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California and the West

Even Disneyland Seeks Help From the 'Soil Philosopher'


FRESNO — When Coachella Valley lemon grower Mike Weeks feared that his 28-year-old orchard was suffering from disease, he turned to soil specialist Ron Helland. So did operators of a Napa Valley winery when grape yields seemed on the decline.

But Disneyland? Why would a theme park in Anaheim need help from an agricultural biochemist who describes himself as less an expert than "a soil philosopher?"

Because someone had to rescue those three courtyard oaks teetering from weak roots outside Pirates of the Caribbean. And because half a dozen other trees needed a revitalizing boost after being moved for a remolded Autopia ride.

Almost anywhere crops, plants or trees are expected to grow despite difficult climates or conditions, Ron Helland is respected as a quasi-doctor of dirt. With 30 years of experience, this bluejean-clad crusader for a sort of practical organics travels the West Coast and Mexico, consulting on the importance of soil biology.

"The nature of soil is not to be bare and devoid of life except for neatly placed plants every 10 feet, but to be alive, thriving with microbes," Helland said.

Selma organic raisin grower John Woods believes Helland's biologically oriented approach to soil development could bring greater yields while reducing the need for polluting chemicals and pesticides.

"As far as plant nutrition is concerned, he's at the forefront of some work that literally could be world changing" Woods said. "He's that good--and he's done it all by observation and just knowing what he's doing."

Disneyland's horticulture assistant manager, John Schrimsher, said he uses Helland's soil-enhancing products when he sets out seasonal displays such as holiday poinsettias--the semitropical plants that in the Magic Kingdom must sparkle a month early, starting in November.

Schrimsher said Disneyland is careful not to endorse any one product and uses a variety of things on its year-round showcase landscaping. But the soil-nurturing mix produced by Helland's Biologically Integrated Organics Inc. caught his eye after it won praise from a discriminating crowd.

"One of the biggest endorsements is that farmers are using it," Schrimsher said. "Farmers are generally frugal. They will not spend a nickel unless it's going to benefit their crops. The studies on farms opened up my mind about its effectiveness in horticulture."

Despite degrees in biology and biochemistry from Cal State San Diego, Helland does not consider himself an expert--just someone who views dirt differently.

"We look at soil as a whole system instead of as an anchor for roots," he said from the Fresno plant that brews his liquid soil additive. "It's a living, breathing system that we've neglected."

Helland believes the biological approach to farming will revolutionize agriculture in the next few decades--restoring land now fallow and preventing other acres from being taken out of production because of overuse and chemical abuse.

Brian Leahy, executive director of the California Certified Organic Farmers, agrees with Helland and his company's biological approach to farming. The organization represents more than 1,000 organic farmers throughout California and established the Organic Materials Review Institute, which approved Helland's products for use in organic food and fiber production.

"Farming starts with soil life," Leahy said. "If you have healthy soil, you'll produce healthy plants that grow healthy food, which contributes to healthy people.

"When you use synthetics--pesticides, synthetic nitrogen and other products--you destroy the beneficial soil life and its microbiology gets out of balance. Helland's work attempts to balance it again."

In one of life's incongruities, Helland's first paying job at age 10 was strapping on a heavy metal backpack and walking up and down rows of citrus trees in Ventura County, spraying diesel fuel to kill weeds. Now when Helland sees weeds growing in orchards, he considers it progress. Weeds are a sign of healthy soil and progressive thinking, an indication that agricultural leaders are beginning to understand soil instead of simply spraying it with chemicals to solve problems.

Helland started his first compost business at age 16. After finishing college, he designed compost facilities such as winemaker E.J. Gallo's in Fresno. He later founded two compost companies--Aguinaga Fertilizer Co. in Irvine with partner Roger Aguinaga, and Tulare County Compost and Biomass in Tulare--before starting Sonoma-based Biologically Integrated Organics, known as bio. The specialty organic compost blended at Aguinaga's Irvine facility also has been used successfully at Disneyland and at most of the major entertainment parks and resorts in Southern California.

At bio's Fresno facility, half a dozen large vats fill a warehouse where organic green waste is broken down into liquid form. Gallons of the dark, concentrated mixture of microorganisms are stored in several large bins that emit an earthy smell like that of a freshly plowed field. Helland, while scooping up a few handfuls of oil-like soluble humus necessary for plant life, said he's not so much of an idealist as to believe biological methods can eliminate chemistry from worldwide agriculture.

"To think we could go to a completely sustainable system without chemistry at this point is folly," he said. "We need all these tools to grow crops.

"But biology has been ignored," the dirt philosopher said, "and we need to look at it as a very important component of 21st century agriculture."

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