She’d call herself dirt rich
Denise Ritchie scratches holes into a pile of cow manure to make room for the herbs that will create her unusual brand of fertilizer.
Once dried and infused with chamomile, stinging nettle and yarrow, the mixture will be bagged and sold as Bu’s Blend Biodynamic Compost. Each package features an illustration of a Holstein surfing near Malibu Pier. That’s Bu, the formerly scrawny dairy cow Ritchie and her husband rescued as she was about to “go to beef.”
“You’re healing your soil with this stuff,” says Sarah Spitz, a KCRW producer and a graduate of the Los Angeles County master gardener program.
It’s also healing Ritchie’s soul.
The former screenwriter thinks her Malibu Compost business can save thousands of cows doomed to die in slaughterhouses -- and maybe help some careworn dairy farmers in the process. It’s an ambitious goal for a woman who spent years just trying to save herself, a pill-popping alcoholic who in 1989 stared down her 19-year-old son’s murderer in a Los Angeles courtroom and said she had been “sentenced to a lifetime of pain.”
Ritchie quips that her life has gone from manure to manure. Only she doesn’t use the word “manure.”
Ritchie, 59, grew up as Denise deGarmo in Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades, far from the Fresno pasture where Bu resides.
Bu “is our empty-nest child,” Ritchie said with a throaty laugh. The Holstein is the symbol of Malibu Compost, complete with her own blog. Her cardboard likeness, in full dress tail, appeared at a Los Angeles screening of “Dirt,” a film about the world’s soil and its loss through deforestation, war and industrial farming.
After months of ingesting grass and alfalfa at Organic Pastures Dairy, Bu has been transformed from the bleeding, manure-encrusted creature that Ritchie’s husband, Randy, spotted at an auction last August. With the help of a dairyman friend, the Ritchies bought her for $650 as she was about to be trucked to a slaughterhouse. Sporting a cowbell around her neck, she is the picture of bovine beauty, a fact not lost on a resident bull. Baby Bu is due in July.
Bu is the first of what Denise hopes will be thousands of rescued dairy cows that will provide raw milk for her friend Mark McAfee’s dairy and then live out their retirements producing the main ingredient for Malibu Compost.
Whether Ritchie succeeds in saving herds of Bu’s milk-mates remains to be seen. Saving Bu alone, however, has injected hope and meaning into what has been a tumultuous life.
As Ritchie tells it, her saga began as a high school senior, when she married a Marine and later gave birth to a son, Daniel Tyge Valdemar. Her husband disparaged and abused her, and she left, believing 2-year-old Tyge would be better off without her.
By her third divorce, Ritchie had struggled with bulimia and an addiction to prescription drugs; given birth to a daughter; co-written “Kate’s Secret,” a TV movie inspired by her eating disorder; and fallen in love with Randy Ritchie, a blue-haired singer in a punk band. They had a daughter and became a writing team.
Tyge had bounced between parents and by his teen years had grown addicted to drugs. He entered rehab. On Oct. 7, 1988, mother and son spoke by phone. “He said, ‘I love you. I don’t blame you,’ ” Ritchie recalled.
Not long after, she received a devastating call: Tyge had been stabbed to death in the Canter’s Deli parking lot on Fairfax Avenue. Ronald Lambakis, a vagrant with a criminal record, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 16 years to life in prison.
“Every time I close my eyes I see Ronald Lambakis stabbing my son,” Ritchie said at the sentencing hearing in March 1989. " . . . I can never get over not being . . . there to protect my son.”
She filed a wrongful-death suit against Canter’s Deli, a futile five-year battle during which she drank, binged on tranquilizers and developed melanoma. The financial fallout forced her into bankruptcy. After hitting bottom, she went to Alcoholics Anonymous and got sober.
Writing jobs were scarce in the mid-1990s, so the couple found work with a landscaper friend and realized they had an aptitude for the business. When the friend retired, they took over and designed gardens for celebrity clients with outsize foliage needs.
After one job, the Ritchies reflected on the environmental effects of their labors. “We were looking at the ocean and realized we had probably killed a pod of dolphins with all of the concrete and rebar,” Denise said. They launched an eco-friendly venture, using recycled rebar, installing water-saving drip systems and planting insectaries, gardens that attracted beneficial bugs.
Not long after, Denise stumbled onto biodynamic farming -- an eccentric approach that mixes organic principles with cosmic spirituality. First espoused in 1924 by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, biodynamic agriculture approaches the farm as a self-contained organism. Farmers rely on non-chemical weed and pest control and engage in rituals timed to the movements of the sun and the moon.
Steiner advocated using herbal and mineral concoctions -- homeopathy for dirt, one might say -- to restore the soil’s “life force.”
One practice calls for packing cow horns with manure and burying them on the autumnal equinox. When farmers dig up the horns six months later, they find the manure transformed into a dark, rich, moist substance that smells surprisingly sweet and earthy. They mix it with water and spray the resulting “tea” over crops.
Many mainstream agriculturalists mock such rituals, and scientific research is slim.
Still, “there are lessons for all of agriculture in some of the basic agronomy that biodynamic farmers practice,” said Glenn McGourty, a UC Cooperative Extension advisor who has worked with biodynamic wineries.
The Ritchies embraced biodynamic tenets such as integrating plant and animal agriculture and placing a strong value on the local community’s health. Such practices, they said, countered the packed feedlots and cruel slaughtering methods of the nation’s highly mechanized food industry portrayed in “Food Inc.,” a 2009 documentary. The demise of thousands of family-run dairies, they learned, was caused in large part by consolidation, with further woe imposed by the loss of overseas customers after the dollar strengthened in 2008. With producers awash in milk, prices plunged.
After years of solid gains, even organic farmers were struggling because of the sour economy, with many forced to sell cows to conventional dairies or to slaughterhouses.
Ritchie thought she could help.
Last October, the Ritchies and Colum Riley, a business partner, began producing Bu’s Blend, now carried in 50 nurseries in California. Master gardener Spitz became a customer of the pricey fertilizer after studying various approaches to gardening and concluding that biodynamics “was the purest, healthiest and cleanest system.” Every seed she has planted using Bu’s Blend, she said, has sprouted and grown “big and beautiful.”
Malibu Compost pays organic dairy farmers an average of $10 a ton for manure. The payments provide a little cash flow for farmers, and the manure -- piled in rows on Gena Nonini’s Fresno biodynamic farm -- keeps Malibu Compost bustling.
Further establishing their green credentials,Malibu Compost donates 1% of profits to Chez Panisse Foundation, the nonprofit group that Northern California chef Alice Waters established to support edible schoolyards and other programs that educate youngsters about food.
The whimsical ad copy on each Bu’s Blend bag echoes the biodynamic ethos when it asserts that dairy cow manure is superior to chicken, steer or horse manure or bat guano. “Why? Because a dairy cow has an unequaled digestive process which is enhanced by cosmic life-giving forces in her hooves and horns that enable the nitrogen in her manure to rekindle life within the earth.”
The Ritchies, who live at Malibou Lake in Agoura, are searching for a spread in Northern California where they can boost production and care for rescued bovines. They have submitted the paperwork for a nonprofit dairy cow sanctuary.
After seeing Bu’s progress at Organic Pastures Dairy, they partnered with McAfee in a for-profit venture called Operation: Rescue Organic Cows. To date, investors have bought about 40 cows, paying $1,800 each, sparing the bovines from being sold to a slaughterhouse or to a conventional farm. Organic Pastures’ McAfee said those cows daily produce about 220 gallons of milk that the dairy transports to stores. Each investor is promised repayment of the rescue cost plus 10% interest over 36 months.
Once the cows stop producing, they’ll retire to the Ritchies’ sanctuary. Everybody and every creature wins, Ritchie said.
“I cannot bring my son back,” Ritchie said.
“But I can make a compost that will help save our soil. And I can rescue a factory-farmed dairy cow with the hope of thousands that will follow.”