How Organic Practices Transformed Scalped Hilltop Acreage Into ‘Organic Experimental Acres’ Homesite in South Dakota 1972-1975

By Roger Blobaum

Gary Schmeichel accepted quite a challenge eight years ago when he started using organic methods to put the top soil back on a hilltop scalped by machinery taking fill for a road-building project.

He was assured by local experts, including the county agent, that the 16 acres of heavy yellow clay would never grow much of anything. Few shared his vision of a rural homesite surrounded by fruit trees, berry patches, and a vegetable garden producing more than a family could consume.

But Schmeichel followed a soil-building plan that included heavy applications of compost, leaf and wood chip mulches, and granite dust and other commercial organic materials. He also worked sweet clover and other legumes into the soil to provide nitrogen, improve the tilth, and build up the humus level.

The soil responded to this combination of hard work and careful management and before long whatever Schmeichel planted did well. As a result he has become known as the organic gardener who turned the land at the Parker highway intersection into one of South Dakota’s most beautiful areas.

A rustic sign reading “Organic Experimental Acres” now greets visitors to the area, which looks more like an arboretum than a setting for a split-level home. The “experimental” part of the sign recognizes Schmeichel innovations in growing things organically that have attracted the attention of hundreds of visitors.

The first thing you notice coming up the drive is compost piles–really big ones. One, 15 feet wide and 30 feet long, is covered with black plastic so it will capture more heat from the sun and work faster. Another, in a high woven wire enclosure, is near the highway that leads into town.

“One of the first things we did here was start gathering leaves around town to make compost,” Schmeichel recalls. “We wanted this pile near the road so it would be easy for people to dump their leaves here in the fall.”

As he scoops up some of the partially-composted mixture of leaves and manure, a couple of red wrigglers exposed to the sunlight start looking for cover. Schmeichel said he bought several thousand sometime back and now moves them to wherever he wants them to go to work.

“These worms are good in compost piles because they grind up the organic material and provide valuable castings as well,” he explains. “We incorporate the worms into the piles after they cool down and they usually are able to go deep enough when cold weather hits so they can survive the winter.”

He also puts red wrigglers in his cold frames and feeds them kitchen wastes during the winter months. Then in the spring, when Schmeichel wants more of them in the garden or needs them to “push” a compost pile, he transplants them.

One of the first improvements on the hilltop site was an evergreen windbreak, needed for protection against the winds that sweep across South Dakota’s open spaces much of the time. Protection was needed for the house as well as for fruit trees, shrubs, and nearly everything else growing there.

The soil had no organic matter content at this point and needed improvement so it could support young trees. So he roto-tilled in compost, peat moss, and granite dust before planting the first 150 small evergreens.

“We dug the holes with pick and shovel, making them about two feet wider than the balls of the trees,” he recalled. “We also put in as much compost as we could and worked it in around the roots of each tree.”

The following year, he said, a layer of sawdust and wood shavings about six inches deep was spread in the windbreak area to help control weeds and conserve moisture. Bone and cottonweed meal and other organic material was added later to feed the trees.

Today, less than seven years later, many of these trees are 30 feet high, the branches are so full it is difficult to walk between them, and the ground is springy like the floor of a pine forest. In addition to providing protection from the wind and blowing snow, the trees provide protection for wildlife in the winter and a year-around base for hundreds of insect-eating birds.

The background noise provided by wrens and other songbirds makes an immediate impression on a visitor to “Organic Experimental Acres.” Schmeichel said he encourages the birds in the winter months by watering them and putting out lots of sunflower seeds and other home-grown feed.

“I plant trees and shrubs that they like, such as mulberry trees, honeysuckles, cherry trees, and elderberries,” he explained. “I also have a big house for martins and lots of smaller bird houses located all over the area.”

In addition to fruit and berries, Schmeichel has several garden plots that would be the envy of anyone who raises vegetables. He points out that soil for gardening had to be made much richer and looser than was necessary to establish a windbreak.

He said the soil was heavy the first year, the weeds tried to take over, and it was nearly impossible to grow anything. A high PH (7.3 to 7.6) was one problem, he said, and low zinc content in the soil was another.

So the garden areas got the full treatment, first with leaf compost worked in as deep as 15 to 20 inches, then with bone meal, blood meal, granite dust, and other soil-building materials. Even now he turns under cow peas and other legumes in places to enrich the soil and make it work easier.

The garden areas are heavily mulched each year, he points out, mainly with partially-composted leaves and wood chips. This cover is roto-tilled under in the fall to keep the soil rich and productive and easy to manage.

Schmeichel says he prefers to make his own organic fertilizers now, adding bone meal and granite dust and other materials to his compost piles so he comes up with a mixture that gets good results.

Where does he get all that composting material? He watches for waste materials in the Parker area and also gets help from others interested in his organic projects. He uses a light specially-built trailer to haul sawdust, manure, and similar materials.

His wood chips come from a rural electric cooperative crew that trims tree limbs away from power lines and runs them through a portable chipper. The crew occasionally dumps a truck load on a pile near Schmeichel’s driveway.

He saw some big cottonwood trees being felled and cut up recently and got permission to haul away the sawdust and bark. He occasionally gets rotted hay but watches to be sure it isn’t too weedy. If it has some weeds in it, he makes sure it winds up in the center of a compost heap so it will get hot enough to kill the seeds.

He is partial to wood chip mulch for his tomatoes and spreads a heavy layer on when the soil temperature reaches 60 degrees. He considers this good insurance against both heat and dry weather.

“It has cow manure incorporated in it, it has been decayed some, and the red wrigglers have been at work on it,” he explains. “This wood mulch keeps earthworms close to the surface, has wonderful water retention capacity, keeps the soil temperature constant, and releases nutrients as it decays.”

Schmeichel’s interest in organic methods goes beyond developing a beautiful place to live or producing lots of good food to eat. He is in the health insurance business, is concerned about the increasing incidence of cancer, and knows first hand about the steady rise in health care costs.

“There’s no better insurance than going to this natural organic method, working with nature rather than against it, and eliminating some of the reasons why people get sick,” he said. “After all, we are what we eat.”