Green Acres

Last Weekend the world's population topped 6 billion.
Dan Carlson wants to feed them all.

By Deborah Caulfield Rybak
Star Tribune Staff Writer

To enter Dan Carlson's agricultural sphere is to enter a world of Brobdingnagian proportions. That is big. Big as in 16-foot-tall corn with three or four ears per stalk. As in 15 foot tomato plants that can yield 800 fruits each. And walnut trees that grow twice as fast in half the time.


Bryan Zins, left, and Vern Gagne stand under a 10-year-old red oak that is as tall as a 30-year-old red oak. "You can't mess with Mother Nature, but you can enhance Mother Naure," says Zinns.

For more than three decades Carlson has been melding bird songs and organic fertilizer into a process he calls "Sonic Bloom." His process, which he started to market as a commercial product in 1980, has drawn big interest and support.

Big as in retired Viking coach Bud Grant and former pro wrestler Vern Gagne. Big as TV's favorite farmer, Eddie Albert of "Green Acres" fame. Big like author Peter Tompkins, who first promoted the theory that plants respond to sound and who included a chapter in his latest book, "Secrets of the Soil". Even big like Cargill, which has expressed interest in Carlson's growing methods.

Although Sonic Bloom is licensed and marketed in 48 states and 35 foreign countries, furthering Carlson's big dreams of ending world hunger, profits remain, well, small. His uphill climb to obtain widespread acceptability illustrates the difficulty alternative agricultural ideas have making it in the mainstream.

"Dan is a pretty ideological person," Grant acknowledges. "His plan isn't to make a million dollars; his plan is to feed the world.

A nutty idea?

"Welcome to the nut farm!" Carlson enthusiastically greets a guest on a recent summer morning. "I'm the head nut!"

While Carlson is kidding with his second comment, the first is absolutely true. Carlson conducts much of his research on the 140-acre Hazel Hills Nut Farm, a verdant paradise of nut trees, many varieties rarely seen this far north.

Light-sensitive switch controls sunset-to-sundown broadcasts

What his farm, near River Falls, Wis., doesn't have, on this rainy, humid day, are the swarms of mosquitoes that normally emerge under such conditions.

"It's a nice side effect of using Sonic Bloom," Carlson explains.  "Birds are their natural predators."  It is then that one notices the sounds filling the air, a veritable wall of song that sounds more like a herd of giant chirping crickets.  It's unobtrusive, but constant, coming from speakers perched on 20-foot steel poles around the farm.  They broadcast from sunup to sunset, turned on and off by light-sensitive switches.

Carlson's quest to produce truly fast food began in 1962, while he was stationed as a soldier in Korea's DMZ zone.  One day he watched, horrified, as a starving Korean mother laid the legs of her toddler beneath the rear wheel of a two-and-a-half ton army truck.  Carlson learned later that crippling the child would produce a more profitable beggar.

"I spent a lot of time in a foxhole thinking about that," Carlson reflects.  "I decided I could solve a lot of problems by ending world hunger."

Songs like a bird

After he returned home, Carlson enrolled in the University of Minnesota's Experimental Colleges and graduated with a degree in plant breeding.  It's there that he developed his Sonic Bloom theory.  Carlson believes that bird songs stimulate a plant's stomata its pores opening them up to receive nutrients.

"Think of birds singing early in the morning," he explains.  "Then the plants open up and are better able to fully absorb the dew."

Working with a music teacher, Carlson arrived at a sound frequency that best approximated bird song.  He then developed a fertilizer a combination of seaweed, amino acids and trace minerals to apply to plants after they have been serenaded.

His first experiment was on one of his own house plants, a purple passion vine.  "Normally they grow no bigger than 18 inches and live for about 18 months" Carlson says.  The treated plant grew 600 feet and landed in the  1979 Guiness Book of World records.  It grew another 600 feet during its 22 year life span.

There was another positive effect of the Sonic Bloom process, one that Carlson calls "Sonic Doom."  By making unwanted flora like weeds more receptive with sound, less herbicide can be used, sometimes cut by 75 percent the recommended amount.

He's, uh, different

Like so many others passionately devoted to a cause, Carlson's life revolves around his product. Several years ago, he and his wife agreed that he would live on the nut farm during the week, where he works 18 hour days, then go home to Blaine on weekends for family time.  He can discourse for hours on hybrid seeds, genetically altered plants, and orange crops in third world countries.

The 58-year-old's unwavering focus and boyish enthusiasm border on the eccentric, as neighbor Wilson Mills acknowledges during a visit at his 40-acre apple orchard, several miles from Carlson's farm. Did Mills think Carlsonodd when they first met? "Oh yes! Definitely," he answers, as Carlson stands nearby, grinning.

Dan Carlson holds a nine-year-old walnut tree that was not treated with Sonic Bloom or any fertilizers. It is 3 inches in diameter.

Carlson holds a nine-year-old walnut tree treated with the Sonic Bloom process of bird song and organic fertilizer.

A cluster of walnuts hangs from a young tree that, according to Bryan Zins, is not expected to bear fruit for another six to eight years.

However, Mills, who spent 35 years in consumer sales before retiring and buying the apple farm, doesn't laugh when it comes to the results he's obtained with Sonic Bloom.

"I used to get about 210 bushels an acre," he said. "Now we get up to 450 bushels." The apples are also 90 percent "packable" (attractive enough to be sold as is, rather than turned into pulp), which is up from the 50 percent packable level he had before using Sonic Bloom. Most important to Mills, the apples mature faster, and he is able to pick some varieties up to two weeks earlier than nearby competitors.

Sonic Bloom costs Mills from $160 to $200 per acre, which "isn't cheap," he says, but the return in profits has been worth it.

Retired chiropractor Bryan Zins agree. The 6,000 black walnuts trees on his 32 acre Blackwood Farms near Delano have been under constant Sonic Bloom treatment since they were planted 10 years ago. While untreated walnuts of that age would be expected to have diameters of about 3 inches, Zins' trees have grown to 9-inch diameters. Plus, they're bearing fruit years ahead of schedule and of amazing size - walnuts the size of oranges Zins says. "With walnut as a wood selling at about $1,000 per inch [18-inch diameter], the growth in my trees last year alone was worth $4 million. These trees are better than a 401k plan.

Zins' results have even attracted the attention of Cargill, which recently sent a group of executives out for a first hand look at the process, he said.

Grant, who met Carlson through Zins, has only tried Sonic Bloom in his home garden. "I had more roses blooming more profusely last summer than I'd ever seen," he says.

Skeptical Observers

There are scoffers, Carlson and his supporters acknowledge, and many of them come from academia. Although the University of Wisconsin's agriculturally oriented campus is located in River Falls, just miles from Carlson's farm, the gulf in acceptance is far wider. Says Mills, who has given tours to members of the River Falls faculty, "I don't think they buy into the fact that sound affects the growing.

Indeed, a horticulture professor from the River Falls campus, who declined to comment for publication, expressed skepticism, although he ultimately admitted that he knew area farmers who'd had success with the product. A series of calls to the horticulture department at the University of Minnesota produced no one who'd ever heard of Carlson or Sonic Bloom.

While academic organizations remain cool, government agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and businesses such as NSP are not.

NSP began work with Carlson in 1997 to see if his "Sonic Doom" process could help reduce the amount of herbicides applied to vegetation growing near power lines, said George Groenjes, NSP's manager of wood processing. The utility found that even though smaller herbicide amounts were used, the results equaled efforts using more herbicide and no sound, Groenjes said, adding that more testing is planned this year.

Randall Mell, a DNR forester in the Caledonia Area Forest, in southeast Minnesota, is another Sonic Bloom enthusiast. Mell applied Sonic Bloom to an experimental stand of walnut last summer. Not only did the Sonic Bloom treated trees require 75 percent less herbicide, "they grew almost twice as fast as the untreated trees 10-12 inches during the growing season," Mell says.

While enjoying increased success at home, Carlson is continuing his efforts to cure world hunger by exporting Sonic Bloom to third world countries. Using almost a million packets of vegetable seeds donated by the Seed Corps, a non-profit organization supported by Eddie Albert, Carlson recently shipped the seeds and Sonic Bloom equipment to Indonesia, where the government is using them to grow food on state-owned land.

Carlson said he received word from the Indonesian minister of agriculture that "Sonic Bloom is fantastic."

He chuckles, "I'm afraid that I've been at this process for so many years that even after those kind of words, I'll still be scratching and clawing at the door forever trying to convince them that it works."

Star Tribune
Saturday July 24, 1999