Compost tea might not seem like a hot commodity, but to Ed Neff it could reduce the destruction of the rainforests. Ed is convinced that compost tea is such a powerful fertilizer and natural pesticide that farmers throughout the world could use it to revitalize depleted soils, improve crop yields, reduce pesticide use, and reduce the need for cutting down trees to open up new farmland. Ed and a partner developed a technology for making compost tea and started a company to bring it first to U.S. growers, garden centers, and home gardeners. The next step will be to help farmers in third world countries earn a living -- and keep their land productive -- with compost tea.
An entrepreneur at heart, when Ed gets interested in something, he jumps in with both feet and a long-term plan. He had started two previous companies - one that automated the manufacturing of leaded glass windows, and another that produced self-improvement tapes. As he edged closer to sixty, he wanted to turn his efforts toward something that made a real difference. He had grown medicinal herbs for years -- more than a hundred different types -- and when he learned that compost tea has the potential of improving the health of the soil and plants the way herbs can improve the health of the body, he was hooked.
The SoilSoup system uses only vermicompost (worm compost) that's been tested for human pathogens. Other types of manure-based compost can contain disease-causing organisms that can quickly multiply in the process of making tea if there is insufficient oxygen. For this reason, the SoilSoup system (like some other commercial compost tea-making systems) keeps the solution full of oxygen and at the optimum temperature. This also promotes the rapid growth of beneficial organisms that have demonstrated the ability to help plants fight off fungi and other diseases.
"With this technology, we could teach people in third world countries how to create a sustainable lifestyle and live on their own without depending on outside aid," says Ed. "We hope to work with nonprofits to help people in these countries get set up in business."
Ed's daughter, Jessica, was the first member of the company (and family) to put this idea into action. She recently served in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, teaching people -- among other things -- about the value of compost tea and how to make it. She helped farmers make worm bins, and they would then make compost tea in a large unit called a SoilSoup Kitchen. Farmers would come in and fill up their backpack sprayers with the tea to spray on their crops. Jessica especially impressed the local people by going into nearby bat caves and harvesting guano, which she mixed with sugar cane to supply food for the compost microbes.
Ed will have to wait on the guano harvesting for now. He's busy testing SoilSoup Kitchens in 150 garden centers around the U.S. Gardeners can come in with an empty jug and leave with it full of compost tea to spray on their soil and plants. Portable models are also available that enable gardeners to make the tea at home with worm castings, a molasses and kelp mixture, and a brewer that provides the ideal environment. SoilSoup and some other companies that make compost tea have formed a nonprofit organization to be a clearinghouse for information about compost teas and promote research and development. For more information, visit: http://www.composttea.org. To learn more about SoilSoup, visit: http://www.soilsoup.com .
Article published on September 9, 2004.