While trekking through the Himalayan Mountains of northern India, I met a farmer in an isolated village who showed me an ancient and fascinating use for compost.
The growing season in the Himalayan Mountains is very short. Farmers have five months, from May through September, to grow all their produce for the year.
Winters in the Himalayan Mountains are long and brutally cold. The severe weather can trap families in their tiny thin-walled houses for months at a time. These folks don’t have electricity, and they can’t afford fuel to continuously burn fires, so they use compost to heat their homes. Here’s how it works:
The houses are very small, and there are two levels: an upper level, where the family lives, and a lower level, where the cow lives.
By the onset of winter, the farmer has tightly packed the entire upper floor with hay. He pens the cow into the lower level and throws hay down to the cow each day during the winter. The cow eats most of the hay, but some falls to the ground to be trampled on.
The hay on the ground mixes with the cow’s manure and forms compost. The compost generates an internal temperature of around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and radiates a continuous moist heat throughout the entire house. The compost keeps the family nice and warm, even on the coldest winter nights.
The compost pile grows as the cow adds manure and the farmer adds hay; however, the temperature of the compost remains constant. By the end of winter, the cow is standing on top of a tremendous compost pile, and her head is bumping against the ceiling.
I stayed with the family at the end of summer, when the upper level was packed with hay. The farmer’s wife prepared a meal of curd curry on a Franklin stove. The narrow space of floor around the stove, with its extra heat, served as kitchen, living room, and bedroom for the entire family, seven people in all.
The farmer offered me a glass of mint tea, and his wife graciously dropped a huge dollop of fresh butter into the tea as a sweetener. In addition to heat and compost, the cow also provided fresh milk for butter, curds, cheese, and yogurt. Not only that, the fuel for the Franklin stove was actually dried cow patties that the farmer carefully preserved for their cooking fires.
Sitting with the family in the living quarters, I was able to look down through the cracks in the floor and see the brown back of the cow, and listen as the cow added urine to the compost pile in a long loud stream. However, because the farmer balanced the compost with plenty of carbon-dense material, neither the cow nor the compost gave an off-odor. In fact, the house smelled pleasant and fresh and clean.
With the arrival of spring, the farmer turns the cow loose to forage on the mountainside. Then he shovels all of that wonderful compost onto his gardens, and plants his seeds, and grows another year’s worth of produce in the rich black soil.