Anchorage entrepreneur hopes Alaska humus will turn out to be humongous

State's peat is being used by Vegas casinos, Oregon seed company, California vineyards, Saudi Arabia

Posted: Monday, January 12, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Dick Strahl has dirt on his mind.

He sees an international market eager for bargeloads of humus, the naturally composting material commonly found in shallow wetlands, otherwise known as peat.

Strahl is convinced Alaska has the cleanest humus anywhere.

"There are very few places on the Earth where you can get this stuff," Strahl said. "It's virgin soil."

Strahl has worked in the construction and trucking industries in Alaska for 40 years and, after seeing so many foundations being excavated, he got the idea of selling the leftovers.

"No. 1, it's a waste product, so the cost is low. And No. 2, it's the best stuff around," he said. "Outside, and all over the world, the soil has been farmed, depleted or it has pesticides and chemicals in it. The demand is there for this."

Strahl and two business partners formed APC Export Inc. in 1999. The enterprise is currently using 10 acres of property that Strahl is developing in east Anchorage as a source for the material and a site for processing and packaging.

He said the company so far has dug up a niche market, selling one-cubic-yard boxes of his Alaska humus to an eclectic mix of customers.

"We're supplying soil to the casinos in Las Vegas," he said. "The Bellagio, The Mirage, Treasure Island. The Bellagio just took 38 yards for top cover on everything they grow down there. The guy called me and said the landscaping has never looked so good and healthy."

He said another client is Territorial Seed Co. in Oregon's Willamette Valley that uses the Alaska soil for its organic starter plant trays for shipments to greenhouses and stores in the Lower 48.

"We've also shipped humus to Japan, Thailand and about 40 wineries in California," he said. "Oh, and we've sent some to Saudi Arabia."

A local market exists as well. Strahl said he has supplied a few nurseries and master gardeners in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Valley with his product.

The business plan is in place, the product is sound and the market exists for exponential growth, Strahl said.

There's just one nettlesome problem.

"I'm not making any money at it," he said, chuckling. "It's a transportation deal, that's all it is. We need to find financing to build a facility to process it, bag it up and ship it out of here in a cost-efficient way. We have a marketing company Outside ready to work with us once we get the financing."

He said he is hoping to make arrangements with shipping lines to use southbound, mostly empty freighters to supply West Coast distributors and eventually tap into the larger Pacific Rim markets.

For example, the "designer soil" horticultural market in Japan now imports most of its humus supplies from Canada.

Strahl believes his company can provide the goods at a more competitive price.

Strahl said he has a pending agreement with Tyonek Native Corp. to obtain a steady, bulk supply of humus from the corporation's land holdings along the east side of Cook Inlet. He is looking into obtaining more supply from developments near Port MacKenzie north of Anchorage.

Shipping dirt from Alaska may seem like a long-shot venture, but Strahl is betting that the business will put down roots.

"It's very close to happening," he said. "It won't be long. Alaska needs exports, and this is a natural resource. It would benefit the economy, the people who work at it will live here and the profits would stay right here in Alaska."

He said the main selling point for Alaska soil is simple. It exemplifies the term organic.

"You can go to the store right now and buy a bottle of that green chemical miracle stuff, and pour it on your plants and it will work, but it's no good," he said. "And when you buy fruits and produce these days at the supermarket, you better wash them off before you eat them, who knows what's on it. With this soil ... it has just what nature has intended. It all starts in the soil."

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