"It's the ultimate crock pot," George Taylor says, as he reaches into the compost heap and pulls out a fish bone sitting near the surface. The skull is burnt a dark brown in some places.
"It takes about five or six weeks for the bones to decompose," he says. "The pile reaches a temperature of 130 degrees."
A local doctor, Taylor purchased this Johns Island property to establish Sweetgrass Garden and grow food for the hungry. In their first season last summer, the charity farm donated 4,000 pounds of produce to the Lowcountry Food Bank and the church Our Lady of Mercy.
Farm manager Dale Snyder, who participated in Lowcountry Local First's Growing New Farmers program, manages the fish compost based on his knowledge of Native American agricultural techniques.
He says Native Americans often incorporated fish parts into their compost to enhance and amend their soil. The scraps used in Sweetgrass Garden's compost come from Mark and Kerry Marhefka of Abundant Seafood. Snyder was connected to the Marhefkas through Helen Moorefield, a master gardener and the treasurer at Sweetgrass Garden.
Moorefield is an Abundant Seafood Community Supported Fishery (CSF) client. When she found out the Marhefkas were throwing away leftover fish parts, she thought, hey, this would make a really great addition to compost.
Now, Marhefka calls Snyder whenever his coolers are filled with scraps of fish waste.
"When I started doing this, it was about honoring the fish," Marhefka says of the fishing business. "This was the last step, returning it to the earth."
Previously, once he'd cleaned and filleted the fish for his CSF customers, Marhefka was left with pounds and pounds of largely inedible fish flesh and bones. Now, the Marhefkas can turn their fish waste into fuel for fresh food that will in turn feed people in need, a pretty nice example of the circle of life.
Once the fish arrives at the farm, Snyder integrates the parts into a four-foot square compost bin.
Snyder says the soil native to Johns Island is known as sandy loam, a mixture of sand, clay, and silt that's heavy on sand and light on nitrogen. The nutrients in fish effectively amend this soil's insufficiencies. Fish bones also supply calcium. There's just one problem: Raw, old fish smells pretty bad. And that can be trouble.
Elizabeth Beak, former program director of sustainable agriculture at Lowcountry Local First, was at Sweetgrass Garden the day we visited and says one of the greatest challenges farmers face is staying on good terms with neighbors.
"We live in a time where our cities are growing rapidly toward our fields," says Beak, who is involved with local agriculture projects through her consulting company Crop Up. "Most people are about three generations removed from the realities of farm life. This can lead to misunderstandings about dust, a meandering cow, the sound of farm equipment, certain smells."
The last thing Snyder and Taylor want is to jeopardize the project at Sweetgrass over an odor. To diffuse the smell, they've installed perforated pipes and biofilters into the compost bin.
"The compost doesn't smell worse than a pile of anything else now," Snyder says.
Snyder turned the fish compost project into grant money, submitting a proposal to the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program called "Is Fish Waste Compost Worth the Mess and Effort?" He was given nearly $10,000 in funding to find out the answer to that question.
In their controlled studies, three independent variables were tested: fish compost, vegetable compost, and no compost. The results were quantifiable.
When used on tomato and cucumber plants, fish compost produced fruit that was stronger, prettier, and more disease resistant. The cucumbers and tomatoes ripened earlier, were less susceptible to drought, and yielded almost 25 percent more produce.
Iverson Brownell, a chef and former owner of Iverson Catering, volunteers at Sweetgrass and says the produce grown at Sweetgrass Garden is some of the best he's ever seen.
"We're taking from the sea, giving back to the earth, and then giving it away," Brownell says. "The full circle of life is experienced out here, and every time Abundant Seafood arrives, the ground gets more fertile."
Occasionally, Snyder says, neighbors will stop by and ask for produce, and they are given whatever they want. Taylor's goal is to grow food and share it with others — for free.
"It doesn't matter if it's at a church or a food bank," Snyder says. He points a finger toward the acres of unused land in the distance and dreams of one day planting so many rows that no person on the island would ever have to go hungry.
"Our goal is to expand our acreage," Snyder says. "We'd be fine giving all the food away."
And that's how everything in this story comes full circle — a caring mission, an innovative idea from the past, and a vibrant community coming together to feed nutritious food to hungry people in the Lowcountry.