Profile: The Organic Mechanic

Go behind the scenes at Organic Mechanics Soil Company with Mark Highland

Denise Cowie May 2, 2011

“Identify a need and fill it” is the first tenet of entrepreneurship, one that Mark Highland inadvertently discovered while an environmental horticulture student at the University of Florida. “I just didn’t see organic potting soils on the market on the East Coast,” he says, “so I started looking into ingredients.” He didn’t want to use peat, a major component of many commercial potting mixes, because sphagnum peat bogs are carbon-sequestering ecosystems that, once harvested, take centuries to recover. At the time, conventional wisdom held that compost was too variable to be used as a base in potting mix, but Highland experimented. Before long, he was dubbed “the Organic Mechanic,” and the name stuck.

Now the Organic Mechanics Soil Company, located in southeastern Pennsylvania, is one of only a few companies specializing in compost-based organic potting mixes. And the demand is there: Although he’s been in business for only 5 years, Highland is planning his second move into bigger quarters later this year. Underpinning all this activity is Highland’s passion for healthy soil. “I was fed up with hearing people recommend toxic things to go into our gardens as solutions,” he says. “I wanted there to be more organic solutions for gardeners—green, sustainable solutions.”

At the Organic Mechanics production site in Modena, a little town west of Philadelphia, a handful of employees turn big piles of pine bark, coconut-husk fiber, and locally generated compost—plus other ingredients such as rice hulls and worm castings—into several potting and planting mixes. The Premium Blend Potting Soil is certified as organic by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) and sold in garden centers, farm stores, and natural-foods shops from Maine to Nebraska.

Production is a labor-intensive process. Only the “big three” ingredients are dumped into the mixes mechanically; then perlite, rice hulls, or worm castings are added by hand, and the filled bags are weighed one by one to ensure accuracy.

Ingredients are as local and Earth-friendly as possible to produce mixes that are not only rich in nutrients and require less-frequent watering than peat-based products but must also leave a smaller carbon footprint. On-site, all the vehicles except the electric forklift run on biodiesel fuel.

Highland grew up in Wisconsin but spent memorable summers on his grandparents’ farm in Capron, Illinois, a tiny town west of Chicago. He learned from his grandmother that vegetable gardening can be fun, and he recalls dunking the watering can into “manure water,” made from manure provided by the cows on the dairy farm next door.

But it was at school in Gainesville, Florida, delving deeply into the art and science of growing plants, that he realized that it really does start with good soil. After graduation, Highland’s experimentation continued—in Oregon, researching soil at a certified organic farm, and later studying for a master’s degree in the prestigious Longwood Graduate Program at the University of Delaware, where he did extensive research on composts for Longwood’s own potting mixes.

In 2006, having lined up family members as investors, Highland launched Organic Mechanics, and he hasn’t looked back. This year, Organic Mechanics potting mixes will be officially endorsed by Organic Gardening magazine, with a percentage of proceeds to be donated to the Rodale Institute. The company is also partnering with Midwest Trading in Chicago to make locally produced mixes available to more midwestern garden centers.

And that’s not all: There’s a new seed-starting blend that’s expected to be on the market in the spring of 2012. Highland plans to produce more private-label mixes for independent garden centers, as he already does for American Plant in Maryland and Virginia.

Specially tweaked blends are also marketed to public gardens. Both Chanticleer and the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College, in the Philadelphia suburbs, have used a custom blend in their extensive container gardens for several years.

“We were looking to use a peat-free mix for our annual container display, and the mix he developed for us has worked really well,” says Rhoda Maurer, the assistant curator and greenhouse manager at Scott. “We tried some other peat-free mixes, but this one—and Mark’s work with sourcing things locally—seemed the best option for us,” she says. 

Organic Gardening has awarded its “Seal of Approval” to the Organic Mechanics Soil Company for its organic potting soils and soil amendments. Organic Mechanics soils were selected because of their organic, environmentally sound composition and the company’s sustainable production practices.

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