Sunday, August 14, 2011

Super dirt promises big green$

By Christine McConville
Monday, August 15, 2011 -
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A Saugus flower grower says his new water-retaining wonder dirt just might be the answer to the arid Third World’s hunger woes.
“This stuff is going to be bigger than Apple computers,” said EZ GRO Watergrip co-inventor Allan Huberman, whose greenhouses were heavily damaged in last month’s Route 1 tanker fire, but whose dream remains on track. He has spent the past decade creating what he calls “the perfect 21st century growing material.”
His product is now being studied by University of Massachusetts agricultural experts, while his patent is pending and a venture capitalist works up financing for what they hope will be a $1 billion business.
“It’s going to change the world,” Huberman told the Herald. “We’re going to be able to save the world’s water, clean our air and feed the people, and we are doing it all right here in Massachusetts.”
Vegetation planted in Watergrip uses 75 percent less water than traditional soil, said Huberman, whose ingredients are trade secrets. The product is erosion resistant, and designed to require little fertilizer, while keeping both insects and disease at bay, he said.
He hopes to sell it for use on so-called green roofs and urban gardens. The company is also hearing interest from overseas.
“The Israelis want it to grow fruits and vegetables in the sand, and there’s strong interest from Japan, which lost a lot of good soil in the tsunami,” said John Lunde, a former Kraft Food service executive who is now president of Watergrip’s parent company. Huberman and coinventor Bill Watson of Grimes Horticulture have a patent pending for the product, which comes in small dry pieces they call “brownies,” which go from 3 1/2 pounds when dry to 34 pounds when wet.
“It retains 10 times its weight in water, so you can go weeks without watering your plants, but they’ll keep growing and growing,” Huberman said. “You can’t kill anything with this.”
University of Massachusetts’ Center for Agriculture is planning a series of tests on Watergrip’s absorption and nutrient qualities.
“We want to see whether the claim for less frequent watering is real,” said director Stephen Herbert.
Some experts are skeptical. UMass plant nutrition professor Allan Barker, who hasn’t seen the product, said of the water-retaining claims, “Anything that is going to hold water for six weeks might not release it.” Cornell University soil sciences professor Harold Van Es added, “It has to be proven in the real world.”
Meanwhile, Watergrip is building a fan base.
“It’s some of the most incredible stuff I’ve ever seen,” said Jay Healy, the former state agriculture commissioner who is now the federal Department of Agriculture’s regional rural development director. Healy bought a $20 Watergrip-based tomato plant from Huberman this spring. “You should see it,” he said. “It’s like the Mark McGwire of tomato plants ... I think he’s on to something.”
John Zaremba contributed to this report.

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