If Santa's reindeer left something behind, you're lucky

THE REAL DIRT

December 28, 1991|By Mike Klingaman

Ellen Vande Visse doesn't really care what Santa brought, as long as the reindeer left something behind. Namely, their doo-doo.

Back the sleigh right up to the flower bed, Rudolph. This woman wants her gift delivered to the garden. Donner's dung. Prancer's poop.

Ms. Vande Visse, who lives in Palmer, Alaska, has been fertilizing her garden with reindeer manure ever since the state's first commercial reindeer farm opened there in 1987. She doesn't know how she ever gardened without it.

"It's tremendous. It's a windfall," says Ms. Vande Visse, whose compost heap grows by two truckloads of reindeer dung each week. "I'm so tickled to have it in bulk, and so close. I've got piles of the stuff sitting all over my property."

The largest pile of reindeer manure in her yard is a snow-covered mound 4 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 15 feet long. Ms. Vande Visse's back yard looks like Santa's coursers spent the last year there. But her neighbors don't seem to mind. Only one resident of Palmer (pop. 2,200) has ever complained of the smell.

The truth is, reindeer dung is dry, coarse and relatively odor-free, not unlike horse manure. Although its exact organic makeup is unknown, Ms. Vande Visse's garden is proof of the richness of reindeer manure. Last year, she harvested 2,000 pounds of vegetables from a plot measuring one-third of an acre.

Her garden produced cabbages weighing 15 pounds apiece, plus bushels of carrots, potatoes, onions, broad beans, kale, cauliflower, turnips, peas and lettuce. Ms. Vande Visse preserved many of her crops and sold the rest in Anchorage, 40 miles to the south.

Alaska doesn't boast prime farmland, either. Eons of glacial activity left layers of silt behind. "The ground doesn't hold water well," she says. "Not only does reindeer manure help to hold in moisture, it also releases its nutrients real slow."

And what nutrients they are! Most reindeer consume high-quality plants and digest them quickly, says Lyle Renecker, assistant professor of reindeer research at the University of Alaska. "The result is, a good part of that nutritious plant material is deposited on the soil. Reindeer feces may be 25 percent pure protein, which is quite high," he says.

Ms. Vande Visse's fertilizer is supplied by the Reindeer Farm, a 60-acre, 250-head spread owned by Tom and Gene Williams. Alaskans raise reindeer for meat and antlers, and most of the state's 36,000 head graze in loose herds on ranges of up to 1 million acres. Until the Williamses came along, no one had ever confined the deer long enough to have to clean up after them.

The Williamses began emptying their feedlot daily and hauling the waste to the town dump in Palmer. But they had to pass Ms. Vande Visse's house to get there, and it wasn't long before the 43-year-old horticulturist convinced them to stop at her place instead.

"She built two big new compost heaps to accommodate our reindeer poop," says Gene Williams. The reindeers' response has been overwhelming. Ms. Vande Visse cannot accommodate all the manure, so the Reindeer Farm has started its own pile, for any gardener who wants it. Just pull right in behind the barn. You can't miss the pile. It's 10 feet tall and 20 feet long.

What better Christmas gift for a gardener than a truckload of reindeer manure? Or how about a 5-pound bag of it, with Rudolph's face stamped on the front?

"We've never thought of marketing it, but it's something to think about," says Mr. Williams.

Other Alaskans like the idea.

"Maybe we should explore [packaging the manure]," says Danny Karmun, a reindeer agent for the Alaskan Cooperative Extension Service in Nome. "Some of our villagers were worried about the increased numbers of reindeer destroying the tundra, until we showed them how their droppings enhance the growth of our wild berry bushes."

Exporting reindeer dung is a fine idea, says Mr. Renecker. There is plenty of it to go around.

"The number of reindeer in Alaska is growing rapidly, so why shouldn't we sell their feces for gardening?" asks Mr. Renecker. "The whole name of the game is finding a source for your byproducts."

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