To Propel Sustainable Agriculture, Earthfort Looks to Biology to Help Farmers Improve Soil
January 6, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
There are many factors farmers can’t control, but Earth Fortification Supplies Co. is trying to help them get a handle on the things they can—the biology of their soil.
The Corvallis, Oregon-based company, better known as Earthfort, boils down its practices into three words: educate, evaluate and remediate. The company tests soil samples from around the world, determines the problems with the biology of the soil and then provides products that will help create a biological balance. The result is healthier soil that can lead to reduced use of fertilizer, which means a savings for the farmers after initial costs of testing, equipment and treatment.
Matt Slaughter, co-owner of Earthfort, says the company’s work has the potential to reduce fertilizer use by anywhere from 50 percent to 100 percent. However, customers generally see a reduction between 30 percent and 50 percent, said Slaughter, whose official title is president and lab director.
Slaughter says fewer chemicals in the ground ultimately translate to cleaner water.
“If more and more land is being managed this way, we get less and less runoff into the rivers and streams, so it has an environmental impact,” he said.
Soil biology remediation can even lead to less tilling, which can result in the use of less diesel fuel, further cost reductions, he added.
Earthfort makes sure to educate the public about how soil biology works. According to the company, the biology in the soil breaks down its organic and mineral components, which are contained in their bodies as proteins. Microbes—such as protozoa and nematodes—eat the protein and then excrete the excess into the soil in a soluble form for plant uptake, creating a nutrients cycle.
However, practices by landscapers and farmers today tend to “beat up” the biology, limiting their ability to cycle nutrients. What Earthfort does is measure the soil’s microbes to see which ones are deficient and then provides the missing microbes and the nutrients to feed them.
Slaughter said some remediation tools include compost tea, humic acid and fish hydrolysate, which are added to the soil. One of the most common problems that Earthfort finds in the soil tests is a deficiency of fungi, which is highly susceptible to current horticulture and farming practices such as chemical use or tilling, he said. Other problems include crop diseases, pests, bad soil structure and poor nutrient cycling.
The company serves various types of clients, including homeowners, farms, landscape contractors, universities, municipalities and others.
Offering a Solution
Slaughter started Earthfort out of a desire to help farmers figure out how to solve their soil biology problems. He was working as vice president and an educational speaker for Solid Foodweb Inc., a soil biology testing organization that started as an Oregon State University lab but that broke off on its own. He eventually decided to start a separate business, Earthfort, selling soil biology remediation products and equipment. The company, which became incorporated in 2004 and started selling products in 2005, later became the operator of Solid Foodweb-affiliated lab, Soil Foodweb Oregon.
“I had been working the lab and doing consulting for a couple of years, and it was just becoming real obvious that the folks out there who were selling products to help farmers with their biology, they weren’t testing any of their products,” Slaughter said. “So, they didn’t really know the hit-and-miss rate was pretty high as far as quality and success.”
Earthfort started out by testing remediation products that were already on the market and reselling the ones with the best results. In 2007, Slaughter developed his own line of equipment, starting with his Dirt Simple compost tea brewer. Earthfort currently sells its Dirt Simple compost tea brewers and sprayers, along with other equipment designed to help with the compost process.
Sheri Powell-Wolff—owner of Los Angeles-based organic landscape design, maintenance and consulting company Compost Teana’s Organic Landscape—said she uses Earthfort’s products and brewer system to make her own compost tea for clients’ gardens. She also refers her clients to Earthfort’s products, which she calls “top-rate.”
“I’ve tried probably seven different brewers on the market and theirs is far and away the best,” she said. “(The compost tea) is more biologically active. I look at them under the microscope before I spray them out to make sure I’ve got what I need and theirs just always has far more biology than the others.”
Slaughter and Earthfort co-owner Scott Smith say the company is now branching out in a new direction. The duo is now taking on a goal of servicing large-scale farms, as opposed to the smaller-scale clients that they have mainly been serving so far. Both describe 2011 as an important year for Earthfort when it developed its Soil ProVide product, a broad-spectrum biological inoculum that repairs and restores missing soil biology, which is geared toward the larger farm operations.
“It’s the biology essentially in a bottle,” Slaughter said. “So the farmer … tests their soil. I look at the biology, and I can say, ‘Great. Put out, based on your report, X amount of material to help inoculate the soil.’”
Several larger farms in the United States and abroad are currently conducting trial runs of the new product.
“We love working with the backyard folks, (but) if we want to make a difference in agriculture, we need to be able to work with large-scale farmers,” said Smith, who started working with Earthfort in 2009 and became CEO in late 2010.
He noted that soil biology is a good solution for the larger operations, which often find traditional compost methods difficult since not enough supply exists and certain logistics, such as transportation, can make the process costly.
Smith said the goal for 2012 is to have about 50 farms testing Soil ProVide, with test plots totaling about 3,000 acres. Earthfort is currently working with farmers in South Sudan to teach them about soil biology and to test Soil ProVide, he said.
Other notable projects include one in which Earthfort helped the Woodland Park Zoo in Washington stabilize the toxins in its Komodo dragon exhibit and other areas of the zoo, Slaughter said. With the help of Earthfort, the zoo was able to simplify the process of disposing of the giant lizards’ excrements, which contained dangerous levels of E. coli.
Slaughter said zoo employees previously had to remove the Komodo dragons from their quarters and enter with HAZMAT suits once a week in order to clean the area. After compost tea, fish hydrolysate and humic acid were sprayed, the komodo dragons’ excrements went from having up to 100,000 colony-forming units of E. coli per gram to zero, allowing zookeepers to do the job in regular clothes and even flip flops, Slaughter said. They were also able to do the cleanup every two weeks instead of once a week, creating less stress on the lizards.
Earthfort, which is a profitable company, currently generates annual revenue between $500,000 and $1 million, with money being invested back into the company, Smith said. In 2010, the company had a major boost in product sales, which rose by about 60 percent, he said. However, product sales leveled out in 2011 as the company focused much of its efforts on developing its Soil ProVide product, he said.
Smith also noted that the company markets itself through its educational practices, such as free and paid webinars and face-to-face classes. The company even has soil biology consultant and advisor training programs.
“We don’t see it as competition,” Smith said. “We believe that there is so much good that needs to be done, we can spend our whole career training people and never train enough people for what needs to be done.”
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