Rural System's

An Enterprise
Producing a Certified
Plant Growth Medium

Dover Pubs., non-copyrighted illustrations, 19th century sources

Alpha Earth is a product of a new scientific system of automated and managed "pods" of populations of earthworms specially selected from many species (e.g., Enisenea fetoeda) and raised on an optimum mix of forage. The end result of passing forage and raw materials through the vigorous digestive tracts of populations of these miniature "ground hogs" mixed with soil amendments produce two major substances useful in restoring and building soils and plant growth volumes of Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic States. These substances, one for clay-soil areas, the other for sandy-soil areas, are called Alpha Earth and they are used to enhance and build productive gardens, landscapes, parklands, and flowerbeds. They are especially designed for

A penny saved fits the same purse as a penny earned.

See Worm Tips.

See Vermicomposting.

With marketing innovations, other outlets and uses are contemplated.

While significant profitable sales are expected from the company producing Alpha Earth, the secondary Commonwealth gains are from reducing the costs of waste-stream removals, the costs of land-fill disposal, and the negative secondary effects of poorly disposed wastes. The waste streams of organic products (aqua culture, cattle and other livestock, pets, food product facilities and retail outlets) are to be processed in a scientifically monitored, managed, and controlled system.

The Alpha Earth systems are "pods" housed within small sheds with an outer surface compatible with the appearance of other local structures. Rather than take waste to the worm population processors, the pods are put in place near the waste. The pods are designed by a Virginia Tech Scientist, housed in a passive-energy environment, warmed or cooled by solar radiation, and waste is mixed with organic materials to produce an abundant, non-polluting, non-toxic soil-like unique planting medium for growing superior garden products - vegetables, fruits, and flowers with a Virginia brand name. Certain units may produce Smartwood certified product.

Alpha Earth is used to build Rural Gardens (to augment and support The Stables, Walnut Groves, The Products, The Rabbits Group, The Fishery, and Pseudosoils all described within

Alpha Earth, the company, develops a raw materials stream of organic retail and industrial wastes such as hay, manure, and aquatic system materials. It may develop specialized product mixes such as Earths with with select sands or clays. It develops and manages pods of millions of earthworms that process some of the materials and, when mixed with the proper amendments, result in a commercial product.
Dover non-copyrighted illustrations, 19th century sources
The pods are sheds with vertically arranged trays of bedding. Bedding or forage mixes are carefully maintained and monitored. The zoomass and food complex, is a carefully controlled simple ecosystem.

The enterprise employs 10 people, each traveling to and managing 3 to 10 pods and their food streams (expanding to 100).

First products displays are possible within 1 year.

For field work and desirable placement of soils, there is basic soil analyses. An area is mapped. The centroid of each alpha unit is located and recorded and with GPS an observer or member of the Land Force collects soil samples. These are then used to make a pseudosoil map of the area using the factors of slope, aspect, elevation, surface geology, nearness to ridge and nearness to permanent water.

Dr. Lori Marsh (March 8, 2004) responded to a question about the usefulness of compost as kitty litter, saying that vermicompost is unlikely to be useful. It is hydrophobic whereas litter probably needs to be absorbent. (Later, it might be experimentally pressure-expanded as for Walnut hulls.)

Dr. Marsh said that a well functioning vermicomposting system (the proposed "pod" can produce 1-2 pounds of moist (75%) vermicompost per square foot of bed surface per week or 50 to 100 pounds per year. To get the initially proposed 500 pounds for each of 30 gardens, then 15,000 pounds is needed per year. Thus we need 150 to 300 square feet of bed area. This material can be housed in a shed with 6 shelves (about 9 x 6 with plastic trays of bedding material). Larger facilities can be developed for large waste streams.

She said if we used windrows, there's a need for 300 square feet. Raised beds could probably produce 15,000 pounds in 150 square feet. The utility of the activity and product:

  1. desirable waste disposal with low cost and "cost of business" tax advantages
  2. desirable widespread or local landscape disposal with potential "contribution" tax advantages
  3. direct use annually on all Rural System Gardens
  4. direct sales with marketing to nursery and landscaping centers
  5. direct sales to sensitive-area government and corporate projects
  6. direct sale to organic food growers
  7. use of worm populations as well as compost in funded research projects

Start-up funds needed are $50,000 for the design of the first pod and its instrumentation and staff salary. An estimated rate of return by the end of 5 years is 5% …with many other dimensions of "returns" related to reduced costs, rebuilding land and increasing its value, avoiding secondary costs and externalities, and offering savings from waste streams of existing or developing industries.


from cover of W.N. Beyer 1990. Evaluating soil contamination, USDI, Fish and Wildlife Serv, Bio Rpt 90(2
The organic fraction of soil affects plant growth in many different ways, and these are variable, thus clear relations can rarely be precisely established. The functions: changing soil moisture content, reducing runoff and erosion, reducing soil temperature, increasing organism activity, influencing freeze/thaw action, reducing evaporation losses, emit CO2, increase N fixation. Photosynthetic activity is stimulated by high CO2 levels in humic soils. Polyphenols from humus catalyze respiration rates, thus influencing water balance in plants. Soil minerals are released in dissolution following acid formation following humus breakdown. The more minerals, generally, the better the growth. The plant and soil and abiotic mix is infinitely variable so definitive statements are missing. Plants do absorb organic compounds and amino acids directly from humic soils. These include, according to Waksman) creatine, creatinine, arginine, histidine, guanine,xanthine, hypoxanthine, nucleic acid. Substances simulating DNA, RNA, and mRNA are increased in plants (Kristeva 1962). Some phytohormone auxins from humus stimulate cell enlargement (Wilkins 1969). See Richards Introduction of the Soil Ecosystem.

Worm extraction (vermifuge, a chemical irritant to bring them to the surface) from soils is possible with formalin, (now probably an illegal use), with liquid detergents (4 liters per 50 x 50 cm quadrat (many worms die)), potassium permanganate solutions, and probably least destructive or harmful to surrounding conditions is with a mustard solution 25 ml per liter. Hand sorting is most efficient, but it is slow and laborious.

See Introduction to 'Harnessing the Earthworm' by Lady Eve Balfour, 1959 by Dr. Thomas J. Barrett, Humphries, 1947, with an Introduction by Eve Balfour; Wedgewood Press, Boston, 1959; Bookworm Pub Co, ISBN 0916302091

An email article from Rice, February, 2005

Storing Carbon in Soil: Why and How?

Charles W. Rice

Carbon is a primary element of all organic life forms on Earth. Carbon also is distributed in geologic material, oceans and the atmosphere. Concern has been mounting about the rapid buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — which is increasing by more than 3 billion tons per year. Industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) have accelerated this buildup. Carbon dioxide is a gas that absorbs heat, and thus contributes to the greenhouse effect.

The potential ramification of elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide on climate change makes it necessary to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — through increased energy efficiency and greater use of non-carbon energy — or to sequester carbon dioxide by injecting it into geologic formations and oceans or enhancing its uptake by terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Terrestrial ecosystems, both plants and soils, provide an attractive mechanism for carbon sequestration because we can manage them. We can manage plant growth to increase plants’ capacity to uptake carbon dioxide. And we can manage plant growth so that soils in turn store carbon for long periods of time. Agricultural lands are a good example.

Why soils?

The estimated amount of carbon stored in world soils is about 1,100 to 1,600 petagrams (one petagram is one billion metric tons), more than twice the carbon in living vegetation (560 petagrams) or in the atmosphere (750 petagrams). Hence, even relatively small changes in soil carbon storage per unit area could have a significant impact on the global carbon balance.

Carbon sequestration in soils occurs through plant production. Plants convert carbon dioxide into tissue through photosynthesis. After the plants die, plant material is decomposed, primarily by soil microorganisms, and much of the carbon in the plant material is eventually released through respiration back to theatmosphere as carbon dioxide.

But some of it remains when organic materials decay and leave behind organic residues, often called humus. These residues can persist in soils for hundreds or even thousands of years. At the same time, many factors can slow the decay of organic materials and, as a result, affect a soil’s capacity for storing carbon. Inherent factors include climate variables (temperature and rainfall), clay content and mineralogy.

It is possible to manage agricultural lands to maximize the amount of carbon those soils can store. The work my colleagues and I have undertaken on the agricultural lands of Kansas attempts to map the benefits of such soil management.

Staying in the soil

Climate affects soil carbon sequestration in two ways. First is the production of organic material entering the soil. Warm, moist climates generally have greater plant productivity. Cooler climates limit plant production. Hot climates may limit production because of reduced water availability, making water the limiting factor. Climate also affects the rate of microbial decomposition of plant material and soil organic matter. As temperature increases, microbial activity generally increases.

Soil water content also is important. Optimal microbial activity occurs at or near field capacity — the maximum amount of water that soil can hold against gravity. As soil becomes waterlogged, decomposition slows and becomes less complete. Peat soils are a common result. Decomposition also slows as soils dry.

Clay content stabilizes organic carbon by two processes. First, organic carbon chemically bonds to clay surfaces, which slows degradation. Clays with high adsorption capacities, such as montmorillinitic clays, retain the organic molecules. Secondly, soils with greater clay contents have a higher potential to form aggregates, which trap organic carbon and physically protect it from microbial degradation.

Generally, ecosystems that provide high quantities of plant material have the greatest potential to store carbon. Tropical ecosystems often provide some of the highest amounts of plant biomass, although these amounts are balanced by high rates of decomposition. Soils formed under tallgrass prairie, such as those my colleagues and I are studying on the Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan, Kan., have high amounts of soil carbon. These amounts partly result from a high rate of plant productivity, with approximately 60 to 80 percent occurring below ground. The amount of carbon stored in these soils is equivalent to soils of tropical forests.

Even in one handful of soil, not all carbon is the same and differs by its degradability. Soil organic carbon often is divided into three pools: active intermediate or slow, and recalcitrant. These three pools have different rates of turnover with the active pool on the order of months to years, the slow pool decades, and the recalcitrant pool hundreds to thousands of years. The active pool includes microbial biomass and labile organic compounds that make up less than 5 percent of the soil organic carbon. The slow pool usually makes up 20 to 40 percent, the recalcitrant 60 to 70 percent.

The goal of sequestering carbon in soils is to promote carbon transformations into the intermediate and recalcitrant pools. If more of the carbon ends up in the slow or recalcitrant pool, then it is less subject to loss and can remain in the soil for hundreds or thousands of years.

Carbon in soils under natural ecosystems often is at high levels and is considered at equilibrium, thus unable to sequester additional carbon. However, we have shown that in the soil beneath a native tallgrass prairie, soil carbon increased by 6 percent as deep as 50 centimeters when the tallgrass prairie was exposed to elevated carbon dioxide. The extra carbon dioxide increased plant production, which in turn increased how much carbon was incorporated into the soil. Most of the carbon was sequestered into a relatively slow pool, but some of the carbon was integrated into recalcitrant fractions, indicating longer-term storage.

The amount sequestered over the eight-year experimental period was equivalent to 6 megagrams per hectare. If one million acres absorbed this much carbon, it would store the same amount released by burning 4.3 million tons of coal. Furthermore, much of the carbon that was added from plant material was stored in macroaggregates larger than 250 micrometers, supporting the theory that physical protection of soil carbon is an integral part of carbon sequestration.

The potential of a tallgrass prairie

Agriculture in the 1800s and early 1900s relied on plowing the soil with low crop yields and on removing crop residues. This combination of agricultural practices resulted in reduced replenishment of organic material (carbon) to the soil. As a result, approximately 50 percent of the soil organic carbon (soil organic matter) has been lost over a period of 50 to 100 years of cultivation. However, this loss of soil carbon leaves space for new carbon. In recent decades, higher yields, retention of crop residues and development of conservation tillage practices have begun to increase soil carbon. Advances in crop and soil management practices can potentially allow soils to store more carbon.

No-tillage is one management practice that often preserves or increases soil carbon. My colleagues and I performed a study in western Kansas in which native sod was planted to a winter wheat-grain, sorghum-fallow rotation using either no-tillage or tillage to prepare the seedbed and plant the seed After 10 years, the mass of aggregates larger than 2,000 micrometers in the top 5 centimeters was reduced and redistributed into aggregates of less than 250 micrometers when native sod was converted to cropping. The amount of carbon in macroaggregates of greater than 250 micrometers in native sod was double that observed in conventional tillage. No-tillage conserved the same amount of macroaggregates that naturally occur in native prairie soil. The organic carbon associated with the macroaggregates was preferentially lost with cultivation. No-tillage soils have a higher potential for storing injected carbon for a long time.

In addition to preserving soil carbon from native conditions, no-tillage can increase soil carbon in soils that were previously cultivated and contained reduced levels. In my study of maize that ran continuously for 10 years at Kansas State University, no-tillage increased soil carbon by 9 percent when compared with tilled soil. Water-stable aggregates increased in no-tillage compared with tillage, especially in aggregates larger than 2,000 micrometers. The number of macroaggregates greater than 250 micrometers increased, as did the carbon associated with the aggregates, preferential to the smaller size aggregates. When manure was added as a nitrogen source, no-tillage also held more of the manure’s carbon: the no-tillage soil held 32 percent more carbon from the manure than the tilled soil. Thus, manure added both nitrogen and carbon.

More frequent planting of crops (almost year-round) infuses the soil with extra plant material and increases the amount of carbon stored. In western Kansas, intensifying cropping systems by conversion from wheat-fallow rotation to wheat-grain, sorghum-fallow rotation has increased soil carbon levels.

Another factor that determines storage capacity is the quality of plant carbon entering the soil. Our research shows that carbon from roots may contribute more to soil organic matter formation than does carbon from straw The reason for this difference between roots and above-ground material is not clear, but roots have a higher ratio of carbon to nitrogen, which would slow decomposition and encourage formation of humus. This conversion of carbon into humus is important because humus is part of the recalcitrant pool and the carbon in humus lasts longer in the soil. This quality factor suggests that plant breeding may provide avenues for increased carbon sequestration, either by changing plant composition of carbon compounds so that more carbon will be converted to soil organic matter, or by altering ratios of roots to shoots.

Microorganisms convert plant carbon into soil organic carbon. Differences in the soil microbial community can affect the ratio of carbon converted to carbon dioxide vs. to soil organic carbon. In research on the Konza Prairie that changed water relations in a tallgrass prairie, the soil microbial community was changed to favor fungi. Because bacteria tend to respire more plant carbon to carbon dioxide, while fungi tend to retain more carbon in the soil, the result was a greater retention of carbon into microbial products in the soil. Further research needs to be conducted on potential manipulation of the soil microbial community to find biogeochemical transformations of carbon that remain in soil.

Other pluses to soil carbon

Managing agricultural soils for sequestering carbon will yield additional benefits. When carbon is part of the soil organic matter fraction, the soil’s capacity to hold basic cations increases, which in turn improves soil fertility. Soil organic matter also improves water holding capacity, thus increasing plants’ ability to withstand short droughts. Soil carbon improves the structure of the soil, which results in improved drainage and aeration and better root growth. For the microbial community, carbon provides an energy source resulting in greater nutrient cycling and biodiversity. In addition, management practices that increase soil carbon also tend to reduce soil erosion, reduce energy inputs and improve soil resources. Increasing a soil’s capacity to store carbon means increasing how much carbon it contains which in turn increases crop productivity and enhances soil, water and air quality.

Rice is a professor of soil microbiology at Kansas State University. Email: Learn more about the Konza Prairie Biological Station at www

"Exotic" is a loaded word, especially when applied to organisms . Midwesterners consider among the most common of critters, friends to farmers and gardeners alike. What could be less exotic than the earthworm? But Hale and a number of other scientists are correct: Earthworms are not a natural part of the native fauna in large portions of the upper Midwest and Canada. The earthworms dug up in northern Wisconsin yards arrived only through human introduction.

One of the greatest misconceptions about earthworms, according to Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Hardwood Ecology, is that they are native in northern hardwood forests. "This is not true in northern Wisconsin, Upper Michigan and all of Minnesota," he said. "All of the earthworm species in those areas are European in origin and arrived with European settlement."

Contacts from 2008 town event

Learn how to keep food and yard waste out of the landfill and benefit your own backyard instead! Composting experts Craig Coker and Brian Rosa will explain the proper way to do backyard composting, and how to use composted material as an environmentally friendly product in your garden and landscaping. This program will be interactive and fun for the whole family. Compost bins will be for sale and given away as prizes.

Contact: Rachael Budwole 540 961-1806


W.N. Beyer. 1990. Evaluating soil contamination, USDI, Fish and Wildlife Serv, Bio Rpt 90(2), Washington, DC 25p.

Perhaps you will share ideas with me about some of the topic(s) above .

Rural System
Robert H. Giles, Jr.
July 3, 2005