by Tamara Scully
Living Acres, in Sharon, Maine, is all about “making soil more alive,” and providing plants with the optimal nutrients needed to thrive. Living Acres makes organic-approved compost, growing mediums, foliar seaweed and fish emulsion sprays. Their products are made with local, natural inputs — the farthest comes from about 125 miles away — and serve to add fertility and to enhance the health of nursery plants or field crops, via nature’s own ingredients.
They strive to keep ingredients “as local as we can get, without sacrificing quality,” owner Tony Ramsey said.
Begun in 1980 by retired dairy farmer Stu Mayo, the company has since grown from the flagship product: Mayo’s compost mix. His recipe for the compost came from years of experience, and a belief in the positive effects of healthy soil. Instead of incorporating manure directly into the soil, where the microbial population reacts by going on “a feeding frenzy,” Ramsey explained that Mayo knew there was a better way. So he created Living Acres Kompost.
It’s all about the microbes, Ramsey said. “If you can take that same manure, and make a massive pile that is going to heat up, the heat actually slows down the process. It kills pathogens and weed seeds that can’t survive the heat.”
This process makes the partially composed organic matter more stable, giving it more ability to steadily add nutrients to the soil without causing an imbalance of minerals, or taking oxygen or nitrogen from the soil. Unlike fresh manure, it does not burn the soil. The product is a fertilizer, but also acts as a soil conditioner, improving not only the mineral content, but the physical properties of the soil, making it more able to support root growth, capture nutrients and grow healthy plants.
Mayo originally decided to work with available, local raw materials, and crafted a compost recipe which worked quite well, both then and now.
“We’ve taken off and run with that recipe,” Ramsey said. In fact, outside of one minor adjustment to meet National Organic Standards changes several years ago, the original formula has been consistently maintained.
This product, Kompost-1, is made from dairy manure, wood by-products, and turkey slaughter waste, mixed together in a controlled environment, indoors, where weather conditions don’t play havoc on the nutrient composition.
“We actually work completely undercover in buildings,” Ramsey explained. “The nutrient value of these materials coming in should be retained as fully as possible.”
Building healthy soil products
Living Acres strives to provide a consistent product, every time. With the variability in the composition of raw ingredients, and weather factors which affect the way these organic ingredients decompose and interact, keeping the product consistent can be their biggest challenge. Working indoors helps to keep the conditions — and therefore the end result of the compost — consistent. In fact, the Kompost-1 has a guaranteed NPK analysis, which is hard to do with products if they are made outdoors, in windrows, Ramsey said.
With four primarily non-heated, open buildings, totaling 16,500 sq. ft., the weather can impact operations, but not stop them. While they try to mix materials in the fall and store them in the enclosed greenhouse space, they will mix as needed in the winter.
The product line at Living Acres has grown to include their growing mixes, known as Kom-Plete. The growing mixes are primarily made from peat moss. The company sources two different types of peat, one from New Brunswick, Canada and one from Maine. Because every peat bog is different, finding bogs with the best peat for their mixes was an important part of the equation.
Peat from different bogs varies, Ramsey explained, because the bogs have varying water chemistry. Different plants grow in different bogs, and the water chemistry of each bog “has a big impact on how it (plant material) decomposes over time,” he added.
Just as soils are classified based on their characteristics, bogs are classified based on how well the plant materials are decomposed. The Maine bog provides Living Acres with sphagnum peat moss, which is a fibery, light brown material. In contrast, a dark brown, fine, more highly decomposed peat comes out of the New Brunswick bog. This bog is primarily sedge grass, not sphagnum moss and cedar, as in Maine.
Unlike many conventional potting mixes, the mixes at Living Acres are meant not only to add physical structure and air space to the soil, but to feed it as well. Living Acres has several formulas of growing mixes, whose recipes include Kompost-1. The mixes are sold in bulk sales locally in Maine, and can have sand as an added ingredient, or sold in retail bagged mixes, which have no sand and are lightweight.
When plants are grown in greenhouses, they are under stress, with a limited root volume. Nutrients and water, which are held in the soil on the surface, are in limited supply. But the more surface area in the soil, the more ability it has to capture and hold these nutrients. Adding a fine peat to the mix increases the soil’s surface area, but provides less physical structure to the soil, Ramsey explained.
Greenhouse growers might “trade off some of the physical stability for nutrient-holding and water-holding ability,” Ramsey said. “We’ve been able to achieve a really good mix,” which is successful under a wide range of growing conditions.
Liquid foliar sprays
Seaweed extract and combined seaweed/fish oil emulsion, both liquid products, and made from inputs from the coast of Maine, are other products Living Acres has come to perfect. These products are cooked up in a controlled environment, to very exact specifications. The fish used is a by-product of the fishing industry, and comes to Living Acres as a liquid. The seaweed, cooked onsite is heated to release the contents of the cells, via a technique called alkaline hydrolysis, which extracts the nutrients from the seaweed. The result is a product which is “like vitamins or steroids for plants.”
The products are based on plant growth hormones, which are taken up by plants via foliar uptake. The fish and seaweed product, SeaPlus, is a 3/2/2 fertilizer. The SeaCure product is seaweed extract. Both are available in retail sizes or bulk amounts.
The results of a foliar spray program are dependent upon the stressors inherent in the field, Ramsey said. Stressed plants release abscisic acid, or ABA, a stress hormone. If the SeaCure is sprayed on the foliage, stressed plants will stabilize, and when the stressor — drought or too much water — is removed, will recover immediately. Without the seaweed product, the plants would require several days to respond to the improved growing conditions. The products contain “just a crude extract” from the seaweed, and “in that sense, it’s a lot like compost,” — a simple, natural product, which provides plants with the needed raw materials in order to thrive, naturally.
Living Acres markets primarily in New England and New York State, although some national garden retailers do offer their products to mail-order customers across the nation. They are working to optimize the production facility they have, while planning to grow slowly, without incurring a severe debt load.
“We sell everything we make,” Ramsey said, adding that they have a “strong repeat customer base. If we can improve something we will. Our goal has been to try to produce a high-end, high-quality line of products,” and to do so consistently year-round, year after year.