Kathy Kellogg Johnson is a third-generation soil producer.

Kathy Kellogg Johnson is a third-generation soil producer.

Kathy Kellogg Johnson has put aside most of her Fridays to write a book about Kellogg’s Supply Inc., doing business as Kellogg Garden Products, a Carson-based garden soil company her grandfather started nearly 100 years ago.
She has been interviewing employees, some who have been with the company for more than 50 years, and scanning old photos and notes that provide a glimpse into the dynamics that helped the business survive the Great Depression and World War II and thrive as her father took over in the 1950s.

“I feel like I’m safeguarding the company to be able to transition to the fourth generation,” said Kellogg Johnson, who serves as the chairwoman and corporate secretary.

Looking ahead, Kellogg Johnson noted that the company faces challenges ahead because the state’s tax laws make it “difficult to transition” the business when founders pass away, but for now, her book aims to highlight a passion for regenerating soil with organic materials that hopefully will be adopted by future generations.

“For example, leaves. They fall on the ground, they shelter the ground, and we have this ill-conceived (notion that) we have to bag them up and send them in nondecomposable plastic bags into a landfill (where) I can find them 20 years later, just contributing to this mountain that used to be a gorgeous canyon,” Kellogg Johnson said, adding that an alternate approach is to mix the leaves with animal manure to regenerate soil that will yield plants with a “higher density of nutrition and greater resistance to disease.”

“That’s been our generational — Grandpa to Dad, to my brother and myself and our children — mainstay of who we are, what we do, why we’re passionate about it, and the people working for us are passionate about recovering organic materials,” she added.

Fertile ground

The company’s story starts with Kellogg Johnson’s grandfather, Hiram Clay Kellogg Sr., a surveyor by trade, who noticed a lush grove of tomato plants by a riverbank in the Inland Empire, an unusual sight considering the area’s desert, chaparral-friendly climate. He realized that the plants were thriving off organic residuals that trickled into the soil from nearby cattle farms.
He developed a similar soil mix and tested it on the orange trees in his backyard, finding that they yielded four times the fruit than in his previous harvests. He dubbed the product Nitrohumus and in 1925 started selling it to farmers. But it wasn’t an easy sell at first.

“In the 1920s, the textbooks of the day said that … there was no way to really resuscitate and make crops grow again once the field went fallow, you just move onto another piece of property,” Kellogg Johnson said. “Well, Grandpa turned that on its head because he began applying the Nitrohumus. … His thinking was really far beyond his years.”

In 1928, he signed a contract with the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County to collect biosolids generated near Bixby Marsh in Carson. The contract helped Kellogg supply orange growers with Nitrohumus and extended well into the 1960s.

In 1955, Kellogg Sr. acquired Globe Fertilizer Co., which enabled him to reach home gardening consumers. He also collaborated with several well-heeled commercial clients, including Walt Disney, for whom he helped formulate a soil mixture that would sustain tropical plants adorning Disneyland’s Jungle Book ride. Nitrohumus also powered flora at Hearst Castle in San Simeon and at the Getty Center in Brentwood, as well as at playing fields at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Dodger Stadium, among other locations.

Kellogg Sr.’s son, Hiram Clay Kellogg Jr. joined the company as president in 1957, but the two didn’t always see eye to eye.

“Theirs was not a smooth transition,” Kellogg Johnson said. “It’s not that (Kellogg Sr.) didn’t think much of his son, in terms of his abilities. My father was a big personality.

People loved him genuinely because he would take his shirt off his back for a trucker and hand it to him, or (give a) loan without any paperwork and not expect to be paid back. He had a whole different skill set than his father, who was a businessman.”

They mostly clashed about the direction the company should take, with elder Kellogg rooting for the status quo while his son wanted to expand product offerings and introduce plant food, mulch and bark.

Kellogg Jr. prevailed, with his wife, Janice, by his side. The former teacher joined the company as vice president in 1982 and held the reins after her husband’s sudden death in 1987. The company had about 60 employees at the time and generated about $10 million in revenue.

Janice Kellogg remained in charge until 1992 when her son, Hiram Clay Kellogg IV, or Hap for short, took over as president, and daughter Kellogg Johnson began serving as corporate secretary.

“I had graduated from USC, and I had a degree in finance, French and Spanish, and wanted to be in currency trading, but I knew my mom needed me,” she said. “I quit my job and thought this would be a temporary assignment, I’ll just straighten some things out and go back, but then I really got hooked.”

Growth factors

The company, which now has 230 full-time employees, continued to grow under the siblings’ watch, posting $55 million in revenue in 2005 and “north of $100 million” in 2020, according to Kellogg Johnson. Notable wins along the way included “a sweet moment” in 2018 she and her brother “savored” when the company’s bottom line passed the biggest top line their father had ever achieved.

Kellogg Garden products are sold at major home improvement retailers — such as Home Depot and Lowes — as well as at more than 1,000 independent nursery stores throughout the country.

Its Carson headquarters is home to Organic Control Inc., a subsidiary that sells live insects such as ladybugs and praying mantises that feed off garden pests.

Throughout the years, the siblings have expanded the company’s processing facility footprint to include Ontario in the Inland Empire; Lockeford near Sacramento; and Longview, Wash., while a fourth facility in Toledo, Wash., is under construction.

“The rest of the country is served through co-pack arrangements with local companies,” Kellogg Johnson said. “In Texas for example, there are three companies that are similar to us that package bark. We work with them on our formulations, and we have them produce, palletize and ship to Home Depot in every corner of the country.”

Kellogg Garden also changed the makeup of its soils and fertilizers by 2012, replacing biosolids with locally collected turkey litter, and chicken and steer manure. The switch enabled it to adhere to very stringent federal organic standards, and its products are registered with the California Department of Agriculture’s Organic Input Material review as well as with the standards set up by the Organic Materials Review Institute, an independent, third-party review agency.

“OMRI came along with a really excellent certification,” she said. “They pretty much follow from the back of the cow to the bag, and then they are welcome 24 hours a day, seven days a week at any plant that has a registration.”

These days, Kellogg Garden — which competes with Ohio-based ScottsMiracle-Gro Co. — is contending with the rising cost of raw ingredients and pallets supporting its bags of product. Adding fuel to the fire is an Amazon warehouse that opened down the street from its Ontario plant that pays mechanics double what Kellogg Garden can afford to pay.

Kellogg Johnson finds solace in being a private company where it’s not about,
“‘Oh, got to make another nickel on the bottom line,’ but there’s …  a long-term focus on ‘What’s this going to do 50 years from now?’” she said.

She also appreciates the “complete trust” she shares with her brother Hap.
“Even if we disagree strongly on ways to move forward, we both know that we want to move forward, and we both know it’s for the good of the company,” she said.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.