Corner Stone Farming Practices

Contributed by David Driscoll

Susitna Organics has been producing quality compost and soil blends for Alaska’s Point Mackenzie community since 2007. The attention to producing a quality “humified compost” using a windrow system, as well as combining the enterprise with hay farming, has been the key to their success. 

A large portion of their compost is marketed in a topsoil blend called “garden soil.” Gardeners and farmers from Fairbanks to Homer have come to rely on this premium soil and compost for their gardens, produce production, and for specialty crops such as peonies and rhodiola.

Susitna Organics Humified Compost has been reviewed and registered with the Washington State Department of Agriculture Organic Program for use in organic production. That means that certified organic farmers in Alaska can use this soil amendment in their soil fertility program.  The product is called “humified compost” because it is not only completely broken down, but also has high levels of humus. 

Humus is the result of the third and fourth generation of microbes re-digesting organic matter which the previous generations broke down. These later generations of microbes create long-chain carbon compounds providing stable and long lasting benefits to the soil. 

Benefits of quality compost unique to Alaska:

1.    Soil temperature and fertility

Peony farmers using our product have reported fewer losses due to winter kill. Soils amended with compost will thaw and warm more quickly in the spring. Quality compost creates ideal soil structure, which creates an environment where soil microbes flourish so the plant can be fed naturally. When plants can take up all the nutrients they need, they will be fortified to withstand cold winter temperatures.

Various strawberry varieties have been successfully overwintered in raised beds, with only IRT plastic and a floating row cover for protection. This system greatly reduces labor, and helps eliminate the problem of mice finding a home underneath a straw mulch layer.

2.    Soil Cation Exchange Capacity  

Many soils in Alaska have a very low Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC). This means that nutrients leach out quickly. Good humified compost brings soil CEC levels up from a typical 2-4 to 10-12. Nutrient availability will suddenly increase, and because the compost is inoculated with free living nitrogen fixing bacteria, the soil now will have the ability to pull nitrogen from the air when the plants need it. 

Susitna Organics provides manure management services to Anchorage and the Valley. Because they also produce hay, they have created a “closed loop” system. Hay is exchanged for manure which solves the logistics problem of bringing in feedstocks. An increase awareness of their composting facility in the Big Lake area is also bringing in more homeowners and landscapers who are looking for a place to bring in feedstocks like leaves and grass clippings. 

The abundant 2015 fishing season overwhelmed Alaska fish processors with waste. Thanks to a rented farm at Pt. Mackenzie, they were able to divert over 400,000 lbs. of fish waste destined for the landfill. The remote agricultural environment at Pt. Mackenzie provides a suitable place for pre-processing waste that does not always smell good, and for land-applying ground fish as fertilizer. It is also where Timothy hay is grown which is an integral part of the closed loop composting system. 

Susitna Organics has helped one of their employees to start his own dumpster business. This business, called Alaska Green Box started in 2013 to provide horse stables and horse owners with a good solution for storing and handling their waste. There is much room for this service to grow, and they hope that grocery stores and other large generators of organic waste will become aware of the service and take advantage of this opportunity to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to the landfill.

The benefits of quality compost to Alaska’s farmers and gardeners is huge. The environmental benefits of composting do not stop at the landfill. They include sequestering carbon in the soil, preventing nutrient leaching in the soil by increasing soil CEC, and by providing a local source of nutrients for Alaskan farmers reduce the fuel and expense needed to transport fertilizers to Alaska. Continued public awareness is needed so individuals and local governments can take advantage of these opportunities, and so that policies can be implemented that will allow businesses like this to thrive.