says. “But the tea is building the plant’s immune system with a healthy microbiome in the soil and around the roots. Our best shot is for the plant to be able to defend itself.”

People hear stories like this and wonder if compost tea is a silver bullet for the ills of agriculture. But Casteel (and most of Sturges’s clients) are doing more than just spraying tea; they’re trying to understand and work with nature, so that means they’re doing many things differently. Casteel is now trying to eliminate tillage (the habit of cutting into ground with plows and spaders), reduce chemical sprays, and take other steps toward sustainability.

For his part, Sturges brushes off any talk of silver bullets. As excellent as he believes his tea to be, he realizes its powers are limited. Smart farming has to tap into a complex web of life-giving processes. If farmers aren’t supporting those processes with measures like Casteel’s, Sturges believes the tea will be a failed tool. So he just keeps making his tea and refrains from ambitious claims. “If you’re a fertilizer king,” Sturges says, “you have to be humble.”

More stories from this issue:

The Vegetable Detective

Tips and Inspiration from England’s Great Dixter Gardens

The Drought Fighter

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