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Out and About With AOLCPs
Overcoming Barriers: Omar Thomas Offers Compost Tea and Organic Products in Bucks County
By Kathy Litchfield
Native to Central America, Omar Thomas came to the United States at age five. He learned English at age eight. Growing up in a military family, he followed his father’s footsteps into the Army at age 17 but was injured just two years later in Desert Storm, while serving as a combat officer.
Tired of “being shot at,” he transferred to medical laboratory sciences, earned a biology degree at William Patterson College and worked at Walter Reed Medical Center’s microbiology lab, studying pathogenic disease microorganisms.
However in 1998, Thomas was forced to leave the military on medical discharge because his kidneys were failing.
“I always thought I’d be a career military person. I was a combat officer, then in the Reserves. But after awhile I realized the injuries I sustained in combat had affected my kidneys, perhaps from an exposure in Iraq the first time. I lost a lot of blood at one point,” he said.”I hung on for awhile but knew I was sick. My duties were diminishing and then I left the Army with medical discharge. No one knew when my kidneys would actually fail . . . I didn’t know what to do with myself at first.”
So, Thomas headed west to visit an old friend who had started an organic gardening facility in Nevada. Thomas took to container gardening like a fish to water, learning good cultural practices, amending the soil with kelp and liquid fish hydrolysates and learning about “good clean nutrient sources.”
Seven years ago, Thomas received a kidney transplant and embarked upon a new life, joining together his interests in microbiology and organic gardening.
He caught up with an old military friend who had opened a compost facility - Veteran Compost in Aberdeen, Md., owned by Justen Gueritty - and “quickly became the mouthpiece for compost.”
“I was developing new markets out here where I am, in Bucks County, for his products. I became an ad hoc distributor. Using Justen’s compost for the base, I started brewing compost tea for myself and my garden, and soon I started giving it away to smaller farms and the chicken farm around the corner,” he said.
“People were loving it. I was getting really good results. I was able to apply all my lab background to the brewing of the tea. I’m just a guy with a microscope but I found I had a familiarity for identifying microbial life. It came really easily to me. I could tell what was good compost and what wasn’t,” he said.
“Justen uses a forced air, static pile system and roughly after three days at 140 degrees or so the partially digested compost is fed to the earthworms. Then there’s the second process of killing pathogens through the worm’s gut. Castings are collected at the end,” he explained.
Today Thomas runs his own business, Bucks County Worm Casting Company, through which he sells a retail line of organic products including liquid kelpfish hydrolysates and horticultural molasses, crab meal, worm castings, fish bone meal and bat guanos for specific applications.
He also offers onsite workshops on soil nutrient management, compost tea preparation, soil testing, fertility management programs, pest and disease controls through IPM programs, and plant health care and rescue as needed. The production of three professional grade earthworm compost tea blends is an integral part of our soil enrichment program and customized teas can be ordered for specific crop/plant applications.
“Nitrogen sources are hard to come by and many are commodities, coming and going all the time,” he said. “I constantly keep a list of sources I trust that I’ve built up over the past few years, that keep my customers happy by guaranteeing there’s an equivalent product emerging or an alternative that’s reliable and available.”
His company is based inside a workshop on the 12-acre Greystone Farm in Perkasie, Penn. His wife Christine, a former amateur champion rider, runs the horse farm offering boarding alongside her 24-year mobile dog grooming business. Christine designs all of the company’s labels, graphics and packaging. The couple have two children, 9-year-old Isabella and 11-year-old Devon, who homeschools and often works alongside his Dad in the shop.
“(Devon) probably knows more about fixing nitrogen in the soil than most adults,” Thomas chuckled. “I often wonder where it’s going to take him in his life.”
Thomas’ customers are mostly landscape companies. Many travel to his facility to pick up amendments and compost; he also delivers.
He took the first-ever Pennsylvania NOFA Accreditation Course in Philadelphia in January 2013.
“I was always looking for a way to become legitimate and NOFA was always far away. The minute I heard about the Pennsylvania course, I called Connecticut, credit card in hand. I paid for everything up front knowing I’d want the business membership and to become accredited right away,” he said.
When asked what being accredited has done for him, he said, “Are you kidding? I’ve been able to explain myself in a way that makes sense. For me, NOFA tied all the disciplines together in a way that seemed seamless to me and in a way that I can communicate it to my customers with ease.”
Thomas loves his life and enjoys educating customers about the living systems of soil that “we so often walk upon without thinking about it.”
“It’s really rewarding to be accepted by a group like NOFA and to be an ambassador of the organic approach. I didn’t know this would be my passion, at 41.”
Last week, he saw TruGreen Chemlawn spraying chemicals on frozen lawns near his home. “Now that was an interesting approach,” he said. “Luckily awareness is being raised, organics are now in the national consciousness and being sold at the box stores. More organic landscaping companies are popping up and I know that will continue.”
Through his life challenges, Thomas said he has learned “that by sticking with it, you can overcome any sort of barrier.”
“It’s been an interesting transition to this kind of lifestyle,” said Thomas. “Being a kidney transplant recipient, my kidney could fail at any point. I’m one wrong doorknob away from picking up a virus or germ. My life is constantly hand sanitizing. Shaking hands for instance at NOFA conferences can be daunting psychologically,” he said, “but I feel really blessed to be able to feel healthy again and be able to participate in this. It’s a good feeling to be part of something that’s good.”