Sandy Syburg sits in his sun-filled Mapleton office, surrounded by objects that inspire him. Photos of family and fields of sunflowers, a treasure trove of books and manuals on organic farming, sustainable practices, architecture and more crowd the shelf behind his desk.
A perfect stalk of wheat, a plastic bag bursting with cover crop seeds, glass vials of water clouded with bits of soil and a framed photo of his smiling grandmother also grace his workspace. His daughter’s rescue pooch, Luna settles in next to him, her tail thumping the ground when a near future “ride in the truck” is promised.
Syburg’s enthusiasm about composting and organic farming is contagious. The co-founder and president of Purple Cow Organics is passionate about giving back to the earth -- literally.
“I admit I am a soil geek, but I live a full and interesting life. I guess you could say I see the world through soil-colored glasses,” he laughs, scratching Luna behind her ears.
Since 2010, farms, home gardens, specialty landscaping, community gardens, municipal parks and others have integrated Purple Cow’s premium organic compost into their soils. Purple Cow Organics can be delivered by the truckload or purchased by the bag at local independent garden centers and hardware stores.
At multiple production facilities, including Mapleton, just north of Oconomowoc, as well as in Milwaukee and Madison, Syburg and his team have merged passion with science to develop precise recipes for rejuvenating and rebuilding the soil.
Their website sums it up, “It’s what Mother Nature would brew up if we stayed out of her way, and it’s our reason for being.”
Syburg was inspired to name his organic composting business after reading Seth Godin’s 2003 bestselling marketing book “Purple Cow” that suggests “the key to success is to find a way to stand out -- to be the purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins.”
“Find an audience that cares and produce a product that performs remarkably and your customer will tell your story. That’s how Purple Cow was born,” explains Syburg.
Feed the soil
Syburg’s deep connections with the earth were planted in him when he was just a little boy.
“I spent every summer of my childhood on my grandparent’s farm. I would walk with my grandfather to get the lay of the land. He really taught me how to listen to the genius of a place,” he reminisces. “As a young person I was always given the opportunity to explore and nurture my own passions and I knew I really have to do something with my life.”
Picking up the photo of his smiling grandmother, Syburg’s eyes glint with emotion.
“My grandmother taught me so much. When I was a child she had this big garden and a root cellar and she was always talking about the importance of feeding the soil. We would gather leaves and make compost and put it back in the garden.”
After graduating from Arrowhead High School in 1977, Syburg’s attention focused on trucking. “Transportation and the logistics of picking things up and moving it around has always been a passion of mine, and I’m still doing that today with the soil business,” he explains.
His desire to reconnect with farming and composting was cultivated during the farm crisis in the mid-80s. In 1984 he and his wife Mary were married and settled in Stone Bank to raise their children, Kathryn, Gretchen and Austin.
“We bought this old 1800s farm and cleaned it up. We also bought this beautiful large open space of land across the road and worked with Tall Pines Conservancy to preserve it,” he explains.
In the 1990s, Syburg founded White Oaks Farm Premium Organics in Mapleton, digging into the soil and composting business, as well as organic farming.
“During the Roman Civilization Pliny the Elder wrote about composting and there was urban agriculture in downtown Paris in the 1800s. Farmers have been making it happen for 2000 years,” explains Syburg. “In 1993 Wisconsin DNR banned yard materials from landfills. Here was an opportunity to convert discarded yard and brush from area communities and organic plant residuals into soil amendment.”
Healthy soil equals healthy people
The concept of rejuvenating topsoil with living compost is feeding a growing crop of consumers who are hungry to nurture a closer connection to their food and the environment.
“The original grocery stores didn’t have a vitamin aisle. People got all the vitamins they needed through the food they grew. There are studies that show that broccoli grown in this country 50 years ago had almost twice as much calcium in it as it does now,” says Syburg. “High quality, living soil feeds the plant those nutrients that are essential for our own health. There are more organisms than there are people on earth in a handful of healthy soil. Healthy soil makes for healthy plants, makes for healthy people. It’s a win-win.”
Syburg is also passionate about taking his soil health message to others. In an effort to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for human life, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2015 as “International Year of Soils.”
Syburg repurposed a school bus dubbing it the Soil Mobile and hit the road to bring attention to making the world a better place one garden at a time.
“We put 10,000 miles on the Soil Mobile this summer. We transformed it into a mobile platform that runs on pure sunflower oil,” says Syburg, smiling. “Less than two percent of farmland in this country is USDA Certified Organic. I want to see that number increase. From taking a handful of compost and placing it in a home garden to amending acres of farm fields -- it’s all vitally important.”
Syburg also continues to cultivate 300 acres of certified organic farmland around the Lake Country area. At Genesee Lake School in Oconomowoc, Syburg works with students and staff to raise 40 acres of organic black beans, pinto beans and sunflowers. Students package and sell the processed sunflowers in their birdseed.
Neighbors and friends, Paul and Laura Phelps of Serenity Farm in the Town of Oconomowoc started 16,000 plants from seeds in the Purple Cow research greenhouse last spring to get a jump on Wisconsin’s short growing season. “Sandy is a good friend and a really big help to us. He is so enthusiastic about what he does. He has a wealth of information, and he’s eager to share his passion,” says Paul.
“It has been a really fun journey. After 20 years of working at making soil better -- it has taken me places I never knew possible and it’s really rewarding,” says Syburg. “There are so many people in this with me. We all just want to leave it in better shape for our children than when we found it.”
For more information about Purple Cow Organics, visit purplecoworganics.com.