Jeff Sibley can see him now, standing there in his overalls, chewing tobacco.”Boy,” he would say, “Go load me up another bag of that ‘mater dirt.””He was talking about cow manure, but he knew it worked well for growing tomatoes,” Sibley said, recalling the old-timer who frequented his family’s nursery in north Alabama where Sibley worked as a young boy.
No wonder ‘MaterDirt is the name that awakened Sibley from his sleep when he was ready to turn a variation of his grandfather’s secret tomato dirt recipe into a manure-free commercial compost patented and sold by Auburn University.Sibley, now an associate professor of horticulture at Auburn University, won’t reveal exactly what is in ‘MaterDirt that makes tomatoes — and a host of other plants and shrubs –flourish. “We actually haven’t said that recipe out loud,” Sibley says with a grin. “My grandfather was a tomato truck farmer, and what’s in here is what he was using. I saw that this worked, and it was based on things that I saw my grandfather, Buford Brackin, doing in Town Creek when I was just a boy.”But I can’t just tell you it works,” Sibley said. “In a university setting, you’ve got to show that it works, and you’ve got to have credible research to support anything you put your name on.”
That proof is not only on the bag in the form of a 2003 Auburn University trademark, but it’s in the bag as well.Nine years in the making, ‘MaterDirt was actually developed as part of an ongoing project to study ways in which waste products from agriculture and allied industries can be turned into value-added products. Keith Gray, director of national affairs for the Alabama Farmers Federation, and Brian Hardin, director of the Federation’s Horticulture and Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod divisions, helped secure the federal grant for the research.”Our focus is to help reduce agricultural waste, be it on-farm waste or waste from further processing,” Sibley said, noting that Auburn researchers are exploring new uses for everything from potato skins and egg shells to newsprint and yes, even household garbage.To illustrate his case, Sibley recently showed off a healthy japonica shrub grown in a container filled with nothing but 100 percent recycled household garbage.”This is household municipal garbage…everything you put in your trash can at home is right there — dirty diapers, newspapers, leftover T-shirts, dish rags, plastic Coke bottles, milk jugs — all ground up and pulverized,” said Sibley, lifting the shrub up from its container.While he says the plant can survive shipping better if the recycled garbage is mixed with pine bark to add stability, there’s little difference in it and a plant grown in all pine bark. “As far as the nutritive value, there’s no difference. It’s the same,” said Sibley. “So, if you can grow something the same for less cost, you’ve gained. The gain may not be in an increased rate of growth, it may just be in reducing costs. And reducing landfill.””‘MaterDirt is a prime example of some of the practical things that come to us from our land-grant institutions,” said Hardin of the Farmers Federation. “I think many times people don’t believe university research relates back to their everyday lives. Places like the Department of Horticulture at Auburn University are working on things to make sure they are being relevant for Alabama’s citizens. This product and similar concepts of utilizing waste are a benefit not only to the consumers, but to growers as well.”As for ‘MaterDirt, the most Sibley will tell you is that it’s a high-organic content that’ll improve soil structure, offer excellent nutrient- and water-holding capacities and is free of pathogenic diseases, weed seed and insects.Sibley’s graduate students have found ‘MaterDirt is also good for crapemyrtles, azaleas, boxwoods, hollies, dwarf nandinas, roses, weeping fig, lantana, dusty miller and other plants and shrubs.Sibley says that while ‘MaterDirt has a slight nutrition value to get plants off to a good start, a supplemental fertilizer will be required to keep the tomatoes (or other plants or shrubs) coming throughout the summer. Each 40- to 50-pound bag contains 1.5 cubic feet of ‘MaterDirt, and the bag is designed so tomatoes can be planted directly into it. There’s even a zipper-style locking top so that it can be resealed and used again the following year.It’s being sold not to earn Sibley or Auburn University a profit, but to simply regain some of the research costs, whether on a per-bag royalty or a one-time technology transfer fee. “We’ll never recover the cost of the research with the way we’re doing things, but that’s not the point,” said Sibley. “Our point is to make sure that the taxpayer dollars that are coming in will generate research that will benefit the horticulture industry.”Sibley said even before the first few bags of ‘MaterDirt were sold in 2004, Auburn University’s goal was to find someone to take the product into the industry by the time 10,000 bags were sold. Sibley won’t say how many of the 1.5 cubic foot bags have been sold to date, but he does say that goal will be reached this year.’MaterDirt is being sold through Alabama Farmers Cooperative member stores and small garden centers throughout the state. According to Susan Parker, AFC’s lawn and garden director, AFC had 800 bags in stock available to its member cooperatives, and was awaiting another shipment. If a store doesn’t stock ‘MaterDirt, she said customers can request the store to order it for them. Prices may vary from store to store, but ‘MaterDirt is expected to expected to sell for about $4 per bag.In the meantime, Sibley says two more products from Auburn University will be coming later this year. Both will include some animal waste byproducts — one poultry-based, the other dairy-based. Both are for non-food crops only.Beyond that, Sibley isn’t talking. He won’t reveal those secret recipes or even the names he has chosen for the products. But one thing’s for certain — if they never sell a bag, Sibley will be happy exploring new challenges.”There are two or three other companies in Alabama that have the infrastructure all ready to where they could take this product and run with it,” he said. “If not, we’ll move on to something else, to solving a different problem – it might be whether crapemyrtles should be pruned to a knuckled look or it might be an alternative insecticide for fire ants. Whatever the problem is, we’ll shift to that.”As for now, Sibley is hoping that somewhere in Alabama there’s an old-timer telling someone, “Go load me up another bag of that ‘MaterDirt.”