Probing The Secret Life Of Compost

When San Antonio's Malcolm Beck got into the compost business over fifty years ago, many people had never heard of compost, Beck says. Beck began making it for his organic farm and found that his compost more profitable than produce. Science Friday stopped by for a tutorial in the art of composting.

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IRA FLATOW, host: Now with us is Flora Lichtman, our Video Pick of the Week, you know, our multimedia editor. Now, Flora has been very busy out there, also filming that cattle but...

FLORA LICHTMAN: Another local icon, well, a man, Malcolm Beck, who study something slightly more unsavory I would say.

FLATOW: Unsavory?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Although, I'm a total convert now. He's a guru of compost.

FLATOW: Compost?

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: A guru of compost.

LICHTMAN: He has been driving the compost train for 50 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: He really - he started doing compost, this compost business. And if you live in San Antonio, you might know of Garden Ville. This is it sounds like people in the crowd do know about it. So it's a organic farming and gardening center, and he's the guy who started it 50 year - over 50 years ago. And he was an organic farmer, you know, in a time when it wasn't quite as trendy. And he said that when he started his compost business people didn't even know - hadn't even heard the word.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow with Flora Lichtman, talking about the king of compost.

LICHTMAN: King, that's better. That's even better than compost guru, king of compost.

FLATOW: The king of compost. And you went out - and it's on our Video Pick of the Week up on our website at sciencefriday.com - you watched these piles of compost and - that he collects and he makes.

LICHTMAN: Forty acres of compost processing, you know, these giant mounts of, you know, black manure and other stuff.

FLATOW: Yeah. I couldn't have said it any better, or any safer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: But they also - the - there's an aha moment in your video, because when you look at these black mounts of manure and he said that his most prized manure comes from what?

LICHTMAN: This is amazing, from bat guano. That's like the really good stuff. It gets packaged separately. It's the gold standard of compost apparently, and Bracken Cave here in San Antonio.

FLATOW: Bat guano, and you've got these mounts and mounts of it. But what he won't tell most people is the secret he told you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That...

FLATOW: I hope no one is listening, 'cause it's a secret.

This is - the secret life of compost, here it is. How do you know when compost is done because, you know, the basic mixture is carbon, woodchips and then a manure, a poof source - let's just say it.

Mm-hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: And so, how do you know it's done? You stick your hand in it and you take it to your nose and you take a big sniff. And if it doesn't smell so manurey(ph), then it's done. He actually said find a woman because they have more acute sense of smell.

FLATOW: That...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: So Katherine, our arts producer...

FLATOW: ...for all the excuses I've heard...

LICHTMAN: put her nose to...

FLATOW: ...about find a woman...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ...just think bat manure - it's got to be the - but the thing also about that manure that he told you was that it's not really bat manure, is it?

LICHTMAN: Oh, yes. This is the other aha moment. The bat guano fertilizer is actually beetle poof because it's it the beetles that break down this bat guano in this cave and so that's what they're literally vacuuming out of the cave. So, yeah, beetle poof is the bat guano manure.

FLATOW: So it's - so that's really not even - even his high quality stuff is just stuff.

LICHTMAN: Ira, it's really look like you're outing him or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: No. I think it's really fascinating.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I know. It's amazing.

FLATOW: Yeah, it's absolutely fascinating. And can you - you know, he sells it in bags and people take it away.

LICHTMAN: Yes. He said he shipped it all over the place, and there are different varieties. In fact, you know, I think the different manure comes from different places, the San Antonio sewer system, for example, the zoo, stables, you know, what's...

FLATOW: Zoo-doo. They sell zoo-doo. Yeah, they have zoo-doo out there from the zoos, yeah.

LICHTMAN: But it's like a recycling plant. I mean, this guy really is doing an amazing thing. He's taking a lot of garbage and turning it into plant food.

FLATOW: Right. And he'll ship it anywhere...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...in the world.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. A lot, yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. So he bags it up...

LICHTMAN: Up the website.

FLATOW: Go to - that's it. Go to our website at the - it could be a great holiday gift, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Local.

FLATOW: Local, it's a local product, you know, it's useful. Really good compost is the best soil in the world, you know. Aren't you guys farmers and ranchers? You put your hands in a great compost and it - it's really is wonderful stuff. And if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, you can watch Flora and her visit out there to watch how the heat processes all this manure and compost.

LICHTMAN: And if you live in San Antonio, it's definitely worth going to have a look at his place. It's got a test garden. It's really - it's a cool operation.

FLATOW: There you go. Now, if you needed something to do for the weekend, you can go out and visit, pick up a bag, a few stuff. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for this hour. We'd like to say goodbye this hour from Science Friday. I'm Ira Flatow in San Antonio.

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