Composting in the Subarctic – Design

Our Ideal Design

The Actium Batch Compost Drum has become an essential tool for Fort Albany First Nation’s community garden. This article details why Fort Albany First Nation needed a composter and why the design of the Actium Batch Compost Drum suited our needs.

Why was a composter needed in a remote subarctic community?

Fort Albany First Nation (also known as Peetabeck) is a remote and subarctic fly-in community of 900 people.  The community situates at 5220’N and 8146’W in the Muskegowuk Cree territory, on the west coast of James Bay, Ontario.  Those who live in Fort Albany First Nation are concerned about food insecurities, which is a similar concern to others who reside in far-north communities. Many living in remote northern communities rely on non-local food that is expensive due to the long-distance transport costs.  As well, harvesting local traditional foods is becoming a challenging activity due to climate and migration shifts, and the increased risks associated with travelling further distances to hunt, fish and forage.

Though food security challenges emerged with the rising global temperatures, there are also opportunities to adapt to changes occurring in the northern environment.  One adaptation strategy Fort Albany First Nation has welcomed is the creation of gardens (funded by that Canadian Institute of Health Research and Climate Change Health and Adaptation Program).  As of 2019, over 28 different crop species grew in the Fort Albany First Nation community garden. During crop harvest nutrients are removed from the soil; nutrients need to be added back to the soil to maintain fertility.  The Actium Batch Compost Drum was our solution for creating local fertilizer in this remote community.  We need to have locally made fertilized because importing fertilizers into the community would be a costly, impractical, and unsustainable option.

An ideal design for a community composter

The design of the Actium Batch Compost Drum met the criteria for a compost system in Fort Albany First Nation.  Our desired design features included being lifted off the ground, closed and contained, an insulted drum, and mechanically operated. 

Lifted off the ground

We preferred a composter that was lifted off the ground to prevent nutrient loss through run-off and leaching, and to protect the compost from flood events. The land where Fort Albany First Nation sits is characterized as flat and near sea-level. During the spring thaw, the land can be excessively wet and is susceptible to floods. 

Closed and contained

Closed and contained was a central feature we wanted for a composter. This feature was needed to prevent animals such as dogs, bears, and birds from getting into the compost. We do not want to attract these animals to the compost to avoid any safety and health issues. As well, having the compost in a closed and contained drum prevents unwanted mess and scatter of composting materials – whether from high winds or animals rummaging. Bears have strolled in the area where the composter is in place. We acquired the composter in 2015; over the years, we have not yet had issues with animals being attracted to or damaging the composter. 

Insulated drum

The average annual ambient air temperature in Fort Albany First Nation is -2 °C (28 °F).  We preferred to have a composter that included insulation to reduced potential compost temperature losses. Maintaining warm compost temperatures has allowed us to generate compost from May to October.  (The harsh winter weather where air temperatures including windchill reach -47 °C / -52.6 °F prevents us from composting year-round). Furthermore, the insulated drum design is ideal for composter geese remnants quickly and safely.  The Actium Batch Compost Drum is designed for poultry farmers to hot compost deadstock. The high temperatures reached while hot composting (> 55 °C / 131 °F) destroys potential pathogens that can be a human health risk. In Fort Albany First Nation, geese are harvested from the land and are considered a local and traditional staple food.  The remnants from processing geese (wings, feet, feathers, innards, and heads) are added into our compost drum.

Mechanically operated

Lastly, we wanted a composter that did not require electricity, but still be able to degrade organic materials effectively. The composter is placed in an area that is not close to any electrical outlets.  Additionally, we wanted a composter that did not cost money to run and was easily maintained.  The Actium Batch Compost Drum turns with the use of a crank, and the maintenance is minimal. Our maintenance tasks for the crank includes oiling moving parts and checking that the chain is in good condition. The crank also reduces labour intensity and mess (e.g. no need to shovel to turn the compost).

During the five years we have operated the Actium Batch Compost Drum in Fort Albany First Nation, we have been pleased with how the equipment operates and with the local fertilizer it creates.  The compost added to the garden soil replenishes nutrients, allowing us to continue to grow fresh, nutritious, and affordable foods in this remote far-north community.