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Wriggling his way to the top

Award finalist poised for big things thanks to science... and worm poop

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Dale Overton, owner of  Overton Environmental Enterprise Inc., displays  a few of his slimy friends  he hopes will help lead to a big contract in Saudi Arabia.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Dale Overton, owner of Overton Environmental Enterprise Inc., displays a few of his slimy friends he hopes will help lead to a big contract in Saudi Arabia. Photo Store

Rather than stick around and campaign for support as one of the nine finalists for the $100,000 first prize in the BDC Young Entrepreneur Award, Dale Overton was in Saudi Arabia pitching multimillion-dollar projects.

Overton -- the Manitoba finalist for the annual award -- runs Overton Environmental Enterprises Inc., which produces a premium, ecologically sustainable landscape-management product for the golf, agricultural and municipal market.

There's lots of science behind it all, but it's mostly based around worm poop.

Overton, 34, started the business in 2008 after dropping out of a master's degree program with only two chapters left to write on his thesis because the business was taking off.

It continues to grow as demand for more sustainable pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers cuts across all sorts of sectors.

Overton is already supplying products to 60 golf courses in Canada and some of the largest organic farms in the country.

'His passion and drive is amazing. He is a biologist, a geek. He really knows his stuff'

-- Greg Holden, course superintendent at Clear Lake Golf Course, on Dale Overton

Sun Gro Horticulture buys Overton's compost and sells it as part of its products, and Overton packages its own brand of worm castings (worm poop) under the Essential Organics brand.

The worms are grown at the company's Elmwood facility, and the compost is developed at a farm in La Broquerie. Overton has just bought his own farm and intends to consolidate operations there with a 25-acre compost pad where he hopes to eventually produce 150,000 tonnes of compost annually.

Perhaps Overton's most intriguing product line is what's referred to as compost tea.

"It's a blend of various types of compost and worm castings that allows us to gain access to the entire diversity of soil microbes," said Overton, who is passionate about the scientific details of soil and soil nutrition.

Greg Holden, the course superintendent at Clear Lake Golf Course, has been using Overton's compost tea for about six years to promote deeper root growth for the particularly finicky annual blue grass on Clear Lake's greens.

Clear Lake has a strong environmental management program, and Holden had been putting his own mixture together in the past but found Overton's more effective and reliable.

"His passion and drive is amazing," said Holden. "He is a biologist, a geek. He really knows his stuff."

Marvin Dyck, the operations manager at Kroeker Farms -- a large organic potato, hemp and onion farm near Winkler -- also uses Overton's compost tea.

As a certified organic operation, Kroeker has to be able to trace back every input that goes into their crops.

"We need that assurance," Dyck said. "He understands the product and he understands the biology behind it. That's important for me."

And Overton loves to talk about it.

"Soil is a solution, and nothing happens without water and air," Overton said. "We have built a brewing unit or bio-reactor -- a liquid suspension of compost -- and we pump air through it, keeping it a highly oxygenated solution. We have developed a complex array of microbial foods."

Based on the type of ingredient they're feeding they can stimulate various facets of the microbial community and custom-engineer the type of compost tea best designed for the desired application.

The Saudi Arabia opportunity -- for which he was head-hunted -- will involve building a vegetation barrier around an electrical power sub-station to protect it from sand damage.

The multimillion-dollar project will involve shipping 5,000-to-6,000 tonnes of compost to Saudi Arabia.

His client is the Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority, which operates about 40 power sub-stations around the Persian Gulf region, and if the pilot project is successful it could lead to Overton building a production facility there.

Overton says he could really use the $100,000 BDC prize money to invest in the larger production he needs.

Voting for the BDC award at http://wfp.to/XRt closes Thursday.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 11, 2014 B5

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