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Southeast Minnesota farms learning the route to building biodiverse compost

Five farms in southeast Minnesota are involved in a Land Stewardship Project research project geared to help farmers understand and use cutting-edge composting systems to build soil health naturally.

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Cows grazing at the Pangrac-Olson farm on Aug. 26, 2022 in Lewiston, Minnesota.
Noah Fish / Agweek
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LEWISTON, Minn. — Dale and Carmene Pangrac were science teachers before they decided to buy a farm in 1979 and switch careers.

Along with their daughter and son-in-law, the couple now manages a 150-head organic dairy operation and about 750 acres of crops on the same land in southeast Minnesota.

These days they’re still practicing a lot of science by learning first-hand how to develop biodiverse compost

The Pangrac-Olson farm in Lewiston is one of five farms in the region participating in a composting research project led by the Land Stewardship Project, and funded by a grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation Program.

The project is meant to help farmers understand and use cutting-edge composting systems to build soil health naturally. The participating southeast Minnesota operations are using the Johnson-Su Bioreactor system . According to LSP, the system is set up to “practically develop fungal-dense composts that can be applied as a beneficial inoculant to depleted soils.”

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A field day on Aug. 26 at the Pangrac-Olson farm featured presentations from soil microbiology experts David Johnson and Hui-Chun Su Johnson, who shared how they developed the system and how farmers can get the best use out of it.

“We've been kind of building up this education around how we build good compost, and get it out onto the soil,” said Shona Langseth, co-director at LSP who works with the soil health and land access team. “What we really like about the Johnson-Su bioreactors is that it's static — you don't need to turn it, and you just set it, and then forget it for a solid year.”

Langseth said the end result is a “really biodiverse biodense product” that farmers can apply on their crops.

The daylong event for farmers interested in learning how to develop compost using a bioreactor system covered construction, filling and management of bioreactors. It also provided the chance for participating farmers to discuss how it’s gone for them.

"There's a lot of people that have done things that I haven't done, and I can learn about them," said Pangrac.

To have the creators of the Johnson-Su Bioreactor system — who Pangrac called "world renowned" — at their farm to speak was a privilege for him.

"To have him come to our farm, what an opportunity, and we're really trying to take advantage of that," he said. "We can bend his ear and learn a lot from him. And hopefully, that'll help us down the road."

Learning process

Dale and Carmene Pangrac made the transition to organic in 2005.

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"We started rotationally grazing in 1991," said Pangrac. "So it was really a pretty easy transition, with the cows grazing, and just feeding them a minimal amount of grain.”

2005 was also the year they added their daughter and son-in-law as business partners — Kim and Andy Olson, who will take over the farm after them. Pangrac said they're in the process of discussing what the operation will look like after succession.

"It's probably going to change, but we don't know exactly how yet," he said.

Pangrac said their venture into adapting customized compost systems began with Elaine Ingham, microbiologist, soil biology researcher and founder of Soil Foodweb Inc., who worked with LSP on workshops similar to the event held on Aug. 26.

For the last six years, the Pangrac-Olson farm has been using the Johnson-Su system, which requires a bioreactor.

Langseth said that bioreactors are made from hog paneling, which is wrapped in a big tower on top of a pallet, about five feet in diameter.

“And then you have six air tubes, of just PVC pipe with holes in it, and basically what you're doing is creating oxygen tunnels through your compost,” said Langseth. “So your compost is breathing, it is aerobic — and that is the big takeaway from this.”

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Two finished Johnson-Su Bioreactor stacks on the Pangrac-Olson farm in Lewiston, Minnesota.
Contributed / Land Stewardship Project

Pangrac said they’ve made several bioreactors, with some turning out OK and others not working at all.

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"But we're learning as we go,” he said.

The system gets them closer to not having to purchase fertilizers to grow crops, said Pangrac, which is the goal.

"We're trying to use the compost, and let the soil biology do the work," he said. "Instead of spoon feeding everything."

Noah Fish is a multimedia journalist who creates print, online and TV content for Agweek. He's also the host of the Agweek Podcast.

While covering agriculture he's earned awards for his localized reporting on the 2018 trade war, and breaking news coverage of a fifth-generation dairy farm that was forced to sell its herd when a barn roof collapsed in the winter of 2019. His reporting focuses on the intersection of agriculture, food and culture.

He reports out of Rochester, Minnesota, and can be reached at nfish@agweek.com
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