Hands to earth: Byron Clough's topsoil


CHATHAM, N.Y. -- On a finally warm, humid day in April, Byron Clough delivered my topsoil. I ordered two yards to fill a raised bed I've made. We talked about the area (he had looked at my house when it was for sale, he said) and about local newspapers, and then he backed his truck down a fairly steep hill and dumped rich, black soil into the bed.

When I put my hands in it, I felt all the things I wanted in soil: thickness, a few different textures, that musty greenhouse smell gardeners everywhere draw happiness and life from.

This is a column about local farmers and what they grow, so I thought a good place to start was with soil. I plan to visit lots of local farms this summer and write about their methods, their struggles and their food -- so why not begin with raw material?

Clough's Hudson Valley Or ganics, in Old Chatham, N.Y., sells compost, mulch and several soil mixes. It is a family company, run with his son Cameron and brother Kurt. His wife Audrey does some of the paperwork end of the business and "rides shotgun with me when I'm delivering topsoil at nine at night," he said.

During the growing season, business is constant. Clough wakes up around 5:30 a.m., then works until 8 or 9 p.m.

The company does a lot of business in Berkshire County and has clients as far out as Woodstock, N.Y.

"There isn't anyplace we won't go," Clough said.

Clough thinks this is his 13th season in business. It started as compost only, then branched out to soil. He originally ran it with the Sperry family, of Mal den Bridge, N.Y., then went independent, buying the equipment and inventory. He now operates at the Adrian Ooms farm on Hartigan Road, which also provides material for the soil.

He's also been a dairy farmer, and he is realistic about the challenges of agricultural work. He asked me not to "come from the fluff side -- Come from the real side, the people that are making things actually happen."

The hours are long. I met with Clough at the Hartigan Road facility on a rainy Sunday, and machines ran in the background almost the entire hour we spoke.

Every business has expenses. Hudson Valley organics has two trucks, in which the Cloughs drive 1,200 to 1,500 miles per week. Cameron Clough estimated spending around $30,000 in diesel fuel last year.

This season, "sales are out of sight," he said, "I didn't get here -- call it luck, or whatever -- I had a lot of moral support. People want to see small business succeed. [Some] will do whatever they can to help you succeed."

Clough's products are organic mixing taken seriously. He's had many seasons to work on blending and screening the raw materials he gets from local farms.

"It's an awesome responsibility when people say, ‘I trust you and I want to buy your product," he said. "The biggest responsibility we have is helping people become better at growing."

He said he gets between 60 and 80 calls a day right now.

"What defines us is, you get a person, and it's a knowledgeable person who's going to answer your questions," he said.

Clough has a Certification of Technical Ability in Composting from the University of Maine; it's displayed in his office. He is serious about helping people get more out of their gardens, and he stresses that "gardening is intuitive."

"It's by error. Any kind of gardening or soil is a time process. Your garden will get better with time," he said.

My garden is 8-feet-by-8-feet and I'm growing: Spinach, lettuce, fennel, beets, Waltham butternut squash, a tri-color zucchini blend, eggplant, many different peppers, three varieties of peas, yellow and green bush beans and two kinds of cucumbers. Things are looking good so far, but my gardening skills have gotten better with time. On the land ...

For more about Hudson Valley Organics, call (518) 928-4826 or visit www.hvorganics.com.

If you are a Berkshire farmer and would like to be considered for this column, find Francesca Olsen at (413) 496-6232 or folsen@berkshire eagle.com or on Twitter @FrancescaBOlsen. She would love to visit you and learn about your experiences.


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