Saturday, September 6, 2008

"a hole in the ground your money goes in?", wait, that’s inground pools, not compost trenches. Sorry. Long post coming up, broken into sections, but it’s a topic that comes up a lot in the forums:

The Cost of Doing Business Bokashi

Buckets weren’t a problem. Food waste I had—that’s what got me started on this!—but in order to start bokashi fermentation, I first had to have a supply of EM. A one-liter bottle cost me $20 at Whole Foods Market.

It might have been cheaper to purchase a small bottle online, but not by much after shipping, and besides, I didn’t want to wait. Whole Foods is just up the road from me, and since I shop there now and then, it didn’t even take an extra trip.

So I had the bottle in hand. What now? Directions for using bokashi buckets all begin with EM bokashi bran, not the liquid inoculant. But liquid EM is sometimes applied for large-scale composting... While it might not be cost-effective as a general practice, I saw no reason not to start my first bucket with EM inoculant straight from the bottle, plus a little dry matter to absorb the moisture.

It worked. (1) So the total cost of getting started was a bit of time to set up an airtight container with proper drainage (from materials I had around) plus that bottle. $20.

Much less than I’d expected to spend. A lot of the non-retail, consumer-generated text I’d read about bokashi mentioned the expense—repeated expense, lifetime expense, relatively high expense. That now-and-later expenditure seems to be the second greatest hurdle to acceptance in this country. Also, really contrary to the ideal of composting, all that consumism! A single $20 bottle is one thing, an initial investment as it were. But how often would it have to be repeated, or additional items purchased?

How much $$$ does it cost to bokashi?

That depends. Are you buying EM bokashi bran, or making your own from liquid EM inoculant?

If a two lb. bag of EM bokashi bran is sufficient to handle two to four five-gallon buckets worth of mixed kitchen waste and costs $25, (2) then the cost per five-gallon bucket is @ $6 - $12. (Of course, the end product of a bokashi bucket still requires handling in some form before it can be used, so those figures may yet increase depending on your post-bucket solution.) If you fill one bucket per month, which seems to be the average bokashi experience, and you’re generous enough with the EM bokashi bran to be certain even the leftover fast food will ferment successfully, it’d be $12/month.

Buying a bottle of EM inoculant and making EM bokashi bran is cheaper than purchasing it, but there are additional costs beyond the EM itself:

Organic blackstrap molasses or feed-grade molasses
Wheat bran or other inert carrier
(optional other ingredients)

[Pause for a necessary definition: AEM] AEM—Activated EM—is made by “feeding” EM inoculant with molasses and water, and optionally a few other things depending on the recipe and intended use. It should be used within a month, and can be used to make EM bokashi bran, possibly even with a shorter overall time-to-readiness than beginning with EM straight from the bottle. [We now return you to your regularly scheduled...]

Being an impatient sort, I started a gallon of AEM on the same day I started my first bucket of bokashi, using molasses I would have bought anyway, simply to have on hand—but for purposes of accounting, I paid $3.50 for that bottle, so $23.50 total. This AEM was intended to be the base for my home-made EM bokashi bran, as well as to give me some extra for various tests.

Since that first straight-EM bucket worked, I started the next with AEM, using about a tablespoon of liquid instead of the 15 mL bran recommended per inch or instance of waste added to a bucket, and tossing in the odd handful of shredded newspaper and dry leaves by way of moisture correction. So far, it’s been working fine, though it’s not something I’d really recommend in lieu of EM bokashi bran, which is simpler and can be dried for long-term storage.

Having said that, I suppose it could be done, if you had access to large quantities of cross-shredded newspaper or something similar, or you didn’t mind draining food wastes prior to bucketing. You’d need to buy a new bottle of EM-1 when it lost effectiveness, six months or so down the road, but until then: Total cost = recycled airtight containers, dry matter, water, and > $25.

Me, I’d be happier with EM bokashi bran; the simpler the process is, the more likely it is that I’ll keep up with it, make it a habit, and maybe even get other people started on it. “Toss a handful of magic dust on top” is simple. Easy. And easy’s worth at least a few cents to me. Not retail kit-prices, mind, nor even repeated bag o’ bran purchases, but a few cents beyond that bottle of EM inoculant.

EM Bokashi Bran
The basic choices are:
a) buy commercial EM bokashi bran for immediate and continued use
In which case there’s no need for those liquid ingredients, but you’ll be placing orders from now until you decide to stop doing bokashi

b) buy commercial EM bokashi bran for immediate use, plus EM incolant and additional ingredients to make EM bokashi bran for continued use

Initially the most expensive option but perhaps the most reasonable, especially for the beginning bokashier. EM bokashi bran was designed for the purpose, and is the most reliably successful means of producing fermentation rather than putrefaction within the bucket.

c) buy EM inoculant fluid and additional ingredients to make EM bokashi bran. And use liquid in the interim: Begin by making AEM; use EM + dry matter only until AEM is ready, then make EM bokashi bran; and use AEM + dry matter while waiting for EM bokashi bran to ripen.

The cheapest bran option, and therefore my chosen solution. At least for now. -G-


What does it cost to make EM bokashi bran at home?

Again, prices are dependent upon distributors, volumes, etc., and you might be able to acquire some materials for free. Sawdust is sometimes referenced as a substitute for wheat or rice bran, and though I have no ready source for that [curses!], the city does periodically give away free wood chips as mulch—perhaps they might be persuaded to toss in a few buckets of sawdust at the same time?

Are there other locally available alternatives I might use? Bran, rice hulls, all the options I’ve seen so far are dry, inert, consistently sized (naturally or after processing) and small enough not to hold air pockets in the bucket. High in carbon. Other requirements? Because right now, I’m thinking dry leaves run through a shredder! Or a food processor, seeing as I actually have one of those...and it’s not as if I’d need great quantities of the stuff. Hmm. Might check into that.

But for now, I’m using wheat bran, ordered through a local grocery store, since it seemed more efficient than scooping out pounds and pounds of the stuff from the bulk section. The listed price was $0.69/lb, and ten pounds of wheat bran, depending on particle size, will make something in the neighborhood of five large bags of EM bokashi bran—which is almost twice enough to get an average bokashi-ing household to the six month mark.

Why six months? Because that’s when the bottle of EM-1 would begin to lose efficiency, so no matter what option I chose, I’d be looking at a possible additional outlay at that point.

Ten pounds of bran brings my total EM investment just above $30. (Spigots, sieves, and stopcocks are all optional, hence a different category and a different post!) So call it $5.00/month –for enough supplies to ferment the kitchen waste of a four-person household, plus two starter-packs to give as-yet-unsuspecting victims friends and neighbors.

And landlords! Maybe I can get mine to underwrite my bucket costs—since the city’s about to raise its trash fees, this might be a good time to make the pitch. -G-

If I were making absurd-in-context quantities of EM bokashi bran, the per-unit price would, of course, be even lower. My numbers don’t take economies of scale into account because I’m focused on my own needs. I’m looking for the lowest-cost, highest-reward options suitable for my particular circumstances: urban Texas apartment-dweller, container gardener, limited access to living soil and limited space. Unlimited curiosity!


(1) Turns out that success was less assured than I’d assumed—where EM has been improperly treated during storage/shipping, it may not activate quickly enough to outrun putrefaction if used straight. Also, even properly handled liquid EM inoculant may be initially slower in its effects than desired. I now make AEM first, for all applications.

(2) Non-random figures, though not universally applicable. Price varies by distributor and location, but this is what a 2.2 lb. bag would have cost me, with tax and shipping. Averages from retail and customer-generated text. In-bucket usage depends on environment and type of matter bucketed among other variables.

(3) Yes, I’ll be testing smaller batches for practical minimum volumes again. The giant economy size isn’t a good option if you have to rent it a storage locker!

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