This article appeared and the Wisconsin State Farmer on May 15th, 2017 and can be at www.wisfarmer.com.
MAPLETON – James “Sandy” Syburg, president and co-owner of Purple Cow Organics at Middleton has been building soil since he was a child. Now he has turned his knowledge of soil into a successful business.
“My grandmother had us collect leaves and feed them to the soil so I grew up with the idea of taking nutrients that fall from trees and converting them back to a high quality soil amendment.”
He has used the method on his own Stone Bank farm where he raises a special highly mineralized corn, sunflower seed for fuel, and other specialized crops.
He was able to turn the composting into a successful business back in the 1990’s when cities were told they could no longer take yard waste and leaves to landfills.
“There was no large scale composting facility around back then,” Syburg said. “Now there are many composting places around the state.”
Soil is living
“Soil is much more than a pile of dirt – it’s a living, breathing ecosystem,” said Syburg. “If a nutrient is missing from the soil, then it is not in the plants we grow or the food we eat. Rather than re-use soil time after time, soil needs to be rejuvenated.”
Before each planting, Syburg suggests amending soil in garden beds and replacing soil in pots.
“Plants take nutrients from soil, which over time can deplete vitamins and minerals that plants, animals and humans need,” he said. “When rich in proper nutrients, healthy soil leads to healthier plants, and, with consumables, healthier people.”
He said it is because of this system of building good soil that he has a steady market for the corn he grows on his own farm.
“They recognize that the corn I raise is mineralized because the minerals are readily available in the soil. These minerals are not present in soil that is only fertilized with the traditional fertilizer,” Syburg explained.
Even the dairy industry is starting to recognize the benefits of mineralized feeds. He pointed out that testing is being done to determine how milk from cows eating mineralized feeds varies from milk from cows eating traditional feeds.
Syburg admited he doesn’t do the work of building the soil. He only provides what the beneficial microorganisms need to convert the nutrients to something the plants can use.
He noted, “Nutrient rich soil filters out pollutants from underground water, helps lower flood risk by storing water in the earth and can lower the effect of drought, disease and pests.”
Syburg said most gardeners and farmers reuse soil year after year and if any nutrients are added, they are only the major ones, but the minor nutrients are needed to create the balance and feed the life in the soil.
“Once you replace organic components, your garden will be relatively low maintenance and will need much less attention,” he added.
“It is now a healthy, living, breathing, self-regulating ecosystem,” Syburg stated. “It can take hundreds of years to create just a small plot of healthy soil and less than two decades to destroy its usefulness. With soil under siege, everyone should be involved in learning and implementing ways to improve this vital ingredient in growing healthy plants and food.”
From compost to a business
While Syburg has always known the benefits of feeding organic material to replace nutrients, he actually turned it into a business 20 years ago. He began with White Oak Premium Organics and then partnered with Lee Bruce in Middleton in 2010 to form Purple Cow Organics.
The base of their composted mix is municipal leaves but they also add some pre-consumed fruits and vegetables that they get from grocery stores.
The composting process where the material is brought to 131 degrees F for a minimum of 15 days kills any pathogens that might be present. They are simply doing on a larger scale what many back-yard gardeners do on a small scale.
“Because we are selling the product there is a lot of record-keeping involved,” Syburg said. “Our primary function is to deliver very stable carbon and nutrients and high volumes of beneficial bacteria and fungi.”
Purple Cow’s customers range from garden centers where it is marketed in bags to vegetable growers and operators of CSA farms who buy it by the truckload.
Syburg said they started bagging the material in 2005 after gardeners were coming to the compost site to ask for pails of the material.
Some of the product is just straight compost and they also make specialized products that have minerals and added ingredients to enhance the mineral availability.
He said he learned a lot from agricultural applicators and then translated it into what the home gardener would want.
“We work with organic and conventional farmers,” Syburg said. “We work with anyone interested in improving the health of their soil.”
He pointed out, “Healthy soil has less erosion and it will hold the nutrients and therefore protect the lakes and streams while producing better crops.”