Back in 1987, John Micallef began farming at Agnes Banks in the Richmond area of New South Wales, north-west of Sydney. Sam and Val, John Micallef’s kids, are second-generation farmers who’ve followed in their father’s footsteps, growing traditional seasonal field vegetables to supply the Sydney Markets.
Like much of the land in the region, the soil on the Micallefs’ property had a poor, sandy loam structure that required amending in order to provide the optimum growing medium for vegetable crops.
The Micallefs first trialled compost made from recycled organics more than five years ago as part of the Nutrient Smart Farms (NSF) project. By applying compost, they improved the structure and fertility of their soil as well as its capacity for moisture retention.
Over the past five years, they have successfully grown seasonal vegetables including lettuce, cabbage, cauliflower and sweet corn in the composted paddocks. Increased soil-moisture retention means the farm now uses substantially less water while achieving better growth and yields. The Micallefs say applying compost has resulted in more consistent growth in vegetable crops, along with healthy yield increases of around 30 percent.
Their long-term experience with recyled organics made the Micallefs ideal candidates for participation in the case study component of the Next Gen compost project. A case study of recycled-organics compost use on their farm, conducted during 2016, enabled the Micallefs to build on their learnings from the NSF project and share their experiences with other growers.
For the case study, Australian Native Landscapes (ANL) supplied the Micallefs with a high-quality recycled organic compost. ANL specialises in composts, composted mulches and special blends for agricultural and horticultural cropping systems that are compliant with NASAA and with the current Australian Standard [for Soil Conditioners, Composts and Mulches].
Outcomes were so good that the Micallefs now have compost delivered on a monthly basis for progressive addition to cells in their paddocks. This, they say, helps them to maintain the fertility and health of their intensively cropped soils.
Val Micallef says that the 'next-gen' compost approach reduces total fertiliser input and saves water. For their particular system, however, the Micallefs have found that it works better to augment compost with nitrogen post-application than to have it pre-mixed by the compost supplier. This is because they spread the same standard delivery of compost across different cells for different crops. The Micallefs have the compost delivered to holding bays on their property for use when needed.
"We are growing many different crops simultaneously and also rotate different crops across different cells. We have learned how much nitrogen supplement needs to be added to the compost to maximise yeild for the particular growth cycle and cell. I can see a bulk premixed 'next gen' product working for farmers producing monocrops, but for us, we need the flexibility to tweak the compost in the paddock", he said.
The case study highlighted not only the value of using recycled organics, but how growers can embed the use of recyled organics into their routine practice in ways that suit their production models. Val Micallef said that observing how compost interacts with soils and particular crops is critical to success. "Working with compost has enabled us to fine tune it for our property. It's different to working with conventional chemical fertiliser so there is a learning curve, but for us it's the way to go" he said.