Kearneysville, West Virginia

During back-to-back drought years in 2006 and 2007, West Virginia beef farmer Cam Tabb’s crop yields exceeded the averages for his area. At times, neighbors have wondered whether Tabb enjoys some kind of miraculous microclimate, since he seems to make it through dry periods with seemingly little impact.

“I get blamed for getting more water than they got because the corn looks better,” laughs Tabb, who raises 500 Angus beef cattle and grows small grains, hay, and corn for grain and silage, using no-till methods, on 1,900 acres near Charles Town, West Virginia. Tabb credits his strong yields to fifteen years of applying composted horse, dairy, and cattle manure to his fields. “I get a healthier plant with a better root system because my soil structure is better,” he says. “So the rain that you do get really sinks in.”

Tabb’s composting efforts, combined with annual soil tests and rotations, have done more than improve his soil and crop yields; in fact, composting has become one of the farm’s most important sources of income.

Tabb has come a long way since he used to pile manure on hard-packed ground and watch it ice over in the winter. “Before, I handled the manure as a waste, not a resource,” he says. “I thought it had to smell bad to be any good. That was before I realized that I was smelling nitrogen being lost into the air as ammonia.”

Inspired by a West Virginia University researcher’s presentation on back yard composting, Tabb realized he needed to add a carbon source to his manure and turn the piles to encourage aeration. Once he began mixing in sawdust from horse stalls and turning the piles, he was on his way to becoming a master composter. Now, after years of fine-tuning his operation, he can talk about compost for hours.

He earns money taking in and hauling away a wide range of compostable materials from a faithful clientele—including several municipalities, area fish hatcheries, horse operators, and neighbors—that has developed simply through word of mouth. “People can pay me at half the cost it would take them to get their trash hauled away,” he says. “We then process and sell the materials we take away.”

The ingenuity of Tabb’s composting operation lies in having found ways to make money several times off of these “waste” materials. For example, he chips scrap wood that he’s been paid to haul from home construction sites and sells that material as bedding to horse operators. He rents containers to the horse owners to store used bedding, which he hauls back to his farm, composts, and sifts to create a high-grade compost product that he either sells or uses on his farm. He estimates that he composts at least 26,000 cubic yards of horse manure annually.

The fish wastes that Tabb receives from a federal fish hatching facility are composted with sawdust and horse manure. “This quickly creates a nice compost that contains 15–16 pounds N per ton, almost double the N content of our basic compost product,” he says.

Tabb also rents out containers to contractors clearing land of trees and stumps. “When we get logs, we save them aside—they’re better for [reselling as] firewood,” he says. After the soil and rocks are removed from the scraps and split stumps, the wood is mulched and sold to nurseries. The stump dirt, which he describes as being “about 85% dirt and 15% compost” is sifted and screened, creating a topsoil product that he markets back to the contractors for landscaping purposes. “None of the topsoil we sell comes from our own farm,” he says. “It is all from recycled materials that we have brought in.”

While “crop response and the reduction of manure volume” are what initially got Tabb excited about composting, today he is particularly motivated by the major role that composting plays in ensuring his farm’s economic sustainability. “It pays us to have a good [compost] supply on the farm,” he says. “There are the longer-term benefits of increased organic matter and plant health, while with fertilizer prices [rising even higher] in 2008, [our] compost is worth more than it ever has been.”

The water-retention and slow-nutrient-release qualities of his compost have boosted Tabb’s yields in good growing years and buffered his operation during hard ones. One year, he recorded an 80-bushel corn yield advantage on an acre amended with his compost compared to an acre where no compost had been applied.

Tabb spreads between 10 and 12 tons of compost per acre to his crop fields, depending on soil test results, just once every three years. His compost—which supplies 9, 12, and 15 pounds of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash per ton, respectively—provides, with the exception of nitrogen, sufficient nutrients for his grain and hay crops. The compost he spreads is never less than a year old. Over time, he has become more selective about where he spreads, focusing on fields with 2–3% organic matter content instead of those that have attained 5–7%.

Tabb’s windrow piles of compost—“They’re bigger than anything you’ve ever seen,” he says—measure 100 feet long, 20–25 feet wide, and 15 feet high. The piles are set up at eight different locations on his farm, which reduces the number of tractor trips, cost, and risk of soil compaction while spreading.

He relies on experience and observation instead of adhering to strict rules while making compost. “Everyone around the farm knows what to look for in turning the piles,” he says. Heat-loving fungi, stimulated into releasing spores once the pile heats up to temperatures above 140°F, form mushrooms as the pile cools down. “We wait until the temperature goes under 130°F, and turn the pile when we see the fragile mushrooms,” he explains. He adds, “We never turn a pile that is going upwards in heat,” so that piles will reach sufficient temperatures to kill pathogens and weed seeds. Turning, which Tabb does with a front-end loader, pays for itself by reducing the volume of the pile. Turning also stimulates more rapid and thorough decomposition of materials in the pile, inducing temperatures hot enough to kill weed seeds and diseases. Based on his experience, Tabb recommends maintaining a large ratio of old to fresh materials within compost piles. This ensures that the moisture released from fresh materials will be absorbed by drier, older materials, thus preventing leachate formation and speeding the piles’ overall inoculation and decomposition rates.

Tabb is pleased by the long-term results of applying compost at his farm, where the soil has taken on a spongier feel and has become more abundant in earthworms. He also sees little to no runoff from his compost-treated fields. “Our land makes up a total small watershed, and our springs feed a federal fish hatchery. If there were any negative runoff in the water, it’d be ours, and we’d hear about it from the people downstream,” he observes.

Impressed by his results, several of Tabb’s neighbors have begun to make and spread their own “black gold” in recent years. “Almost any farmer would understand what I do,” Tabb says. “I hadn’t realized that I was a practicing environmentalist, but almost every farmer is. These days, you can’t afford not to be.”

—UPDATED BY AMY KREMEN