Jean Pain Compost Methods – It Begins.

I’ve posted before about my infatuation with Jean Pain’s work and my desire to try to recreate his experiments here in Wisconsin.   Actually, when you break it down its a no brainer – I love compost and coppicing, plus I get to use chain saws, massive chippers dump trucks, and skid steers.  Given the chance, I would coppice and chop up trees and pile the chips on my days off for free, the fact that I get  methane, hot water and tons of compost out of the deal is icing on the cake!

Despite its awesomeness, this has been a “backburner” project for me.  We did a test run a few weeks ago at the farm -coppicing 25 3″ trunk diameter box elders and running them through my Bio-80 chipper.  The goal was to make a yard or so of fresh chips for use as mushroom growing medium.  As the whole, green trees went through the chipper the end product was fantastic – finely diced/shredded with tons of green material from the sap and leaves.  Unfotunately after about 2-3 hours of work, we had about 21 cu ft of chips (.6 cu yards).  From 25 trees.  Oi.  Jean Pain’s piles were 50 ton, or about 100 cu yards.   It would take a week to make a pile big enough –even if we could get the trees.  Of course we could rent a bigger chipper, but with all the farming going on, the idea got shelved.  Until today.


The bed holds 10 cu yards - I took about 7-8. See that steam? And it had only been sitting for less than a day!


I check my village’s mulch pile with the same frequency most men check baseball stats – for 2 weeks now it has been completely out – but yesterday or this morning someone dropped off about 12 cu yards of fresh ground young pine tree.   Just driving up I could see how many needles were left – the pile was virtually green.  BINGO!  While there was no way I had time to cut and grind up 500 box elders, I could spend an hour forking 7 yards into B.A.R.T.  I *knew* there was a reason I skipped the gym today!

As we are looking to do a major expansion (+500%)of our home gardens this month, I will need a significant amount of compost this fall – so despite living in an HOA I trundled my load of green gold home and proceeded to make a massive pile on the driveway.  Once finished cooking, this should be about 1500#’s of compost.  The fact that I already had a 3 yard pile of mulch chips already on the driveway only adds to the head shaking by the neighbors.  If they only knew what I had in store!


I just grin ear to ear every time I think about the neighbors...


What do I have in store?  I want to build a Proof of Concept for a smaller scale Jean Pain compost system.  I want to produce burnable methane, hot water, and humus from chipped green brush material.   To do this I intend to get 4 55 gallon drums that I have at the farm.  these drums have clamp on tops which will make filling them with a digestible slurry easy.  I will place these in the center of a 10’x10′ area and fill them half or so full with the brush and the rest with water -need to read up on that more.  Around the barrels I will wrap tubing, which I will then spiral through the brush material as I pile it up around the barrels about 3′ wide on all sides.   This will allow the cold water to cool the barrels down as the pile will likely hit 140 degrees, but methane bacteria prefer 85-105 degrees.  The area will likely be penned in with some garden or snow fencing.  Onto the barrels I will plumb in some tubing bungs to allow the methane to vent off.  I will then collect the methane in …. something.  I will be scrounging U-Line and other sources for large plastic bags – enough to hold 2-3 cu meters or I will make my own out of plastic sheeting.  I would LOVE to find a spark proof compressor to allow for storage in propane tanks, but if not I will likely just flare it off.  The goal here is to prove that I can produce ignitable methane, not if I can store it or run engines on it.  (that said, I have dreams of converting an old lawn tractor to run on methane and use a gas grill propane tank to power it).   In the spirit of simplicity, for starters I will use city water to cool the drums and will take temp readings from the water on the end to track heating capacity.  If things go well and I need alot of cooling (I do NOT want to keep a hose running all the time!), I may plumb in a 300 gallon storage tank and convert an old truck radiator for a heat exchanger to create a closed loop space heating system.  But I am getting ahead of myself…  My goal is to produce burnable methane, in my backyard, with no fancy gizmos.  Growing Power built a methane digester and theirs cost $750,000.  I am shooting for about $250 and that is only if I do my heat exchanger idea.  Of course, my scale is wicked smaller.

I have a uber steep learning curve on methane  (Dammit Jim! I’m a potato farmer not a renewable energy technician!) so I am using a life line.  See, one of my good friends just happens to run the village’s sewer plant and knows rather a bit about producing methane.    Luckily I have the first round of spuds in the ground and have a few weeks of relative calm.  Tomorrow and Friday I will be clearing the 10×10 area, bringing the drums down and soaking the chips.

It begins.

Be the Change!


22 Responses

  1. I enjoy reading your blog. I am in the process of starting my own garden/truck farm from overgrown land that has been fallow for 20 years. I love my Berta Rotary plow, although my body can only handle about one days worth of Berta. To many roots and small stumps to chew through. I started the garden with a shovel and after a summer of “spare time” work had succeeded in breaking only a 30′ x 20′ area. Now I am the proud gardener of very large area. I live in a remote fly in village in Northwestern Ontario and my garden is across the lake on a point.
    Don’t worry I do have a point to this mindless rambling. I am trying to figure out the best way to irrigate the garden. It would be a full time job by bucket so I bought a small honda gas water pump and discovered it does not produce enough pressure for more then one large 3/4″ impact sprinkler. I have been looking into drip irrigation and wondering if you have any advice on the subject. It gets really old dragging the water lines all over the place for half a day to irrigate. I noticed you mentioned about drip irrigation in an older blog. Any advice or leads you might have would be greatly appreciated.
    Arthur in Poplar Hill, Ontario

  2. I am looking forward to your reports of this process! Inspiring.

  3. Great stuff, Rob!

  4. Rob, this is awesome. I’ve added about twenty yards of woodchips to my 1/3 acre over the course of the last two years. Earthworms, sowbugs, and fungi are going to go crazy on your property. I also have a huge slug population, but they seem to like fungus more than vegetables.

    The only problem I see is that you need 1500# of compost this fall. Those woodchips aren’t going to break down much between now and fall, especially if they are pine. I had a pine tree cut and mulched last spring, and the chips are still fairly intact, although covered with mycellium. The pine chips that I added to the chicken pen got scratched, manured, and allowed to age over the winter, and there were still a significant number of chips intact.

    The Jean Pain thing has a lot of potential, but I wonder if a richer material might work better in such a small system. So far, my own efforts with lawn clippings have produced only silage.

    • That’s true about not getting the full 3/4 ton of compost this fall. My thoughts are that by October I will be losing interest in running out to maintain it in the WI pending winter, so I would runt he chips through my compost sifter and glean what I may. The nitrogen and twigs will be mostly broken down, and the remaining woods chips would then be applied to the garden paths. That mycelium on the chips will be an ideal soil amendment for the garden. Alternately, I may run the not-done-chips through my shredder to make them super fine to use the next spring. From April through June I have more grass clippings than I want, even only harvesting every other cutting from the lawn for compost. As you say, without mixing in a carbon source you get a stinky mess right quick.

  5. I will be at Growing Power’s workshop all weekend, where I will see what you saw. Then I will read up some more on my own and be ready to go Tuesday morning. This is intense. I love it. You’re right, produce the methane first. Ultimately, however, I think the storage will be the hardest part.

  6. Okay. I am in. If you want a southern hemisphere demo running at the same time (and are happy to share your details) then let’s make this thing a bit more interesting – happy to keep posts of progress here for your readers. Most of all, happy to get going in my little old town with this idea.

    Let me know your thoughts, Rob.


    • Excellent! The more the merrier! I plan on doing two barrels in the same pile- either going to do a side by side messing with the solid:water ratio, but as that info is pretty available I will likely play with the size of the solids and run one barrels compost through the shredder first. Hypothesis is that the smaller particle size will help in gas production, but it also may reduce the total time gas is produced. Everything is on site but the crates to soak the chips in. Pain soaked his for 2 days to completely saturate the wood – everyone else skips this part and I think it is crucial for ensuring that there is enough water in the pile to maintain bacterial activity for more than a month or so.

  7. Sounds awesome, take tons of pictures of the whole process. Can’t wait to see it.

    • Will do. Have Kevin (the Kwolz above), our “intern” coming up next week and this will be the first Big Project of the summer. You’ll be hearing alot more from/about Kevin – civil/environmental engineering sopohmore at U of I Champange-Urbana. Lots of brains and curiosity on top of the energy and passion of a 20 yr old, plus he is apparently content to work for potatoes and experience.

  8. Go, Rob, go! I’ll be following your posts eagerly.

    I had no idea you lived in a HOA. How do you stand the strain? We’ve had twin piles of compost and mulch on the driveway for weeks now. (They keep getting larger and smaller, as we top them off every weekend.) Your post makes me really glad that the building next door to us is largely unoccupied. It’s a bit of an eyesore too. Not awful, just enough that if anyone’s going to complain, they’ll be complaining about that place, not ours or our mulch piles. I’m loving it!

    • “how do I stand the strain?” I’m the president…

      Pile on the drive hit 120 degree today and will be 125 by nightfall. Did a 4th cutting of the back “pasture” and got another 13 cu ft of grass clippings to add to it. Will start soaking the chips this weekend and building the piles on Tuesday!

      Good to hear about your piles!

  9. […] Jean Pain Compost Methods – It Begins. « One Straw: Be The Change […]

  10. […] Compost – Mulch Soak Posted on May 18, 2010 by onestraw Its been about a week since I picked up the 8 cu yards of mulch from the municipal yard with BART.  The grabbing of the mulch was almost instinctual, but […]

  11. […] week I scored a dump truck load of VERY green chipped mulch.  The rest is now history.  This project is going from drawing board to reality far quicker than […]

  12. Greetings from Northern Ireland.
    Your humus and composting project is extremely timely and useful.
    Mushroom growing in barns uses the warming of compost to good effect, and in good Queen Victoria`s time hotbeds of manure were essential to ripen pineapples, etc. under glass.
    This technique I believe was introduced in the time of Charles ll and continued until the Great War of 1914 more or less killed off all the gardeners.
    Way before that, BIOCHAR which is incompletely burned charcoal well dug in , was being widely used in the Amazon basin, as a soil conditioner . Enough traces of this material remain in the soil to make it profitable to grow crops even to- day. The Amazon gardeners (not to be confused with modern slash-and-burners) have gone thanks to European diseases.

    To come back to the point… I see a further stage to develop , whereby used up compost is perhaps partly gasified by pyrolysis and the carbon residue dug in as a soil reconditioner.
    The Biochar seems to benefit the soil by trapping long chain molecules for slow release , as a porous, sterile, root stimulant grit, as an odour reducer…. I think that a soil needs more than humus to make it viable in the long term.
    I am going ahead with a GEK type wood gas plant to drive a small engine. Lots of good people out there
    doing this sort of thing.
    If you are interested, the ARDUINO is a cheap
    microprocessor originally designed for artists to animate their work. The software is FREE, mentored, group developed, easy to use. The chip has enough inputs and outputs to control a small spaceship. Ideal for temperature, flow control, data collection.

    By the way…a pyro-gasification plant produces a lot of Carbon Monoxide which is lethal in unventilated sheds. Take Care. johnf.

    • Thanks for your comments, though I wish for a better fate than the other early adopters! Interesting you bring up gasification. We have been playing around with it for about 2.5 years and are on our 3rd version. In my experience humus would need to be pelletized first prior to gasifying to ensure enough air infiltration through the unit. Biochar is certainly an incredibly useful tool for long term fertility gains in higher leachable soils and will be a very necessary tool for soil (re)builders.

      However, the massive microbe infusion from aerobic compost is even more vital to short term fertility gains in denuded soils, especially when reclaiming urban or conventional farmed land which are essentially dead. Well prepared compost (3-6 months cooking, and another 2-6 months curing) that started with a good amount of “brown”, woody material will have around 10-25% of its raw bulk translated into humus due to the original lignin rich materials (such as Jean Pain’s brush). Humus has been shown to be stable in soils for 5-30+ years depending on conditions and has most of the effects of the biochar’s long carbon chain, though more temporarily. Composting is still a viable carbon sequestration technique.

      Both Jean Pain style composting and Gasification will be needed (along with a ton of other tools) as we Power Down off of cheap oil and spend the next two generations feverishly trying to pull carbon from the atmosphere to save our climate and heal our soils. Thank you for reading, and good luck sir!

  13. […] another source for compost material.  I had also recently bought a chipper and learned the joys of brush wood composting. Here is my new system which allows me to make up to 15 yards a […]

  14. I am looking to start a pile to work with the heating system upon a new house. Est dims to be 5 x 3.5 x 4m = total up to 70m3.will include 1m3 min methane production. I would very much appreciate some detailed feed back from someone who has actually run a big stack. How long did you get to run for, what temperatures was the stack enclosed / semi enclosed etc. I will post results to this blog.

    • Results from the fall pile were not great. I recommend ensuring your brush wood is VERY green. My estimates are that the brush trunks should be no larger than .75″ (2cm) and heavy with leaf. Mine were 1-3″ and had far too much carbon for sustained heat. Soaking them is crucial and really works – piles stay wet for 3+ months. Nitrogen and pile size are the key factors for sustained heat. Good luck!

      • onestraw thanks, I plan to use fresh brushwood from the local park collect ( their is a LOT in 20′ containers with rapid turnover) probably between 3 – 5 containers full of a complet mix to be shredded, watered – you mention nitrogen and you think is essential? I am planning to follow the basic method and have not seen Nitrogen used. Does a big stack smell?

      • Murlucas -the nitrogen will be contained within the green brush. Here is the states we talk about keeping the composting ratio of carbon to nitrogen to 30:1 or so and I assume it similar by you as the science of it is universal even if the units differ. The bacteria that drive the hot decomposition need the nitrogen to thrive so it is vital to have enough in the pile. Mine did not have enough.

        My piles did not stink. Even soaking wet, there is enough air space between the larger particles of chipped brushwood- compared to say manure- that the piles do not go anaerobic which is the prime cause of bad odors.

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