Where does the earth come from? This Lancaster County company makes soil mixes to grow anything from flowers to cannabis [video] | Life & Culture
This story was originally published in March 2020.
You have heard of topsoil and potting soil and maybe even seedling potting soil. Did you know that there are also organic soil, vegan soil, and soil mixes just for hanging baskets or cannabis? Chances are, some of the soil bags for your garden shed are made in Lancaster County. Frey Group at the south end of Lancaster makes earth and sends it all over the East Coast and into the Midwest.
It’s a family business that started with a metal shop, added a sawmill, and started selling the leftover bark as mulch. Now the third generation is part of the team that offers new soil mixes.
So what exactly is soil?
The floor is not dirt. It contains nutrients to help plants grow, as well as things like beneficial fungi and bacteria.
“It’s an ecosystem,” says Dustin Frey, sales manager for the mid-Atlantic region.
Make a potting soil
At the Frey Group headquarters in East Drumore Township, the soil begins in the form of towering piles of peat, coir, compost, fine pine bark and sand. Some of the materials need to be broken down to the right size. Some need to be old. Compost, for example, is ready after being heated, to kill internal seeds and pathogens, explains Felicia Newman, Quality Manager.
Each potting mix has its own recipe, like Frey’s most popular mix, the professional potting mix found in the Purple Bag. Soil amendments are mixed with inputs such as fertilizer, bone meal, blood meal, lobster meal, and perlite (to lighten the soil). There are also custom blends created to meet the needs of a client’s crop.
After the laws were changed to allow the cultivation of hemp, Frey created a custom hemp potting mix and worked with growers on the new recipe, says Dustin Frey.
Coast of Maine Organic Products, which Frey merged with in 2017, offers a personalized cannabis blend. Newman worked with home gardeners in Maine to develop this soil mix. In Maine, medical marijuana has been legal for two decades. Patients and caregivers can grow many of their own plants here at home. Frey has since created his own custom cannabis blend for professional growers.
Two mixes go to the Southeast Penn State Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Manheim. This year, more than a thousand flowers will be evaluated during the floral trials. Some, like geraniums, will be potted in a mix with a higher pH and others will be planted in a general flower mix, says Sinclair Adam, director of floral testing.
The recipes for these blends are regularly modified to meet the needs of the plants. Adam likes being able to contact Frey and make these changes easily.
Other mixtures are in preparation. Peat thins the soil, retains moisture and improves soil structure, according to Oregon State University. However, peat takes hundreds of years to form. Frey hears from customers concerned about the use of a non-renewable resource. The company therefore plans to design peat-free mixtures as well as vegan mixtures made without animal by-products, such as blood meal or cow manure in the compost.
From metallurgy to mulch
Making land is the last hub of the business Dustin’s grandfather started in the 1960s. Ernie Frey started the business next to the family farm. There was a construction company and a metallurgy that specialized in equipping cattle. He added a sawmill and started selling the by-product, mulch. It took off and in the mid-1990s the company turned to mulch manufacturing. Later, they added soil mixes.
The second generation, siblings Ernie Frey Jr., Jamie Kreider and Karl Frey, took over the business. Now Dustin is the third generation.
The company merged with Coast of Maine in 2017. After the merger, Frey went through the process of listing its products with the Organic Materials Review Institute, a non-profit organization that monitors biologics. The Lancaster operation now manufactures conventional soils and organic blends.
Some are bagged and shipped from Maine to South Carolina and as far west as Illinois. Some of it is trucked to customers, and some of the material just blows away in the wind. Lately, the company has used a drone to measure the size of piles of soil, mulch and inputs, Dustin said.
The land goes to garden centers to be sold to home growers. It also goes to large-scale growers in their own greenhouses.
Production increases in April and May to send fresh soil throughout the region, says Ernie Frey Jr., director of operations.
After a busy spring, the company plans to make some changes to help the environment. A new bag will include plastic made from sugar cane. Another bag will be recycled by Terracycle.
“I’m not a big fan of using plastic, and I know our industry is important for it,” Dustin said. “So it’s nice to see that we’re doing something to help clean it up. “