The SAGE Growing Your Future team will be transforming a bare patch of the Moruya High Ag Plot into a veg-utopia…but first, they need to turn dirt into soil.

In common language we use the terms ‘dirt’ and ‘soil’ interchangeably. In agricultural terms, soil is a dynamic, living system composed of minerals, water, air and lots of organic material. Organic material contains carbon and can be alive, dead, or very dead.

Living organic material includes very, very tiny creatures (bacteria and fungi), relatively tiny creatures (protozoa) and some creatures which are visible with the naked eye (worms and other invertebrates). Dead organic material includes all the left over decomposing plant and animal materials which accumulate in the soil. Very dead organic material is also called ‘humus’ and it’s what we make in compost piles.

Dirt on the other hand, is dead soil. Which is what we have here in our plot...

The first job we need to do is to turn this dirt into soil. In order to do this we will be doing two important things: soil testing to determine which nutrients are missing, and building a thermal compost.

Soil testing involves taking multiple samples or ‘cores’ or soil and submitting them to a laboratory for analysis. Whilst we can perform lots of tests in the school science labs, laboratory testing allows us to find out exactly what nutrient deficiencies we have and what we need to do to fix them. Laura had an excellent time taking 25 soil cores for analysis, and then the HSC Agriculture class determined which tests needed to be run…now we just have to wait on the results!

Thermal composting takes a little more effort than soil sampling. Unlike normal ‘cool’ composting methods which take months to brew, thermal composting allows us to convert our raw materials into rich compost within a matter of weeks. The trick is to achieve the correct balance of carbon and nitrogen (30:1) and build the entire pile like one huge delicious lasagne. Layer upon layer of carbon rich material (straw, hardwood shavings, newspaper etc) and nitrogen rich material (manures, seaweed, fresh weeds from the garden) are built up and watered to keep evenly moist.

Laying the foundations for a thermal compost...

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Layers of brown carbon...

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...and layers of green nitrogen...

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The entire mound is then covered with more carbon-rich straw. We decided to name our compost pile “Grug” after the Ted Prior books.

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Finally, the pile needs to be covered with black plastic and left to do its thing…

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Thermal composts require lots of work. They rely on special bacteria called aerobic thermophiles: this is a fancy way of saying that these bugs need oxygen and love heat. Thermal composts can reach temperatures over 70 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to burn you. It’s also hot enough to cause spontaneous combustion, so it is very important to monitor the temperature daily and turn the pile if it gets above 65 degrees…which it did…twice in the last two days. As a result, the SAGE gang and I now smell like fermented yak burp. Tomorrow the SAGE group will be meeting again…hopefully Grug will give us a day off compost turning so we learn about using microscopes to investigate soil microbiology.

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Paul, Reuben and Jarrod turning the steamy pile.

For those of you who haven’t heard of SAGE, it is our ‘Sustainable Agriculture and Gardening Eurobodalla” community group. SAGE is run by volunteers and since its inception has been responsible for the development of a market garden and gardening demonstration site on Queen Street as well as the the award winning Farmers Markets in Riverside Park. If that's not enough, they also run numerous community education programs and  train market garden interns to open their own local agricultural businesses.

Moruya High School and SAGE have joined forces to deliver the ‘Growing Your Future’ School to Work program. This partnership with such a successful ground-roots community group is an exciting opportunity for our students and will hopefully be the first of many shared projects.

The ‘Growing Your Future’ program will be delivered to a small group of 14-16 year old students. Working with their SAGE mentor, the students will plan out, plant, maintain and harvest their own market garden. They will then use the produce they have grown to cater for and host a long table lunch at the annual South East Harvest Festival in March 2016.

Along the way they will acquire vocational skills in agriculture, business management, catering and event management. They will also have developed critical links with local growers and businesses and explored career options in the local area. Perhaps most importantly, they will experience the success of nurturing an idea from concept to completion.

The long table lunch will be a chance to reflect on the achievements of our SAGE students and enjoy the fruits – and vegetables! – of their labour.

SAGE

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