Will chicken litter and fly ash make the 'perfect' compost?

Retiree uses fly ash and chicken litter to develop an odorless, nutrient-rich compost that he hopes is the perfect garden fertilizer.

By , Brookhaven Daily Leader/AP

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    Hand full of the compost-like material from waste.
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There's something to be said about the perfect mixture.

Silver Creek, Miss.'s Gerald Brent has being mixing and stirring for four years, and if his product comes out right, there may be something to say about him as well.

The retired Georgia-Pacific hand has kept the dirt under his fingernails rich over the past 48 months, mixing different forms of agricultural and industrial waste in search of what he believes will be a near-perfect fertilizer. Brent hopes to begin producing a 90-day accelerated compost for the gardening market next year, and he's combined personal investment with professional advice, sound chemistry and hard, dirty work to make it happen.

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"You can't go 'if'ing' when you go into the market - if I'd done this or if I'd done that. You've got to know," Mr. Brent says.

Brent's mix is actually rather simple – a load of chicken litter, a load of fly ash, a touch of lime. He purchases the chicken litter on contract with local chicken farmers, and he trucks in the fly ash – the burned residue from solid fuels like wood and coal - from nearby Georgia-Pacific. The ingredients act on each other to balance the acidity level while generating fertile soil.

Chicken litter on its own is powerful fertilizer, Brent says, but the black, powdery fly ash is the key. Whereas the top few inches of chicken litter will seal over in the rain, the fly ash makes the mixture permeable, allowing the bacteria that break down the mixture to stay warm, wet and working rapidly at 140 degrees. Though a normal compost pile may take a year to break down into good soil, Brent's accelerated compost is designed to go from mixing pot to application in 90 days.

"That's the key factor, being able to turn out as much as you want in 90 days," he says.

Brent stumbled upon the fly ash years ago while working at Georgia-Pacific, and the stuff's fertilizing power came as no surprise. He recalled walking past the mill's fly ash pond daily and seeing how the dumped waste material made nearby vegetation thrive.

"Around that fly ash pond, common Bermuda grass was that deep," he says, spacing his hands to recreate the size. "You could look and see it was working, but we didn't know how."

Brent says he spent more than $1,000 sending samples of his mixture to Mississippi State University for analysis to nail down the fly ash's key ingredient before finally determining it advanced the cation exchange capacity of the soil. In the exchange, positive and negative charged elements of the mixture react together to break down the mixture and release nutrients into the soil. Brent says his accelerated compost will release more plant nutrients, especially nitrogen, than traditional commercial fertilizer.

"There's enough nitrogen in the soil, but certain things keep the plan from using it," Brent says. "Whenever this come out, I can assure you there will be a higher amount of nutrients in it."

The fly ash also accomplishes another major fertilizer feat – it kills the odor of the chicken litter completely. Brent says the bad smell of chicken litter is often its primary drawback for commercial use.

So far, Brent's ducks are in a row. He is testing his mixture on fields in Silver Creek with a permit from the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. The results so far are noticeable, but more stringent testing will be required before his compost goes commercial.

Dr. Larry Oldham, an MSU Extension professor and soil expert who Brent has called for advice many times, says Brent's accelerated compost would have to be validated in controlled scientific tests. He did say, however, that Brent might be onto something, and other, larger entities are trying to get to the finish line, too.

"The Southern Company has been doing a lot of work with fly ash, including in this state, over the past few years," Dr. Oldham says. "There's a lot of research going on. There's been a lot of work with fly ash, I'm just not real sure if it's been combined with poultry litter."

Brent is hoping his labor will produce fruit next year. He's already formed Silver Creek Processing LLC and hopes to begin bagging free samples of his accelerated compost for gardeners to try next spring. He says his mixture will likely be too expensive for large-scale agricultural use, but he hopes to make an impact on the gardening market and leave a successful company behind for his grandchildren.

"My father did better than his father, and I feel like I may have had a higher standard of living than he did," Brent says. "But the way this country is headed, and with the millions of jobs we've sent overseas, I wonder if my grandson will be able to have as high a standard of living as I did."

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