"Cornelius Wheeler Stevenson is a modern-day alchemist - he takes something people pay him to haul away and transforms it into something he's paid to deliver.
Although it may not be quite as impressive as turning lead into gold, Mr. Stevenson does work this magic on a pretty mundane substance - he turns horse manure into garden compost. Under the banner of Equine Waste Management, he picks up as many as 30,000 cubic yards of manure each year from local barns and stables. He mixes it with wood shavings, old hay and alfalfa from the barns. Then, using nothing more sophisticated than a couple of tractors for turning the piles, he composts the manure until the heat generated by its own decomposition turns it into a highly sought-after garden fertilizer.
The composted manure is kept moist and at a temperature of between 140 and 150 degrees, so that harmful pathogens are killed while beneficial bacteria stay alive. The entire process can take as long as a year. Under his Wheeler Farms shingle, Mr. Stevenson delivers 400 to 500 cubic yards a month of the finished product - organic compost that grows some of the most beautiful flowers and vegetables on the peninsula.
"My clients tell me their gardens are transformed," say Portola Valley landscape designer Danna Breen, who buys compost from Mr. Stevenson, or as Mr. Stevenson succinctly puts it: "Someone's waste turns into someone else's gold."
Mr. Stevenson and his wife, Saskia Boissevain, can show the power of their compost with the harvest from their own Palo Alto garden. There they grow a wide array of produce - from lush sweet and juicy tomatoes and basil you can smell from the kitchen to beanstalks Jack might try to climb, along with colorful flowers.
"I feel that if your hands are in the garden, you're a lot better person in the long run," Mr. Stevenson says. Both husband and wife have enjoyed gardening since their childhood on the Peninsula. Mr. Stevenson grew up in Palo Alto and Ms. Boissevain in Los Altos. "Both of our mothers were super gardeners," says Ms. Boissevain.
It was however, less a love for gardening than a dislike for being cooped up indoors that got Mr. Stevenson into his unique business. After spending years as a lithographer in Lockheed's print shop, Mr. Stevenson decided he had to get out. "It was a concrete hell in a lot of ways," says Ms. Boissevain.
He quit and looked for a job he'd enjoy, trying some landscaping and some other odd jobs. He was helping a friend who had horses when he saw a need waiting to be filled - disposal of manure piles. With a small truck and a good wheelbarrow, he made a bid to haul off his first "little pile" of manure. The customer couldn't believe how low his bid was ĘC and * neither could he once he began digging and found how much more was there than it appeared. "It was an experience, I must tell you," Mr. Stevenson says. Instead of giving up, "that's when we went shopping for a tractor", recalls Ms. Boissevain.
The business was originally called Equine Poop Scoop, a name that caused nearly every wise guy on the Peninsula to jokingly call out vulgar remarks about the nature of the job when pausing at stop lights. They changed the name to Equine Waste Management and started driving unmarked trucks.
At first they stored the manure in a small yard in Los Altos Hills and brought it home to till into their garden after it had composted. Then one day a neighbor asked if he could buy some of the compost - and Wheeler Farms was born.