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Published: Thursday, 6/29/2006

Earth Friendly Products Are A Natural For Your Garden

Cultivating a thriving, healthy garden with environmentally safe products doesn't just mean using homemade mulch piles and avoiding pesticides.

A number of small companies are working to carve a bigger niche for earth-friendly products, pushing them slowly toward the mainstream and building on new science and proven marketing strategies.

Business people such as Ed Neff want to tap the market by promoting environmentally friendly techniques. After a career in marketing for the Eastman Kodak Co., Neff created an ecologically friendly company with his partner, Jerry Erickson.

"We were hitting our sixties and we wanted to do something that makes a difference," Neff said.

Erickson struck on the idea of a company to produce a safe product that played off an old farmer's trick. Once, a grower might dip composted manure in water and then spread the resulting liquid fertilizer onto plants and vegetables.

But the risk of contamination from the manure outweighed the good, until a new system was developed to get the same results. Organic farmers used a process to pump large amounts of oxygen into nutrient-rich water to create liquid compost.

Erickson developed a small, affordable brewing system that produces the liquid compost they call SoilSoup. They incorporated in Seattle in 1999 and the first products rolled out in 2000.

"We thought we could earn a living and we took the leap," said Neff, 63.

They intended to sell small brewing devices to organic farmers but Neff said he borrowed from lessons learned at Kodak. They rented the machines to garden centers, charged for each gallon distributed and shared a portion of the proceeds with the center.

"The model was the same as with the first Xerox machines and the first photo labs," he said. "Rent the machine and charge per use."

It costs $7.99 for a gallon of SoilSoup, and a gallon or so would be enough to fertilize a typical suburban yard, Neff said. No chemicals, but a nice healthy lawn.

"In the past people have seen organics as hard to use, but they're becoming much easier," he said. "People want to do the right thing. Now it's getting easier, so they're doing it."

Neff said SoilSoup is slowly expanding distribution out of the Pacific Northwest and the company is careful to craft a message that appeals to all sections of the country.

"In the Midwest, where chemicals are big, they're not necessarily fans of organic, which brings images of hippies," Neff said. "In parts of the country we don't call it organic. We just call it safe."

Another example of this trend toward ecologically friendly gardening products is Eden Bioscience, which owes its existence to a discovery made at Cornell University in the late 1980s by Zhongmin Wei.

Wei was working on post-doctoral studies of fire blight, which caused severe problems with apple and pear crops. He identified a protein that triggers a natural defense mechanism in the plants when in the presence of the blight.

Wei co-founded Eden Bioscience, based in Bothell, Wash.

The company created Messenger, a product that naturally stimulates this defense mechanism in all plants, creating a natural and powerful boost to the plant's immune system, marketing manager Jeff McClellan said.

"The idea is to stimulate a natural response prior to the presence of a pathogen and to allow the plant to better resist and survive," he said. "And the plants tend to grow more robustly and flower slightly earlier and more profusely."

While the original market consisted of large agriculture outfits, Messenger is now targeted at the average consumer, he said. "We went to the American Rose Society and the feedback was very positive," he said. "It's not a traditional pesticide, and it's very easy to use. It's very low risk for the environment."

They rolled out the product in the Northwest and Northeast this year, slowly expanding into the Southeast, McClellan said.

McClellan worked for 25 years for companies such as Ortho, which makes pesticides and other products, he said. There's always been at least a low-level of consumer interest in earth-friendly products.

"I would say that in the last 10 years there's been more of a trend for companies to satisfy that pent-up demand," he said.

There is growth in the sales of natural or organic gardening products. A study by The National Gardening Association found that in 1999, 4.4 million households purchased all natural or organic fertilizers for their lawns or gardens.

In 2004, about nine million households purchased these products for their lawns or gardens, said Bruce Butterfield, the association's director of research.

There is still plenty of room to grow, though. Butterfield said the association's studies show that organic products make up only about five percent of the sales of fertilizer and insect and weed controls.

But even that relatively small percentage is a piece of a huge do-it-your-self lawn care market. Consider that the association reports that consumers spent about $38.4 billion last year on lawn and garden activities.



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