Monday, October 4, 2010

What makes a good bokashi bran?

Some posts just fall through the cracks—I don't have a good image, there's something else I'd rather do, I'm missing a bit of information I'd like to include, whatever. But just sent me a message reminding me that there's a whole small set of posts I've neglected to publish!


I'd intended to put up a few reviews of various retail EM bokashi brans. Still mean to, I guess, though I'm not currently within reach of those files. Haven't tried all the available options yet, but the handful I've been through have been different enough to make comparisons worthwhile.

Beginning with the cost. The fact that EM bokashi costs anything is a not inconsiderable barrier to adoption. Expensive designer buckets and how-much-plus-shipping? bags of magic dust don't always seem like a reasonable alternative to current practice. So cheaper-per-unit bags get my vote over more expensive ones, of which there are a surprising number.

So do local products, assuming there's no or only very little difference in total price. (I'll pay a bit extra for the instant gratification factor, but not very much.) Not being vigilant enough to police manufacturers for sustainable practices, I'll skip the whole carbon-footprint bit for now.

As yet, I haven't chosen not to buy an inoculated bran because of its base, but I wouldn't elect to buy one with sawdust in its ingredients. Personal preference. I'm a gardener and just don't want to see sawdust clinging to my sweet potatoes at harvest. Bran composts quickly.

Speaking of preference, I'm much more inclined to purchase from a retailer who lists the ingredients—including the specific microbes in the culture together with that culture's source.

Assuming all other variables were equal, I'd buy the one packaged in a compostable container. The pictured rice-bran ones comes in a corn plastic shell that will decompose in the bokashi bucket! But, again, that's not too high on my list.

So what's up at the top, just beneath the all-important cost?

1. Moisture: Packaged bokashi bran is described as dry and shelf-stable, but it isn't always nor equally so. If I'm springing for the pre-made stuff, I want it dry! Dry enough to store some in my hiking kit, or to keep in a starter-bucket in my car for a week or two. Dry enough that it won't grow acetobacters in the bag to startle the poor unsuspecting victims new bucketers to whom I'm delivering those welcome-to-bokashi gifts. And, it goes without saying, dry enough that it won't spoil before I get a chance to use it.

2. Scent: Bokashi bran from Hawaii doesn't smell the same as bokashi bran from Texas, even if the ingredient lists are identical. Nor does bokashi from every retailer in a region smell the same. I found one retail bran unacceptably acrid, though it worked perfectly well and the less-vinegary character might make it a better choice for some. As well, there's a difference in scent between wheat bran and rice bran, though I don't much care which is used. Not sure how to quantify that, but it's worth mentioning, if only so other people know the variance exists.

3. Speed to success: Fresh bokashi bran starts to work faster than dried, but that's a matter of hours, not days. Bokashi that's been improperly stored (frozen or exposed to air, I guess) takes much longer to work, and may require more inoculant as well. The retail bran that I wasn't sure was working until the second day isn't one I'll be buying again even though it did successfully ferment a bucket. Quick evidence of success seems like a good thing--though not at the expense of shelf-life. Of course, lasting evidence of success is kind of necessary, too; I rate all the EM items on how well they can handle small volumes of things the retailers tell you not to add; how long it takes the deodorizing microbes to conquer strong aromas; etc.

4. Directions: now and then I'll buy a bag of bran for someone else, not always for a bokashi bucket. Folks with cats willing to use compostable litters can mix EM bokashi bran into the box, and it's useful in the dog-yard as well. I don't insist that the packaging say that, but it really should say something about use, considering how unfamiliar most people are with the product. EM bokashi bran is not a term that can stand without definition, not yet. Ideally, the package lists how much kitchen waste it can be used to process, in gallons. And the fact that something has to be done to that processed/pickled waste afterward.

5. Add-ins: I haven't decided how I feel about these. Some of the EM bokashi retailers have extended their brands, so they have different brans for different situations. Minerals in which a region is known to be deficient; seaweed for agricultural use; etc. At the moment, I don't buy them, so can't rate them, but they, too, belong on the list of criteria to consider. For later, since I don't seem to be ending this project any time soon. -G- At some point, I'll probably try the EM mix with extra rhodobacters. I would not buy a bokashi bran with added salt (not even sea salt), refined sugar, synthetics or animal products--but I haven't yet seen any of those anyway.

My perfect packaged EM bokashi bran? Made locally, and widely available on store shelves as well as online; comes packaged dry in a waterproof compostable container; contains only EM-1 (or the extra-rhodobacters one), with molasses, rain-, spring- or well-water, bran, and maybe a responsibly sourced mineral or two; costs no more than $5/bucket-worth in today's dollars; has clear instructions including the fact that bokashi is not a complete composting solution!

This isn't a tall order. Several of the various retailer products I've tried have come close. They all fail on that disclaimer; only two have been really dry so far (plus one retailer where the first bag was dry but the second wasn't); and few are as forthcoming about ingredients as I would like, though the retailers are generally pretty willing to answer questions.

It's still a relatively new industry, so I figure one of these days someone'll score perfectly. At which point, I may reconsider my usual practice of making my own EM and IMO bokashi brans, though probably not. But I will certainly celebrate by buying a few bags to keep on hand!



Anonymous said...

REALLY interesting post! Must be great to have so many variations to choose from and test, but like you say this is a business in its infancy and I assume in due course the "perfect product" will emerge. Based on your specifications!
We make ours here with EM, locally-produced wheat bran (organic as much as possible), molasses and virgin water from a deep spring(heavenly to drink too!). But at this stage it's still "damp", drying is energy intensive in a cold climate. It stays active for well over a year so we figure that's good enough. Some people like the smell, most don't mind it, a few hate it. And, ehmmm, plastic bags. Highly uncompostable. Just haven't found an alternative the microbes won't eat...

D. S. Foxx said...

Drying is an issue in hot climates, too--a few rather gruesome failures here at the house of buckets was more than enough for me--but fresh bokashi bran lasts about two months, maybe three; lacking your natural cold storage, I guess. (Also your spring water; I've been using collected rainwater lately.)

One of these days, I'm going to make a batch of bran in a bokashi bucket, either one of my mesh-bottomed ones or with a piece of brown paper or something at the bottom. Just so that the packaging will be of obvious use to the recipient.