Building healthy ecologies from the dirt up…

One of the humans behind Dirt Cheap and Mendo Ag…

  • Works with policy makers in California, Colorado and Washington states to help guide public policy toward more sustainable agriculture models
  • Designed the horticultural program for Carbondale, Illinois group, IESO, with a water recycling process that reduced the company’s water usage by 75%
  • Collaborated on the study “Energy Up in Smoke” (http://evan-mills.com/energy-associates/Indoor.html) collecting and publishing data on the excessive carbon footprint of the indoor cannibals growing industry, potentially risking upset and loss of his largest and most loyal customer base
  • Consultant for Entity X, a firm that advises entrepreneurs and investors in the medical cannabis industry
  • Member of several advisory panels for manufacturing facilities to create energy efficiencies
  • More than 30 years of experience in local organic horticultural methods and soil building

These are a few of the credentials that I caught while interviewing Mendocino Agricultural Products (MAP or Mendo Ag) president and Dirt Cheap owner, Scott Zeramby. Dirt Cheap’s mission statement is “growing community from the ground up.” But—with the successes the Learning Garden has had using their compost and start mix, Dirt Cheap being recommended, mentioned or pointed out by every organic food grower I’ve met since before I started as the Garden Educator at Noyo Food Forest, then spending a couple hours speaking with Scott, perusing the store and Dirt Cheap’s Web site—it seems to me Dirt Cheap’s business model is not only building community, but building healthy ecologies from the ground up.

Dirt Cheap’s web presence, is a veritable education in sustainable horticulture. Rather than bells and whistles or ‘sexy’ marketing strategies, Scott and his team have put together an encyclopedic “Resources” section based in scientific study and decades worth of lessons learned in the field, complete with a glossary of gardening terms and an accessible reference page dedicated to compost, teas, vermi-culture and building healthy organic soils. Sure, they suggest a couple products they sell while educating, but those products aren’t linked and Dirt Cheap sells those products because they have found them to possess the best overall value in the above mentioned states. Far from your typical retail store Web site where nearly every opportunity to educate is merely a product for sale.

Cost vs. Value: The Local Economy

Scott Zeramby says that the value that the average customer does not see when walking into Dirt Cheap, that the team there and at Mendo Ag have to address and make conscientious decisions about daly is: How to move the cost of an item away from the customer and more toward How does the cost of that product benefit the community? And I would add: How does it contribute to the locally entwined environmental, social and economic ecology?

When Dirt Cheap was in its infancy coastal garden supply shops were the retail sales gold rush of the Mendocino coast. In its heyday, the distraction of healthy profits while supplying much needed products to a local niche industry seemed like a win-win to the young entrepreneur. While supplying previously scarce products to food and growers otherwise in need of local supplies, Dirt Cheap was the only garden supply shop that used only biodiesel for its entire fleet of delivery and transport trucks. Yet there was still a large carbon and dollar cost in transporting all of those products into the community. Also, somewhere near 97% of the product sold in dollar value at Dirt Cheap was being purchased from far away so most of the cost for any item purchased was leaving the community.  This fact weighed heavily on Scott so Dirt Cheap began to make a change. In 2003 the goal set for Dirt Cheap and Mendo Ag was to source right here in Mendocino County 25% of all product sold. Since then they have been purchasing more conscientiously sourced ingredients and inputs, assemble and sell them here, and use all local labor. That keeps as much of the money in the community as possible. In 2017 Dirt Cheap and Mendo Ag has eclipsed 33% of their product sourced, assembled, and manufactured here in Mendocino County and aiming for 75% – 80% by 2018.  Most nutrients Dirt Cheap sells are manufactured either in Fort Bragg or within northern CA.

Cost vs. Value: Taking Care of the Community

Dirt Cheap’s prices are competitive, but if they do charge a little more then their neighbor for some items, you can rest assured, Dirt Cheap engages deeply into the community with those revenues. The list of Dirt Cheap’s and Mendo Ag’s contributions to the Mendocino coast’s greater community is exhaustive.  Thousands of yards of compost were donated to Mendocino High School when they rebuilt their football field. Dirt Cheap and Mendo Ag partnered with their suppliers to donate the rocks for Caspar Community Center front gardens and soil to the food gardens. They donate soil to the Mendocino Community Gardens annually and donated materials for the Mendocino Coast Hospital’s Zen Gardens. Dirt Cheap donated signage for the Cancer Resource Center and provide garden materials to several of the local churches. Other indispensable community organizations that Dirt Cheap makes ongoing donations to include compost to the Hospitality House food gardens that Noyo Food Forest is helping to develop, they supply seed and supplies to every school in the Fort Bragg Unified School District’s Farm to School program, and they donated the roof for the first (East) hoop house at Noyo Food Forest.

Dirt Cheap also is the go-to local business for environmental projects the Fort Bragg City Counsel is involved in. When they voted to create the Green Alleys of Fort Bragg—a biologically charged filtration system that cleans hydrocarbons out of storm runoff—they came to Dirt Cheap for the right mix of potting and native soils specifically for that project, knowing that Scott and his team have the insight and sensitivity to balance cost with effect. City Counsel also called on Scott when they were scoping the local mill site to start a vermi-culture project.

Cost vs. Value: Foot Print

Another initiative Dirt Cheap has taken on is packaging. In 2007, with an ocean, soils, waterways and world rapidly filling with never-to-decompose plastics, Scott took note that Dirt Cheap was selling in escess of 50 thousand plastic bags of potting soil into the Fort Bragg market and a significant amount of that was manufactured and packaged by Mendo Ag right here in Fort Bragg. He did the math of how many grams of plastic his product packaging was going into the landfill and it was a staggering number and clearly avoidable. Massive amounts of single use plastic was being produced in order to simply transport an item for 10 minutes with the packaging ending up in the local landfill or even worse, in the wild.  This was yet another aspect of business-as-usual weighing heavily on Scott and his wife’s conscious. So, they began looking for alternatives to the disposable plastic soil bags.  The evaluated the benefits of using biodegradable, recyclable and even compostable packaging. Because of the active biology in nearly all of Dirt Cheap’s and Mendo Ag’s products soil products, they decided to use a reusable packaging alternative, a nylon mesh ‘Super-Sack’ more commonly referred to as a ‘Tote’. Since 2007, customers may now purchase product for less cost than they would in a traditional plastic bag using Dirt Cheap’s reusable ‘Mini-Super Sack’, or for larger orders, the ‘Large Tote’, than they would pay for the pre-packaged product.  The reduced cost serves as an additional incentive to re-use the packaging instead of buying more wasted plastic. You can also find many other products at Dirt Cheap that are sourced specifically for their reduced carbon output in their manufacturing and transportation, like the coconut fiber, a peat-moss alternative and one of their biggest selling products.

So back to that question of Cost vs. Value, or How does the cost of a product benefit the community, the local economy while reducing it’s footprint? What I learned in my interview with Scott was the intrinsic value of supporting a business that over the years has consistently looked at their effect on the place they live and do business. I like to look at it from a place of privilege: The value of a fancy frappaccino to its full life cycle is a cost on your health, the environment’s health, and the local economy because so much of the product is outsourced, while its dollar cost is about the same amount I would spend on any other small luxury, like going to see a movie, or a month’s membership to netflix. In that light I am willing to spend a few dimes or couple dollars extra on a product I know is not taking a toll on the place I also live and do business. Like locally grown organic produce: It is a value to that place and not a cost to it. Healthy local ecologies are the best bet on what will sustain themselves through these uncertain times ahead of us. A business model that remains flexible and sensitive to the needs of a place and depends upon that place’s health, so therefore contributes to its health is a wise business model. When supporting Dirt Cheap and Mendo Ag you are also supporting the student from FBUSD who comes home with fresh produce from their school garden, with an integrated understanding of where their food comes from and its nutritional value to their health and wellbeing. You are supporting community gardens and local non-profits, you are supporting rigor in the local economy, and environmental stewardship with your purchase of superior and time tested products.