A Conversation With . . . Milo Shammas
INVENTOR OF DR. EARTH
A Conversation with . . . Milo Lou Shammas
While most 7-year-old boys would do anything to get out of weeding their mother’s gardens and most 12-year-olds would never thinking of swapping shop class for botany, Milo Lou Shammas said the allure of plants and gardening has been with him forever. In his early teens, he was already developing his own fertilizer concoctions from the fish heads and tails that his fisherman father would bring home. Soon after, his vegetable garden was outperforming his family’s “MiracleGro garden by five to one.”
Recently, SafeLawns founder Paul Tukey had a chance to sit down with Shammas, the founder of the legendary Dr. Earth fertilizer brand, for a wide-ranging discussion about all things organic.
Paul Tukey: So what you’re telling me is that like me, like so many gardeners, you really got the bug at a young age.
Milo Lou Shammas: Absolutely. My mother got me started and I just loved it. I still remember people saying, “Look at those tomatoes that Milo grew!” I’m a competitive guy. That’s the kind of stuff that sticks with you.
PT: How does a childhood fascination wind up becoming a company, a brand that is now expanding nationally?
MLS: Well, I never stopped experimenting in the back yard. As I got older and my techniques and observations became more refined, I discovered that nothing happens in the natural world with respect to plant growth without the presence of microbes. Pretty soon I was experimenting with adding microbes with other organic components that I was sourcing from all over the country. Stuff like kelp and greensand. I probably had 25 different sources of ingredients in my fertilizer blend and my stuff was vastly outperforming the MiracleGro.
PT: We’re talking late 1980s by then. MiracleGro was really beginning to peak in its popularity.
MLS: I could see what the chemical fertilizers did to the natural microbes and that those products basically made the soil — and by extension the environment — really, really sick. When my stuff was outperforming the MiracleGro, I knew I was on to something and I began to mix batches of fertilizer and market them locally in California from my own back yard right in the middle of Los Angeles. By the time I was 27, I asked my father for a $40,000 loan to get started. I built homemade wooden hoppers to blend my product and I’d have one worker underneath the hopper holding the bag open, filling the bags one at a time.
Then I tried to go sell the stuff and a lot of people looked at me like I was an alien from outer space when I talked about pro-biotics. I didn’t simply coin the term pro-biotic, I invented the process. I was the first person in the world to infuse beneficial soil microbes and mycorrhizae to create a pro-biotic organic fertilizer, as you very well know, every other so called “green products” company in the industry has since copied me. They have given a really bad name to my invention because they are doing it solely for profits and do not have a team of scientists like I do, nor do they have collectively nearly the amount of experience in this highly specialized field.
PT: How did you further your understanding of how this all works in the soil?
MLS: I studied plant science at UCLA, so I had access to the lab there and I could run my experiments and utilize the microscopes. Everything in my products is laboratory tested.
PT: I can relate to the alien concept. When I started on the East Coast, I got the same response from people who couldn’t believe that MiracleGro wasn’t the greatest stuff ever invented.
MLS: Well, I didn’t make a single dollar from Dr. Earth for seven years, from 1991 when we started, until about 1999. But, in the big picture, I think it caught on fairly quickly around Los Angeles. I started out with one product, my Dr. Earth All Purpose Organic Fertilizer. Within 10 years, I had built an empire as the inventor of living fertilizers. Now, all kinds of guys are jumping onto the bandwagon, but Dr. Earth was first.
It all goes back to those childhood experiments and understanding that we have to treat the soil like we treat our own bodies. The soil, in turn, will take care of us by creating a healthier ozone layer, by sequestering carbon. We have everything we need right here on this planet if we just learn to take care of it the right way.
PT: I know I started seeing Dr. Earth products on the East Coast a few years ago. Have you been approached by the big boys who want to buy you out? You must have been.
MLS: Definitely. All the time. I’ve been offered several million dollars for my company, but I have no interest. I’m having too much fun and I’ve got too much work to do on this planet. This is a long, long journey, an educational process that will take years.
PT: It’s about taking gardening back from the multi-national chemical companies.
MLS: Exactly. Selling Dr. Earth fertilizers takes a knowledgeable sales person who understands soil biology, at least at some level, and that’s best done at the local, independent garden center. I had an offer, for example from Target. Nothing against Target. Their first order would have swamped all my other orders combined. But selling to Target might have upset all my other clients that I’ve worked to cultivate in the last two decades. And would Target have had the staff to sell my high-end product? My pledge is simple. I will not sell Dr. Earth through the box stores.
PT: Well, from my perspective, it’s nice to have you as a West Coast ally in this mission. We like to say we’re saving the planet, one lawn at a time.
MLS: Exactly. We’ll keep working together to change the world through gardening. What other choice do we have?