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Compost Tea Production: Application and Benefits to fertilize and improve the health of their crops

Compost Tea Production: Application and Benefits to fertilize and improve the health of their crops

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03/04/2011

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This material is based upon work supported by Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under Agreement No. 00-52101-9707.Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Compost Tea Production,Application,and Benefits
by Matthew Ryan, The Rodale Institute 
Christine Ziegler, Editor 
What is Compost Tea?
Compost is the best overall soil amendment growers can use toincrease the quality and health of soil. Good compost provides soilwith nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microorganisms, whichcan improve crop health, growth, quality, and yields. Compost alsoimproves a soil’s structure and long-term nutrient availability, whichhelps plants better tolerate drought and suppress disease. However,the time, space, and equipment needed to make and apply compostcan make it prohibitive for some farmers.Compost tea offers some of the benefits of compost in a moremanageable package. For centuries, farmers have soaked “tea bags”full of compost in tubs of water, and then used the resulting liquid(compost tea) to fertilize and improve the health of their crops. Thistype of compost tea, commonly referred to as “passive composttea”, typically uses a ratio of one part compost to five parts water andsteeps for about two weeks before it is applied to crops as a solublenutrient solution.Over the past ten years, compost tea has developed into a boomingindustry, producing commercial compost tea makers that brewthousands of gallons of tea a day, and fostering two major industryorganizations that represent just about everyone in thebusiness. Producers can even find laboratories throughout theworld that analyze compost tea for microorganism concentrationsand diversity. Most of this industry is devoted to aerated composttea, which is made by mechanically aerating the steeping process tomaintain aerobic levels of dissolved oxygen in the tea solution.Aerated compost tea is different from passive compost tea in acouple of ways. First, aerated tea “recipes” usually include addednutrients such as kelp, fish hydrolysate, and humic acid to promotethe growth of beneficial microorganisms in the highly oxygenatedsolution. These ingredients are not recommended for passivecompost tea production because the additional nutrients can makethe passive, less oxygenated tea solution anaerobic. Secondly, withadded nutrients and increased microbial growth, aerated composttea is ready for application after only 24 hours, whereas passivecompost tea often takes several weeks to steep. Use of passivecompost tea is popular in Europe, while aerated compost tea is usedmore commonly in North America.
What Does Compost Tea Do?
Compost tea can be used to:1.fertilize crops via soil drenches or foliar applications.2.inoculate crop residue to facilitate decomposition.3.improve nutrient cycling in soil through increasedmicroorganism activity.4.manage certain plant pathogens, to some extent, throughmicrobial competition and improved plant nutrition.Your crops can directly benefit from the macro- and micro-nutrientsfound in compost tea. Foliar fertilization with compost tea allowsnutrients to be absorbed by the plants directly through stomata on theirleaf surfaces. This type of fertilization is very efficient and can quicklyboost plant growth. Compost tea can also provide nutrients to the soilthrough soil drenches. When these compost-derived nutrient solutionsare applied to the soil, they can be taken up easily by plant roots.Healthy soil contains enormous populations of microorganisms andinvertebrates (commonly referred to as the “soil food web”). Thesemicroorganisms are responsible for stabilizing soil particles such assand, silt, clay and organic matter. A healthy soil, full of microor-ganisms, tends to form soil aggregates (clumps of soilparticles, bound together), which create a porous soil texture thatreduces soil erosion, facilitates water absorption into the soil, andincreases the water holding capacity of soil. Microorganisms play alarge role in the formation of these soil aggregates because theysecrete glue-like substances that bind the soil particles.By applying compost tea, you boost the number and diversity ofmicroorganisms in your soil’s food web, making the web morestable and positively affecting your soil’s ability to conserve organicmatter, retain nutrients and hold moisture. More importantly, allthese soil health benefits can translate into plant health benefits,because the most vigorous, disease-free plants usually grow in themost robust “living” soil.Microorganisms are also the driving force behind decomposition.You can improve crop residue decomposition by applying composttea and allowing its microorganisms to break down the residue intousable forms of nutrients for your next crop. Even if your soil alreadycontains adequate levels of nutrients, microorganisms are often
Compost tea can be sprayed on crops to add nutrients and enhancemicroorganism activity.
 
needed to make those nutrients more available to your crops. Byincorporating nutrients into their bodies, microorganisms ensurethat the nutrients are conserved in the soil and not leached throughrainfall and erosion.Although trials that have tested compost tea for diseasemanagement have generated variable results, compost tea has thepotential to suppress certain plant pathogens on some crops. Forexample, compost tea has been shown to partially control powderymildew, though it has not yet been proven to be sufficientlyeffective to use as a sole means of control for commercial growers.While plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that compost teacan control disease, research has not supported this evidenceto date (most of the pathogens and diseases tested have notbeen controlled by compost tea). However, there are multiplemechanisms that may explain the variations in disease suppressionthat have been observed, including different forms of competition,such as resource competition, antibiotic production, parasitism,and systemic acquired resistance. While more research is neededto investigate the validity of compost tea as a disease suppressant,its ability to improve soil health is certain.If these benefits sound appealing, then read on to find out how youcan make compost tea and use it as part of your operation.
How Do I Get Started?
If you are interested in making compost tea, you must begin bymaking a couple of decisions. First, you need to decide if you wantto make passive or aerated compost tea.
Passive Tea 
Passive compost tea is a great way to start experimenting withcompost tea use. An easy way to make passive compost tea is to fillan old burlap sack with one part compost, and suspend this bag in agarbage can filled with five parts water (by volume) for severalweeks. This tea can then be applied to crops or soil as a fertilizer.Most published research on the use of compost tea for diseasesuppression utilizes passive compost teas.Although passive compost tea is not aerated, it is not necessarilyanaerobic unless additional nutrients are added. If a passive teaturns anaerobic, it can putrify, rather than ferment, which may producephenols and alcohol that can harm plants and beneficial soilmicroorganisms. Therefore, it’s important not to add fertilizers ornutrients to your passive tea, in order to keep it aerobic and healthy.
Aerated Tea 
If you choose to produce aerated compost tea, you then need todecide whether you want to purchase a commercial compost teabrewer or build your own. These systems require a source of elec-tricity to power the air and/or water pumps that provide oxygen andextract microorganisms and nutrients from the compost.Commercial brewers can cost anywhere from $100 to thousands ofdollars, depending on the volume and complexity of the system.Fortunately most manufactures have developed good brewinginstructions to go with their systems, so if you purchase a brewer, itis best to follow the directions provided. A list of commercial com-post tea system manufacturers can be found in the resource sectionof this fact sheet.If you decide to build your own system, you have many more choicesto make. Homemade aerated compost tea systems vary greatly intheir design, and can employ aeration devices that range from fishtank aerators to commercial grade air compressors. Although thismay be a more economical option, you should expect a certainamount of trial and error before your system is fully functional. Forinformation on how to make homemade aerated compost tea,check out the Pennsylvania Department of EnvironmentalProtection’s online article,
“Compost Tea as Easy as 1, 2, 3” 
, athttp://www.dep.state.pa.us/dep/deputate/airwaste/wm/recycle/Tea/ tea1.htmRegardless of how you make compost tea, proper sanitation isessential to produce a consistent, quality tea. Most producers usechlorine bleach to clean the inside of their systems, but otherproducts such as hydrogen peroxide and detergents can also beeffective. One of the most basic, easy cleaning tricks is to rinse outthe system with clean water as soon as you remove the tea, so thatthe residue doesn’t have time to dry. That step, followed by propersanitation, will help you maintain a clean brewer that generates goodquality tea every time you use it.
The Rodale Institute
®
, 611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown, PA 19530-9320 USA • 610-683-1400 • info@rodaleinst.org • www.newfarm.orgThe Rodale Institute is a private, publicly supported nonprofit organization under section 501(c)3 of the Internal Revenue Code.
© 2003, The Rodale Institute (20230-6)
Some examples of commercial and homemade aerated compost tea brewers.
Passive compost tea can be made by simply suspending a burlapsack full of compost in a tank of water.
 
How Do I Apply Compost Tea as Part of an OrganicProduction Plan?
Compost tea can be used by certified organic growers, but it isalways a good idea to check with your certification agency beforeinitiating any new practice. Certified organic growers must followthe recommendations set forth by the Compost Tea Task Force,designed to insure the safety of organic food. Dan Sullivan, editorat New Farm, drafted a great summary of these recommendations,listed on the following page.
Compost Tea Task Force recommendations:
1.Potable (drinkable) water must be used to make compost tea,and for any dilution before application.2.Equipment used to prepare compost tea must be sanitizedbefore use, using an approved sanitizing agent.3.Compost tea should be made with NOP-compliant compostor vermicompost—as spelled out by earlier guidelines of theCompost Task Force, or as prescribed in section 205.203(c) (2) of the NOP rule. (Non-compliant compost feedstocks,either plant- or manure-based, may harbor high levels offecal bacteria.)4.Compost tea made without additives (such as kelp, fishhydrolysate, and humic acid) can be used without restriction.5.Compost tea made with additives can be applied withoutrestriction if the compost tea production system (basecompost, additives, and equipment) has been pre-tested toproduce a tea that meets EPA-recommended recreationalwater quality guidelines for bacterial indicators of fecalcontamination. Levels of E. coli and enterococci (anotherantibiotic-resistant pathogenic bacteria) must be monitored.At least two compost tea batches brewed with the productionsystem must be tested. The average population of indicatorbacteria across both batches is the yardstick for a passingor failing grade. Once the tea production system passes,compost tea from that specific system may be used withoutrestriction (provided none of the potential variables, such asbase compost, brew times, or boosting agent formulas,is altered).If compost tea made with compost tea additives is notpre-tested for indicator bacteria, it can be used on food crops,but its use is restricted to times prior to 90/120 days beforeharvest (90 days for produce not in direct contact with the soil,and 120 days for produce that touches the soil). Crops notintended for human consumption, ornamental plants, andgrain crops intended for human consumption are exempt frompre-testing and the 90/120-day pre-harvest rule.6.Compost extracts—any mixture of compost, water andadditives combined for less than one hour before use—may beapplied without restriction.7.Raw manure extracts or teas may be applied to the soil underthe 90/120 day pre-harvest restriction; foliar applications ofthese extracts are prohibited.8.Compost leachate may be applied to the soil under the 90/120day pre-harvest restriction; foliar applications of this leachateis prohibited.9.Compost tea is not allowed to be used in the production ofedible seed sprouts.These recommendations and the complete article can be found onlineat http://www.newfarm.org/news/0404/042304/tea_report.shtml.The original recommendations from the National Organic StandardBoard Compost Tea Task Force can also be found online athttp://www.ams.usda.gov/nosb/meetings/CompostTeaTaskForceFinalReport.pdf.To apply the tea, use a low-pressure, high-volume sprayer witha diaphragm pump. The diaphragm pump is vital because it doesn'tsqueeze and destroy the microorganisms in the tea, as can happenwith a mechanical pump. Your compost tea sprayer should bededicated to tea only (or other non-toxic uses), because pesticideresidues inside the sprayer will contaminate your tea and destroyits microorganisms.Use a wide-orifice or flood-jet type nozzle, and remove thenozzle screens before you spray to prevent clogging and improvedispersion. The best times to spray are after rains, and in themorning and evenings when UV rays are low and won't affect themicroorganisms in the tea.Compost tea is a very old tool that has benefited farmers for cen-turies. Compost tea production can be simple and inexpensive (suchas passive tea) or more complex and advanced, with large scalemechanized systems that pump out thousands of gallons of aeratedtea a day. Though scientific research on compost tea has beenlimited to date, the benefits of using compost tea are just beginningto be realized. With more research, compost tea may become anintegral component of sustainable farming operations in the future.For more information on compost tea research, production, and use,please see the resource list below. Happy brewing!
Resource List
“Soil Biology Primer” 
is an excellent resource for people interestedin learning more about soil biology and the soil food web. ThisNatural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) publication isavailableonline at no charge at http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/soil_quali-ty/soil_biology/soil_biology_primer.html.Elaine Ingham, Soil Foodweb Inc., has published a booklet on usingcompost tea that is available on the web at www.soilfoodweb.com.
“The Compost Tea Brewers Manual” 
includes information about thebiology of compost and how to produce and apply compost tea.Scheuerell, Steve, and Walter Mahaffee. “Compost Tea: Principalsand Prospects for Plant Disease Control”, Compost Science &Utilization, (2002), vol. 10, No.4,313-338. Steve Scheuerell’sliterature review is a great resource for information on usingcompost tea for disease suppression.

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