The answer is found in 90 wooden bins stacked in John Sr.’s basement in Homewood, one of two locations where J3 makes its green-friendly products – the other being a composting facility in Bessemer.
The bins are filled with a blend of composted cow and horse manures that would have otherwise been waste products on local farms. There’s no smell, by the way. I’m told by the Oberts that properly composted material doesn’t smell like... well, manure.
But where are the workers?
John Jr. rubs his finger across the smooth surface of the dark, moist compost in one of the bins and reveals hundreds of little worms crawling over each other in the faint, yellow glow of a hanging bulb. They are called Eisenia Foetidas, or red wigglers. ”There are over 300 different breeds of earthworms,” John Jr. says. “This is the best for composting.”
The Oberts feed the worms compost and, after the worms feast, they do what comes natural: They poop, and in the process create a nutrient-rich soil amendment that will, the Oberts say, help make your garden, or your grass, grow the natural way, without petroleum-based fertilizer and other chemicals.
“There are hormones and enzymes that exist no place else except a worm's intestines,” John Sr. says.
“They go to the top to eat and to the bottom to poop, because they don’t want to live in their own excrement, like any other creature,” John Jr. says. “We scrape off the top to get down to the purest product. We call it Alabama Soil Food.”
“Can you estimate how many worms you have?” I ask.
“Oh, you probably got 500 pounds of red wigglers down here,” John Sr. says.
”How many in a pound?” John Jr. asks his dad.
“A thousand,” he replies.
“So half a million, maybe 600,000,” John Jr. estimates.
Impressive, since the Oberts started in 2005 with a single pound of worms and one five-gallon bucket. And the red wigglers continue to reproduce. In fact, they are outgrowing the basement. “We’re building a worm house on the land in Bessemer,” John Sr. says.
John Jr. was running an insulation company when he and his father, a former ironworker with a long interest in organic gardening, started J3. “Dad always told me he wanted to make a better dirt,” John Jr. says. “Most of the topsoil that you get around here has rocks and roots and stems in it, and we wanted to give people better topsoil.” According to the Oberts, Alabama Soil Food improves soil structure, builds deeper, stronger root systems and encourages healthier growth of all plants and lawns.
In addition to the soil food, the Oberts sell several other soil and compost mixtures, some of which include grains from area farms and from Birmingham’s Good People Brewery. “We don’t have any official mixture,” Obert Jr. says. “People call us and we just kind of assess their situation.”
One constant element is the worms, however.
“There is some vermicompost in all of our mixtures,” John Jr. says.
J3 also offers lawn care that uses organic soil amendments, including a liquid — the vermicompost, or worm poop, tea. These additives are designed to increase the number of microbes in the soil, microbes that feed on organic material, such as leaf mulch, and produce nutrients that help the grass grow naturally.
“Everything that nature creates, there’s a solution in nature,” says John Sr.
The Oberts also try to keep their worms happy. “There are a lot of people who have had their entire worm population exit,” John Sr. says. “We’ve been fortunate. As long as we keep them fed and keep the temperature range between 50 and 80 degrees, they’re happy and make more little worms and eat and stay right at home.”
The red wigglers reproduce by laying eggs. They are asexual and can, John Sr. says, reproduce by themselves. “They don’t necessarily do that,” he says. “They’ll lie next to each other and sort of swap enzymes. But if there’s just not another worm around, they’re good to go with themselves.
”They’re eating, pooping and having sex,” John Jr. observes. “They live the life.”
The Oberts’ products, including Alabama Soil Food and vermicompost tea, are available from several local retailers. For more information, go to www.j3organics.com.