The practice of composting has been in use for millennia, but only in the past few centuries, the popularity has seen a few fluctuations. There has been documented evidence of rudimentary compost practices since as early as 2320 BC in the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia. There is also evidence of ancient composting in Scotland and China; these practices involved using an ard (a tool to incorporate compostable materials into cultivated areas). There is also evidence that the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans composted with manure and even began practicing vermicomposting (composting with the use of worms to help break down the organic matter). Further, there are many references to composting and manure use in historical writings, including the Bible and the Talmud and writings by William Shakespeare, Sir Francis Bacon, and Sir Walter Raleigh.
In North America, compost has had a spotty history, starting with active composting by the Native Americans. Native Americans composted 3 ways, using sheet composting (layering materials with soil), composting while planting, and seed balls of clay, compostable materials, and seeds. Native Americans then taught American settlers to compost, especially with fish. The preeminent recipe was 10 parts “muck” to 1 part fish and one Connecticut farm used 220,000 fish to produce one season of compost. Some notable Americans who supported and practiced composting were George Washington Carver, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. George Washington Carver was even quoted as saying Make your own fertilizer… compost can be done with little labour and practically no cash outlay. George Washington used compost to boost his yield when switching his field from cultivating tobacco to wheat. At Mount Vernon, George Washington had his farm manager construct a pit to hold stable waste to be converted to compost. This pit was called a “dung repository” or a “stercorary” and reached several feet into the ground. Once the manure and other plant wastes finished their conversion to compost, the resultant material was used on George Washington’s fields.
Closer to Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson also practiced composting of sorts, creating piles of plant waste in field corners to rot and later be spread over the fields as fertilizer. This historical connection to Monticello and Thomas Jefferson may prove to be useful in bringing composting to the city of Charlottesville and connecting it with its heritage.
More recently in the United States, the mid 19-th century saw a depletion in soil quality due to unsustainable farming practices. This led to a decline in productivity which prompted farmers to use compost as a method of re-enriching the soil. Many farms used organic waste that was produced by early cities, like New York and Philadelphia, thus illustrating a historical, sustainable relationship between cities’ waste and farm/food production. As urbanization continued, various pressures on this system developed, and it became seemingly unfeasible to continue. Higher demand was put on farms to produce more food for a growing population and a higher population density in cities complicated the disposal of organic wastes. The combination of Liebig’s discovery of the chemicals needed for efficient plant production and the excess synthetic nitrogen after World War I led to the widespread use of artificial fertilizer over compost in the early 20th century. In the 1920s however, Sir Albert Howard began to study the relationship of humus, soil, and compost and created a process called the Indore Method for composting.
This entails layering vegetable and animal waste with manure, keeping the compost turned, and ensuring that it is kept moist. His work helped spark interest in organic agriculture and led to him being known as the modern father of organic farming. In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl led to investigation about soil depletion and deleterious agricultural practice, which further led to the resurgence of the idea of using compost. The resurgence, unfortunately, did not lead to the robust, widespread use of compost as in the past, but the practice has been slowly gaining ground since. There have been a few notable developments in the last century, including much more research on composting and the creation of large-scale compost facilities (like Black Bear) that can handle huge quantities of organic waste and produce compost on a scale necessary to support the level of agriculture needed by our burgeoning population.
The history of composting provides an interesting glimpse into a past where composting once dominated agriculture as the preeminent form of fertilizer. At least in part, it was science (the discovery and reductionism of NPK) that prompted a switch to artificial fertilizers and it may be science again that causes a shift back towards composting, by way of the quantifiable benefits of humus and living organisms in soil, and the numbers associated with our current environmental crisis. It would serve us well to return to a state in which most agriculture uses compost to enrich the soil, rather than synthetic fertilizers. There is much to be learned by looking backwards to the history of the United States and of Charlottesville and taking of note of what was done both by the common citizen and figures as prominent as Thomas Jefferson. This connection to Thomas Jefferson may indeed prove to be one of the most beneficial historical factors in bringing composting back to Charlottesville.