I started digging in the dirt at an early age, exploring the different types of soils by texture and smell. My grandfather and grandmother were dirt farmers and share croppers from Arkansas. When they would tell stories about the old days, the air would be filled with dust, there was dirt under every fingernail, and the days were spent pulling plows by mule through rich dark topsoil, and shaking dirt off of freshly pulled turnips. I rode a dirt bike, dug into the earth to make forts, and dug through leaf litter in search of ancient garbage heaps in hopes of finding a beautiful intact bottle. As a child I spent my days noticing the webs of mycelium and aware of the burrows of worms and with every push of the shovel made note of soil density and texture. I am of the soil.
My grandfather always had an incredible garden in the lot out through the back gate. That was where he spent his early mornings before work and his evenings after work. That was where the peace and joy was. Today when I deliver compost to a backyard farmer, I share in the ongoing joy of slowing down to connect with the earth and plants. I once noticed that I didn’t see any worms as I was weeding my grandfather’s garden one day. So I asked him, “Poppo”, I said, “do you ever see any worms out here in your garden?” “You know , David Carl, now that you mention it, I don’t” , he replied. I don’t remember if I gave him the greenpeace lecture after that or what but I’m sure I tried to help him connect the chemical fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide use with the reality of no worms in the garden. So here was the original organic farmer who over the years had come to embrace all the new scientific ways of farming without question until his grandson pointed out that there were no worms in his soil.
I went on to grow several vegetable gardens at my family home in Los Gatos, California. There was always a high level of excitement as we took the family truck out to load up some good aged horse manure. Compost wasn’t a big deal in the mainstream back in the seventies and eighties. I grew marijuana in the hills in holes that we dug in the native soils and then amended with chicken poop, forest humus from site, combined with our native clay. Growing marijuana put me very close to the earth.
I am currently 54 years old. In my early 40’s I became a landscape contractor and began stockpiling leaves to use as compost and mulch. I would amend all of my planting beds or lawn soils with aged cow manure from an Italian dairy farm in the Dry Springs area of Shasta Valley. I found that beds or lawns that had been amended with this manure along with oyster shell, bone meal, rock phosphate, would thrive for many years without any yearly inputs. And it also seemed that with all the incredible organic matter in the ground, watering could be less frequent and it even took less water because so much was being held in the soil. Living in Mount Shasta as a landscape contractor I always dreamed of having a landscape yard and selling soil amendments.
Then in 2010, my family and I moved to Ashland , Oregon looking for better schools and more job opportunities. Before we even arrived in Ashland, I began searching for some open land to rent to run my landscape business out of. I was most fortunate to stumble upon the Billings Farm property and meet Mary James, the manager of the farm. Mary offered me a two acre piece of land to rent on Jackson Road and I took her up on it. I began with just a couple of small compost piles the first couple years. The results of these humble piles was very good and satisfying. As time went on the compost piles got bigger and the landscaping shrunk back. Finally, I dropped my landscape license altogether and decided to go full time on the compost. I owe a lot of thanks to Dan and Dave Bish of Plant Oregon for inspiring me with their giant compost piles and their love of good productive industry in the green and organic direction. Dan and Dave have always been very generous in sharing their knowledge of compost and plant care.
I also want to give thanks and credit to my good high school buddy, Bruce Arnold, who believed in me enough to loan me the money to buy my new dump truck. It was clear that my business would only grow if I was able to buy a better dump truck. And then there is my dear friend, Ted Timmer, from the Prescott College days who helped me out with the cash to purchase my new 25k gvw tilt trailer which allows me to transport either of my tractors to mow jobs or for loading wood for the Jackson County Fuel Committee. Thanks Ted. And then there are my parents who have cosigned and helped out in hard times. Wouldn’t have my incredible Kubota tractor right now if it wasn’t for your awesome credit scores and willingness to cosign. Thanks. It takes a village.
Before I knew it, compost was my main source of income, and the landscapers and homeowners were bringing in yard debris nonstop. I was able to bring in horse manure from various sources to add to the yard debris. At that time I was composting all the yard debris whole, without shredding it . I would remove as many of the big sticks as I could but in the end there were still lots of sticks in there. The leaves were also composted whole , which led to finished compost with big wads of semi decomposed leaves in it. Then I got the contract to haul off all of the barley grain from Caldera Brewery when they were back at their original humble little brewery, just down the street from their new major facility. For a year I hauled twelve fifty gallon barrels a week to my site and manually dumped the grain onto my piles. I started to make some really good compost albeit a little chunky. But it was very alive.
Then I had the great fortune of attending a workshop with Elaine Ingham, the world reknowned soil biologist at a workshop put on by BCS in Phoenix. Elaine opened my eyes to the incredible living world of microorganisms that live in the soil, on plants, in our bellies. She examined a sample of my compost under a microscope in front of the whole class. She was impressed. She found a multitude of bacteria, protozoa, and even found a fungal strand. It was then that I got that it isn’t about the NPK in the soil as much as it is about the presence and health of the organisms that will perpetually generate all of the nutrients needed by your plants.
A year ago I expanded my operation by getting rid of all of my animals and removing fences so I had over double the area with a whole new large flat area for mixing new compost piles and the old lower area dedicated to only the mixing of final product for sale. Then my landlords allowed me to expand into another acre of their property so I could stockpile sod and soil. Then I rented a screen machine and began screening soils. This year for the first time I have begun screening my compost. Wow! What a difference that makes ! And then I purchased a brand new 90 horsepower Kubota tractor with a flail (mulching) mower on the back. The future plan is to use the new tractor to pull a compost turner ( when I can afford it). Suddenly one day I realized that I had the tool I needed to shred all of the leaves and yard debris that was constantly streaming onto my site and into my compost piles. I could shred the yard debris with my flail mower(duh!). I always knew this was one of the main secrets to superior quality and faster finish time. So, one day , I made a windrow of fresh yard debris, put my tractor into creeper gear, straddled the pile, lowered the flail mower, engaged the pto, raised up the throttle, and Voila!, shredded yard debris. And now the very first of that shredded yard debris compost is about to enter into the finished and for sale compost blend.
Having this new powerful 4 wheel drive tractor has made all the difference in the world. I have to thank Kubota and Central Equipment for the zero down, zero interest loans that they have. This tractor has allowed me to function all through the winter while driving effortlessly through 12 to 18 inches of mud. It is also a four wheel blender, creating more mud than ever before. For years I operated with my trusty 1974 case 580B tractor with a four in one bucket and a pto on the rear but with only two wheel drive. I love that tractor but I would spend the winters sliding up one side and down the other and try and fill your bucket with dirt while your wheels are spinning endlessly. I have to give thanks to another central player at Soil Salvation. That is Big Whitey, the 1970 Ford F600 dump truck. Couldn’t do it without you, bro. Me and Big Whitey are tight. I got the Orange Japanese beast in the mud tractor and the all American Big Whitey dump truck.
I am very excited about this coming season and all the more and better soil amendments being created at Soil Salvation. It is an honor to be able to serve our community in this way. I guess I’m a lucky guy since I get to play in the dirt every day.