New ways of gardening are always being developed, and with that come new ways of feeding the soil and nutrient recycling. In this blog post you'll find information about a maverick approach to fertilizer production happening right here, in Joburg.
It’s normal for contradictions that challenge the approach of our practices to come up. One particular question I’m faced with is what the organic methods of feeding plants and protecting from insects are – the variables that affect plant yield the most.
Many, if not most, of the methods at our disposal to increase crop yield clash with the idea of gardening close to nature. For example, the highest yielding plants are in fact not heirlooms, they are hybridized varieties that have been tested by horticulturalists in field studies and labs and “improved” over generations to optimize yield, minimize water consumption and pest susceptibility.
People don’t always agree that this is an improvement to food production because if you follow the value chain you find elements to the production of these plants that are not “gentle”.
Another big one is fertilizer. We know that the quality of the soil is the single most critical factor for healthy crops. Healthy soil means higher nutrient availability, higher water retention and drainage, higher microorganism-count and therefore stronger, more resilient plants.
There are ways to build the soil quality up over time that do not involve the direct use of fertilizer application. But for most of us, a dose of nutrient food just before a planting session is the norm. It provides an instant boost to our hopeful seedlings… or should I say, the hopes that we have for them.
But follow the value chain of most commercially available fertilisers and you may not be satisfied with what you find. The use of animal by-products from large scale farming, mechanized supply chains, non-recyclable packaging… and on and on, is commonplace. Not all fertilisers fall into this method of production, but mostly they do and it’s a roadblock in the journey to successfully growing healthy plants, naturally.
A crawly, but not creepy, answer to the future of fertilising
Florian Willfort, who I met at Keyes Pantry Market recently, and his team, are piloting the breeding of insects for their benefits in his garage of a central Jo’burg suburb. And maybe you, like me, will be left excited about the future of fertilizer that offers a fully eco-friendly approach to production.
But be warned, where this is going could lead you to a place of rethinking the big picture, check out Florian’s view of the world and you may also consider Cricket Flour (baking flour made from crickets!)
Florian’s project is truly exciting.
Entofert is a self-fulfilling fertilizing system
Florian and his team are developing a fertilizer, and other by-products, by farming with Darkling Beetles, or Mealworm. And by “farming” I mean they are producing 40kgs of “frass,” or fertilizer, weekly from a space the size of your average single garage.
They’ve designed a specialised tray system that rotates weekly through the lifecycle of the Mealworm taking them from beetles to eggs, to worms, to pupae and then back to beetles, only to start the lifecycle again.
Starting off with only 1500 beetles in an area of about 3m2 they methodically tend these beetles through the various stages of their lives to produce high-nutrient value products.
The beauty is that it is so transparent and simple: These worms like it dark and crowded, they get local wheat bran and carrots and a bit of brewers yeast and a lot of love and care as they grow - that's it. The packaging is simple and functional, and the longest distance that this product will ever travel is from the centre of Joburg to your home.
The 40kg weekly frass harvest is just one of the products.
They’re also harvesting actual mealworms, about 20 kgs weekly, used for bird feed and some beetles themselves that are sent back to the beginning of the line to start again – creating a self-sustaining value chain.
So the way it works, in a garage-sized nutshell, is:
The beetles lay eggs, the eggs hatch into worms, the worms feed on wheat bran and small bits of vegetables, they poop… a lot..., the poop is harvested as nutrient rich fertilizer, some of the worms die and become high nutrient source of bird food, and the rest of the worms pupate and hatch into beetles that lay eggs that hatch into worms that poop a lot…
and you get the picture.
The project described above is low on space use, water use, and waste. It’s high yielding and creates a positive feedback cycle of production.
It feels in many ways like the perfect idea.
Florian was kind enough to give me a bag of Entofert to try on my garden. I trialed the fertiliser in my kitchen garden against two plantings of beans and found that the bean variety that was fertilized with Entofert did in fact grow much faster than that which didn’t.
Unfortunately, I can’t make any real deductions based on this once-off trial, but I can say that I am willing to keep at it because with a tidy little tale like the one of the Darkling beetle going round and round like a kid on a carousal at a carnival, being so damn productive, I’m excited about the options we’re creating that are kinder to the planet and kinder to our soil and ultimately our gardening.
It’s all a little lifecycle of it’s own. A little like the day in the life of any of us.
We wake up, we do pretty much the same things, followed by a bit more of the same thing, until we go to sleep and do it all over again.
We could do it better. And, in a way that is less contradictory to what we are ultimately wanting to achieve from the process.
Now go and check out that thing about Cricket Flour…it’s pretty crazy and Florian’s Insectivore site … its really interesting!