Circle of life on Alfred Bassler's farm Scenes of change: Trees turn into topsoil in a business necessitated by development.

January 09, 1998

DRIVE UP the gravel road off Sheppard Lane, a mile north of Columbia's bustling new River Hill village, where $350,000 homes are the norm, pass a narrow stream and you can watch reincarnation -- if you have eight years to kill.

Here, at the Forest Recycling Project, trees from Howard County and elsewhere come to die after woodlands are cleared for development. Stumps and limbs rot away in mounds and mountains on one-tenth of a 430-acre farm owned by Alfred S. Bassler.

It is a business the housing boom here built.

Steam rises from the mounds -- Mr. Bassler and his employees swear it's not smoke, although it smells like burning wood -- which are called "wind rows." In 1 1/2 years for leaves and small branches, and seven or eight years for large tree parts, this organic matter will degenerate naturally into top soil.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Bassler was among the least likely candidates to become an eco-businessman. The long-time Howard farmer, whose grandparents farmed the land now covered by Howard Community College, angered neighbors and county and state officials by allowing developers to use his place as a dump.

That was in the mid-1980s, when homebuilding took off and developers needed a place to dump stumps as landfill space got scarce. First came a few trucks, carrying former soldiers of the forest that Mr. Bassler used to fill a ravine. The number of trucks increased, and the Bassler farm became an all-out stump dump. Now, the business has a fleet of trucks and heavy machinery of its own to pile foliage into wind rows.

He says 70,000 tons of tree limbs and yard waste are brought into his facility each year and that he sells 12,000 tons of top soil annually.

His enterprise has gained the support of some of the very state and county bureaucrats he once battled, along with Frank Gouin, chairman of horticulture and landscape architecture at the University of Maryland-College Park. The county voted last May to include his operation as a composting plant in its solid waste master plan.

With his newfound legitimacy, Mr. Bassler sounds like a professor as he describes the process of converting trees to dirt.

He talks about crosswinds, "up winds" and barometric pressure that help to break down trees and recycle it into top soil that he proudly touts as being "seven percent organic." But he is happiest that the steady construction industry in one of Maryland's fastest growing counties gives him an opportunity to make money coming and going.

Boasts Mr. Bassler: "We sell the stuff to the same people who brought it in."

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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