It’s a Dirty Job
Story Shannon Bardwell | Photographs Luisa Porter
If ever there was a man who could make a mountain out of a molehill, it’s Gene Penick.
“I’ve made a living out of stuff folks throw away or burn up in smoke,” says Penick. Standing in the yard of Penick Organics, Gene is surrounded by mountain after mountain of filthy, rich dirt.
Born in Macon, the 75-year-old Penick graduated from Mississippi State University in 1962 with a degree in forestry. As providence would have it, Gene found himself living in Arizona surrounded by desert and cactus.
When Gene came home he brought 25 years of experience working at a mulching operation. That experience, coupled with his scientific mind and inventor’s hands, helped Penick build a business selling wood poles and dirt … lots of dirt.
Gene chuckles as he recounts the story, “When I first came back, Tom Oliver was down at the ol’ Mullins Hardware Store when Porter Swan asked him what I was doing here. Tom said, ‘Gene’s selling dirt and getting rich doing it.’”
In 1979 the entrepreneur bought a small pole-making business. Looking for ways to diversify, he figured he could start with what he had. Gene explains, “My parents lived through the Depression and didn’t waste a thing. I guess I got a lot of that in me … we were making all this waste with the wood chips and I thought I could do something with it. I started playing around mixing byproducts from local mills and farms to make organic products that would enrich growing matter.”
Gene goes into the chemistry of soil-making that could make a layman’s eyes glaze over. However, listen long enough and the pieces start falling together, it all makes sense.
“Mulching products will naturally draw nitrogen away from plants, so we developed a nitrogen stabilizing product that won’t rob the plant of nitrogen.”
Penick says it took years creating organic mixtures, having them laboratory-tested and gathering feedback from retailers and customers. “I make soil with local materials where the average consumer can get good results. Science makes it happen.”
“If plants like it, people like it, then we know we have the right recipe. It’s like grandma’s cooking; try a little bit of this and a little bit of that. We worked on one product with Dan Shipp, manager at the Oktibbeha County Cooperative, ’til we got it right. Then we had to come up with a name. Someone said call it ‘Dan’s Dirt’ and the name stuck.”
Poles, mulch and soil are not all Penick makes. Practically every apparatus has been scavenged, pieced together and retrofitted to do exactly what the mechanical genius needs it to do.
Standing on the loading dock of the former Borden plant, Gene reminisces, “It’s like everything came full circle. My grandfather helped build this plant, my father worked here most his life, and now I own it and use it for the soil bagging operation.”
In 2007 Gene’s daughter, Gena Penick, joined the business and all was complete. “She’s good in a lot of areas that I’m not. I’m just good at making dirt.”