Turning compost into cash: Mixture yields return for organic garlic farmer


ROOTSTOWN, Ohio – Bill Pennell thrives on horse manure, hard work and heaping piles of soil.
That, and bread with a little smear of a homemade mixture he simply labels ‘tonic,’ a mixture that includes cayenne peppers, horseradish and garlic grown right at home.
Pennell, who operates Rootstown Organic Farm, has made a business out of composting free horse manure into the perfect soil for home-grown garlic and other vegetables.
The spice of life. The certified organic farm southeast of Rootstown in Portage County includes a total of 14 acres, but only about 6 acres are in production, Pennell said.
Part of that is due to mandatory buffers between his property and the commercial agriculture that surrounds him – required for organic certification – and part is due to being a one-person operation most of the time.
Danielle Seidita works for him this summer, helping plant and weed and harvest the garden. The rest of the year, it’s a one-man show.
On that small acreage, Pennell piles as much as he can. There is dill, onions, carrots, parsnips, beans, lettuce, parsley, winter squash, eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, potatoes and tomatoes.
And, of course, garlic, the crop that Pennell is probably most noted for.
Crop of cloves. Growing garlic is a year-round affair for Pennell.
He saves and sorts bulbils – small starts taken from the scape, the garlic’s above-ground flower – to plant the next year.
“I don’t divide a bulb over and over to plant the next time,” Pennell said. Planting from bulbils also helps prevent disease.
Though he used to cut them off and throw them away, he now also sells the young scapes, often considered a delicacy.
“Anymore, I sell every [darned] one of them on the farm,” he said. “Everything around here, I sell all of it.”
His harvest in mid-July yielded more than 20,000 bulbs of garlic in 13 varieties.
After that, it’s into his climate-controlled garage to dry down to the perfect moisture level. As the bulbs dry, the garlic flavor gets stronger and the air inside the garage smells like an Italian eatery.
And every planting season and every harvesttime, Pennell says he’s just as excited as the day he started.
Help from horses. Pennell has been cleaning a local horse barn once a week since 1980. He doesn’t get paid to do the chore, but gets to take all the dung – about 15 stalls worth – home with him.
That sawdust and manure mixture gets dumped into long windrows at the back of the Pennell property, where it composts and ‘cooks’ out all the bad stuff and becomes rich soil to nourish his crops.
But the process isn’t as easy as dumping the manure and letting it do its thing. Pennell, who has been making compost for more than 30 years, estimates he turns each pile completely inside out nearly 20 times in the two months it takes to go from manure to soil.
Along the way, he adds gypsum and sprays the piles with water, and uses a homemade implement he pulls behind his tractor to turn the piles. Gypsum, he says, makes the compost “optimum for everything.”
“And the stuff in gypsum is medicinal for the ground and people,” he said. “Just about everything grows good in this.”
Cooking. During composting, the heat generated by the breakdown burns up weeds and insect larvae, Pennell said.
“You have to keep it cooking until it’s under 100 degrees. I used to use a thermometer, but now I just stick my hand in there and know,” Pennell said.
Background. Pennell didn’t always know everything there was about composting, or organic farming.
He started gardening in a small plot on his Portage County property in the 1970s, and when friends started begging for more and more summertime raids on the garden in the 1980s, he began planting and harvesting more heavily. He finally quit his construction job to fully concentrate on the vegetables in the 1990s.
In 1992, the farm became certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association. State and federal law requires any farm that sells more than $5,000 worth of goods as organic to be certified, so Pennell paid the fee and went through the inspection.
Granted it makes for more work, having to keep track of every little detail, he said.
“But if you’re doing it honestly, there’s no reason in the world not to certify,” he said.
And his customers at the Shaker Square farmers’ market appreciate his certification.
“I can’t grow enough of anything. The organic movement is going strong, plus there is this eat fresh and local thing going on, too,” Pennell said.
“I’ve got a nice table all year ’round, and can sell and sell. It’s unbelievable,” he said.
“It’s egotistical, but when customers tell me I’ve got the sweetest kale or best garlic at the market, that keeps me going.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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