• F.H. King

Compost Kings & Queens

On Saturday, June 8th, five of us from FH King visited the West Madison Agricultural Research Station off Mineral Point Road in Verona. We got a tour of the industrial compost area and learned about the process from two of West Ag’s compost experts. Most of the compostable material comes from UW Madison’s agricultural departments with things like cow manure, corn stalks, and other farm byproducts as well as swept up leaves from nearby municipalities such as Middleton. West Ag utilizes a windrow composting method; therefore, every few days, the several rows of material are turned using large machinery pulled by a tractor that it’s attached to. We were able to see this in action and talked about the procedure of creating marketable compost.

Ralph Siegenthaler, West Ag’s equipment research operator, standing next to a row of decomposing material explaining how woodchips don’t break down very well unless fungi are present.

Ralph, in the tractor, showing us the industrial turner as West Ag’s superintendent, Janet Hedtcke, takes the temperature of the compost pile.

In order to sell the finished product, there is a lot of time and effort required to meet state requirements. For instance, the actively decomposing piles need to be within a certain temperature range for seeds and pathogens to die off. Also, the compost needs to have a specific porosity to be a useful soil amendment for farmers or gardeners alike. As with most other activities taking place at West Ag, it was very neat to see the dedication workers had towards composting and various other projects going on; especially given the complex trial-and-error processes that occur in research.

A view of the industrial compost area. The pile on the left was just turned a few minutes before this photo was taken.

After our compost tour, we briefly walked around the horticultural display gardens by the main entrance, which is open to the public every day from dusk to dawn. There are many peonies in bloom right now along with a large variety of produce and other vegetation growing for aesthetic and consumptive purposes. It was fun identifying plants and being in a space with such amazing surroundings. Compared to being in downtown Madison, the West Ag Research Center gives an idea of what rural Wisconsin is like and shows how research can take place in a variety of ways. We also got to chat with some highly knowledgeable and experienced employees who helped provide a new perspective of the relationships between art and science as well as people, plants, and the land we live on.

Frolicking around the gardens and enjoying a beautiful sunny day filled with ag education.