Retiree’s experimental fertilizer on cutting edge

Published 6:00 am Monday, December 7, 2009

There’s something to be said about the perfect mixture.

Silver Creek’s Gerald Brent has being mixing and stirring forfour years, and if his product comes out right, there may besomething to say about him as well.

The 67-year-old retired Georgia-Pacific hand has kept the dirtunder his fingernails rich over the last 48 months, mixingdifferent forms of agricultural and industrial waste in search ofwhat he believes will be a near-perfect fertilizer. Brent hopes tobegin producing a 90-day accelerated compost for the gardeningmarket next year, and he’s combined personal investment withprofessional advice, sound chemistry and hard, dirty work to makeit happen.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“You can’t go ‘if’ing’ when you go into the market – if I’d donethis or if I’d done that. You’ve got to know,” Brent said.

Brent’s mix is actually rather simple – a load of chickenlitter, a load of fly ash, a touch of lime. He purchases thechicken litter on contract with local chicken farmers, and hetrucks in the fly ash – the burned residue from solid fuels likewood and coal – from nearby Georgia-Pacific. The ingredients act oneach other to balance the acidity level while generating fertilesoil.

Chicken litter on its own is powerful fertilizer, Brent said,but the black, powdery fly ash is the key. Whereas the top fewinches of chicken litter will seal over in the rain, the fly ashmakes the mixture permeable, allowing the bacteria that break downthe mixture to stay warm, wet and working rapidly at 140 degrees.Though a normal compost pile may take a year to break down intogood soil, Brent’s accelerated compost is designed to go frommixing pot to application in 90 days.

“That’s the key factor, being able to turn out as much as youwant in 90 days,” he said.

Brent stumbled upon the fly ash years ago while working atGeorgia-Pacific, and the stuff’s fertilizing power came as nosurprise. He recalled walking past the mill’s fly ash pond dailyand seeing how the dumped waste material made nearby vegetationthrive.

“Around that fly ash pond, common Bermuda grass was that deep,”he said, spacing his hands to recreate the size. “You could lookand see it was working, but we didn’t know how.”

Brent said he spent more than $1,000 sending samples of hismixture to Mississippi State University for analysis to nail downthe fly ash’s key ingredient before finally determining it advancedthe cation exchange capacity of the soil. In the exchange, positiveand negative charged elements of the mixture react together tobreak down the mixture and release nutrients into the soil. Brentsaid his accelerated compost will release more plant nutrients,especially nitrogen, than traditional commercial fertilizer.

“There’s enough nitrogen in the soil, but certain things keepthe plan from using it,” Brent said. “Whenever this come out, I canassure you there will be a higher amount of nutrients in it.”

The fly ash also accomplishes another major fertilizer feat – itkills the odor of the chicken litter completely. Brent said the badsmell of chicken litter is often its primary drawback forcommercial use.

So far, Brent’s ducks are in a row. He is testing his mixture onfields in Silver Creek with a permit from the MississippiDepartment of Environmental Quality. The results so far arenoticeable, but more stringent testing will be required before hiscompost goes commercial.

Dr. Larry Oldham, an MSU Extension professor and soil expert whoBrent has called for advice many times, said Brent’s acceleratedcompost would have to be validated in controlled scientific tests.He did say, however, that Brent might be onto something, and other,larger entities are trying to get to the finish line, too.

“The Southern Company has been doing a lot of work with fly ash,including in this state, over the past few years,” Oldham said.”There’s a lot of research going on. There’s been a lot of workwith fly ash, I’m just not real sure if it’s been combined withpoultry litter.”

Brent is hoping his labor will produce fruit next year. He’salready formed Silver Creek Processing LLC and hopes to beginbagging free samples of his accelerated compost for gardeners totry next spring. He said his mixture will likely be too expensivefor large-scale agricultural use, but he hopes to make an impact onthe gardening market and leave a successful company behind for hisgrandchildren.

“I’m going on 68 years old. It ain’t that many more shoppingdays ’till Christmas,” Brent said, pondering his mortality. “Myfather did better than his father, and I feel like I may have had ahigher standard of living than he did. But the way this country isheaded, and with the millions of jobs we’ve sent overseas, I wonderif my grandson will be able to have as high a standard of living asI did.”