Composting in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is an island full of rich soil, abundant wildlife, and vibrant people. The island has a rich agricultural traditions originating from its first inhabitants, the Taino Indians. Ginger, coffee, sugar, cassava, and banana plantations once covered the mountainous island terrain. In the 1950s, the government encouraged agricultural workers to migrate to the US and work in factories, causing a major economic and social shift on the island. Additionally, free trade was established between Puerto Rico and the United States, revolutionizing agricultural production. Before 1950, agriculture accounted for nearly 20% of Puerto Rico’s GDP. Today, it contributes less than %1. Although the island was once thriving with highly nutritious, indigenous food, today, only 20% of food consumed on the island is grown locally. With childhood obesity rates exceeding 26% and nearly one third of the population receiving supplemental nutrition assistance, the need for locally grown fruits and vegetables is great. After researching and speaking with locals about the history of agriculture in Puerto Rico, it is clear that decades of fighting for autonomy coupled with globalization has caused the people of Puerto Rico to slip away from their pre-columbian agricultural roots.
Like any other populated area, Puerto Rico suffers from high unemployment rates, gang violence, rape and other social injustices. The Lync8 Project, a non-profit organization based out of Kentucky, seeks to raise awareness about these injustices by inviting teams from the mainland to build relationships with local communities through gardening and sports ministries.
Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico with a team of four people from the Arrington Foundation in Ohio. Along with teams from Kentucky and Oklahoma, our group partnered with Lync8’s garden ministry to clear land near two churches. The first church, Nueva Esperanza, was led by a visionary Pastor named Manuel. Pastor Manuel and his congregation were interested in starting a community garden next to their church. Their hope is to use the food from the garden to feed congregation members and will be used in a feeding program that the church hosts for mothers and children in the community. Zach and I taught a composting workshop at this church and constructed a three-bin compost system. We taught the community about the basics of composting: how to get started, materials needed, different types of composting systems, and general maintenance of compost bins. This particular church property was an ideal spot for a compost bin because it was covered with both carbon and nitrogen filled organic materials, not to mention an endless supply of kitchen scraps from the feeding program located less than 20 yards from the compost bin. Several people who attended the workshop had years of gardening experience and were passionate about growing local food.
The second church site that our team helped clear was unique. The historic 100 year old church had recently acquired a large area of land with a track, playground equipment and a basketball court. With church attendance slowly dwindling, the congregation was eager to use the outdoor space as a place where community members can fellowship and enjoy recreational activities together. After spending several days macheteing vines off fences, mowing and raking grass, and enjoying delicious Puerto Rican lunches made by the women of the church, our team had cleared the area and it was ready for use. The church’s interim pastor, Robinson (who worked closely alongside us in the heat as we cleared the land), mentioned that many people in the community had begun to comment on how nice the area looked. Church leaders were overflowing with joy and gratitude when they explained to us that because of their aging congregation, the work would not have gotten done without the help our group provided. At the end of the week, we prayed for the church, that God would use the space that had been restored to be a light for that community. We prayed that people would see and be drawn to the goodness and restorative nature of the Lord through the track and recreational area.
After reading books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, I am more aware of the advantages and disadvantages of short term missions. But after seeing the tears of joy and gratitude pour down the face of a church leader that longs to see her church full of young believers and after hearing the excitement in the voice of Puerto Rican gardeners, ready to begin their new composting adventures, I see how important short term trips like this can be. I’m thankful for the opportunity to meet beautiful people on an island overflowing with abundant life and am eager to see how they use their new knowledge of compost and determination to impact their communities and provide healthy, fresh and local food to their neighbors.
Check out an outline of the compost workshop we hosted! You can also learn more about compost on a previous blog post by clicking here.
Breakdown of organic matter
Organic matter = anything that was once living
Low cost, low risk = increased production and long term health of land
Improves soil health
Adds microorganisms to soil
Adds nutrients to the soil for plants to grow
Improve soil structure
Too much clay could inhibit the plant’s roots from taking up nutrients
Too much sand could inhibit the soil from retaining water
Small organism that can’t be seen with the naked eye
Energy source (carbon)
Protein source (nitrogen)
Types of Compost
Choosing a pile location
In the tropics, pick an area that receives shade
close to water
Away from home
Easy to access
Commonly Used Materials
Hay or straw
Blood and bone meal (fish, hoof, horn meal)
*these items break down best if chopped or shredded before put in compost pile
Materials to avoid
Coal or charcoal
Paper with a lot of ink
This method allows compost to break down very quickly, but requires more work
Chops and shred all items before adding to compost
Turn compost frequently
Takes longer to get cured compost, but does requires less work
Once 3rd bin is finished, move 1st bin to second bin
Create separate piles of Carbon and Nitrogen sources
Build layers of C and N (like a lasagna)
Water and add soil while building layers
Turn if needed
Minimum 3x3x3 ft
The larger the pile, the more important turning is
Compost and organic matter is fed to worms that produce castings (poop)
Castings have more nutrients than compost made without worms
Oxygen, bedding, moisture, food
Managing the Compost
Remember: Anything that was once living can be composted!
30:1, Carbon: Nitrogen
Turn compost if needed
Results in higher temps (90-140F) which kills disease, fly larvae, and weed seeds
Food scraps should not be put on top of an unturned pile
How to use compost
How much compost do I put on my bed?
Before planting: ½ inch compost over bed surface, six 5-gallon buckets per 100-square foot beds
After planting: “side-dress” plants
How long will it take to break down?
Depends on the temperature, moisture, and materials put into the compost
Usually in the tropics it will be ready in 2-6 months
Sieve or sift compost after removing from pile and before applying to bed
Once compost is sifted and ready for use, it should be covered to protect against strong sun and heavy rain