For approximately a year Jim Etzel used soil amendments from Midwestern Bio-Ag and inoculants from Mycorrhizal Applications to improve soils at Happy Dancing Turtle and in small garden plots before he decided to turn his soil improvement into a business.
“I like to play with products before I am ever going to sell or recommend them. I use them on campus, in garden plots with horticulture, landscaping all sorts of things,” Etzel said.
This spring, Etzel is launching Earth is our Home Soil Consulting out of his home near Hackensack. His goal is to use his degree in biology, and special training in soil health, to diagnose soil problems local growers big and small face.
“I could do soil tests for a 500-acre pasture, I could do a garden. The specific focus and what I found folks are having problems with are gardens. The local buzz is all about local foods and growing your own food, but they don’t know how to feed the soil,” Etzel said.
Etzel is an authorized dealer of Midwestern Bio-Ag and Mycorrhizal Applications products, which he can order in virtually any quantities. The way he operates is by assessing a site, taking samples, and having them tested. Once the results are in, Etzel consults with his customers on the improvement of their growing medium.
Etzel’s test costs $30 for materials, shipping and handling, and his time is worth $60 an hour. Most small gardens take less than an hour to complete. Etzel says he would be lucky to break even. Etzel’s business is not about making money, it’s about changing the way people improve their gardens.
“We are looking at plant nutrition and decreasing inputs like soluble fertilizers that are going to end up in lakes and rivers and that stuff,” Etzel said.
Etzel’s goal is to give gardeners an affordable and sustainable method to feed plants and prevent disease and pests. His overall goal is to consult with growers so they have the know-how and tools to equip their plants to naturally fight off pests and disease.
“My big thing with the education is getting people to ask the questions, why? Why are the bugs eating the plants? Why are the funguses attacking the plants? Sick people get sick. Sick plants get eaten,” Etzel said.
For those who don’t feel like paying him to run tests, Etzel will cut out the middle man by connecting customers directly to test labs and amendment suppliers so they only need to pay for materials, thus cutting out Etzel’s profit almost entirely. Etzel said his overall goal is actually to educate growers on sustainable farming so they never need to call him.
“If you are really interested in learning how to do this yourself, what I want to provide for people are manuals that really get down to the meat and potatoes on how the Albrecht system works,” Etzel said. “I can be a consultant, they can pay me if they don’t want to learn anything, but we also have the resources that if they want to learn the system and understand it then we can also provide those.”
For those who want Etzel’s services but don’t have a large budget, he still has a solution.
“I wanted to focus on how we can take the local garden and simplify the fertilizer application. What’s your budget? How much do you want to spend? How fast do you want to get there?” Etzel said.
Part of Etzel’s interest in soil consultation comes from a beekeeping hobby. Once he realized how fast pollinators are dying, he realized he would like to do something to reduce dependence on insecticides.
“If I take that away and the roses aren’t doing well, if I don’t give them something better to do, they will still keep giving them those chemicals. Until you give them a better alternative I can’t really knock the current system. We need to give them a better system and teach them to work it,” Etzel said.
Etzel’s soil improvement methods include crop rotation, cover crops, green manure, mineral soil amendments, and inoculation with beneficial living organisms. Some of his methods, such as mowing weeds rather than pulling them, are designed to be cheap and easy.
“Instead of weeding, let them come up and mow them down with the lawn mower,” Etzel said. “Everyone thinks weeds are our enemy. They are not. They are indicators of excesses and deficiencies, soil compaction. These plants are trying to fix the system and get it back to some sort of equilibrium.”
Etzel is offering his services within about 100 miles of Hackensack. He is currently the only employee in his business. He does consulting, testing and ordering of materials, but not application. Eventually he would like to expand to have more employees and possibly begin application of amendments. For the time being, he plans to serve those with small family gardens.
To request information on a consultation, Etzel can be reached at 218-252-3258 or 218-547-4083. His website is earthsteward1.wix.com/earthisourhome.
Travis Grimler can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at facebook.com/PEJTravis and on Twitter @PEJ_Travis.