June 16 2014 12:50 AM

Healthy growth usually starts with the right soil, and for a family, it’s no different. Michael Meléndrez comes from a line that’s been on the same soil for centuries. On his father’s side, Michael is a descendent of the founder of Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second largest city. His mother’s side, the Mirandas, have been in New Mexico since the Spanish arrived in the early 1600s. In all those years, many things have changed, but one thing remains the same: the soil.

“When I was thirteen years old, my passion and my projects were always in the arena of soils,” Meléndrez said. “My dad was a farmer and a John Deere implement man. He would say, ‘We’re doing it all wrong. Everything we’re doing is harmful to the soil, and we need to change our ways.’ That left a strong imprint on me from very early on.”

Meléndrez took that passion to New Mexico State University, where he studied horticulture and soils. But halfway through his college career, he felt the urge, as college students often do, to switch things up. And so, just like that, he left New Mexico State for the University of New Mexico. Once there, he changed his major to human wellness, and began researching biochemistry in the human body.

“What’s strange,” says Meléndrez, “is that human physiology and wellness ended up applying directly to my later work with soil. So when I changed majors, I was unintentionally laying the foundation for what seemed, at the time, to be totally unrelated. But the truth is, human biochemistry translated perfectly to plants and soils.”

After graduating with a degree in human wellness in 1984, Meléndrez started his tree farming business with the help of his father. They called the nursery Trees That Please. At first, the two simply focused on selling traditional, midwestern varieties to their clients.

But Meléndrez began to wonder whether his nursery truly represented the best crop of trees available. For the answer, he looked—just as his ancestors had—to the rich soils of the New Mexican landscape.

With this in mind, Meléndrez traversed the countryside, seeking out ideal specimens of native trees. “I went looking for exceptionally healthy parent material, because I knew that the progeny, then, would also be exceptionally healthy.” Not only did he discover an abundance of healthy varieties, but he found that the majority of the trees were both resilient and drought-tolerant.

So rather than continuing to raise and sell imported, non-native trees at his nursery, Meléndrez chose to grow his own, each directly from seeds picked in the New Mexican foothills and mountains. He soon discovered, however, that growing trees from seed left a lot of unanswered questions, especially the effect certain soils had on growth.

And with all the effort he put into growing his own trees, he wanted to be sure that the materials he was using were the best. So he began researching fertilizers and other soil enrichment products that would, he hoped, cultivate healthier trees. But no matter how hard he looked, other products on the market—especially fertilizers and compost—never seemed to have what he was looking for.

“You couldn’t buy the materials we needed off the shelf. We were trying to develop materials that could promote growth, and nothing that was available met our standards. So we set out to make it ourselves.”

Meléndrez discovered that certain topsoils contained materials that were not only restorative, but actually encouraged accelerated growth in plants and trees. These were the particularly dark topsoils, like those of the Iowan plains. He enlisted help to evaluate this material.

In 1997, Meléndrez invited every university and commercial soil chemistry lab in the country to study the chemical composition of these nutrient-rich topsoils. But he wasn’t surprised by the many turn downs he got. “I almost expected the rejections, since there was virtually no research, even in academia, that discussed or analyzed these substances. It was an entirely new field of study.”

Undaunted, he surged ahead with the research and development of synthetic replicas of these soils. At this point, he knew that their composition consisted of two primary materials, humic acid and mycorrhizae. He just couldn’t confirm whether his formula matched the chemistry of those dark, carbon-rich topsoils. But he knew that it worked, and for the time being, that was enough.

He began selling his soil products to farmers and landscape contractors who were doing environmental restoration. Before long, he established a new company to manufacture, formulate, and sell these formulations. Soil Secrets was established in 1999.

But he still had the desire to prove that his formula was identical in composition to its natural counterparts. In 2008, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico contacted Meléndrez and gave him exactly what he was hoping for: a chance to test his product.

“To give you an idea,” Meléndrez said, “Los Alamos National Lab is where they conducted the Manhattan Project. And suddenly, under a commercial proprietary information contract, these same folks agreed to research the composition of this topsoil. It was truly thrilling.”

At the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in collaboration with other researchers, Meléndrez found his answer. “That’s where, after all those years, we finally determined the exact makeup of the dark black substances within those topsoils. As a result of this, I knew that we had been on the right track, so we kept up our work.”

To this day, Meléndrez’s work with the National Laboratory continues. Together, they’re conducting research that they hope will produce soils that are even more concentrated and restorative.

In the meantime, Texas Tech University is staged to treat their entire campus with Meléndrez’s mycorrhizae product. The Kuwaiti government has expressed interest in using the regenerative capabilities to repair damage from Desert Storm. Beyond this, landscape contractors, farmers, and soil enthusiasts from around the globe continue to apply his products to their land.

On the personal side, Meléndrez has been married to his wife, Kari, for 31 years; they have two daughters, both of whom are in college.

One is studying psychology and the other is studying environmental geology. In addition, they’re also blessed with grandchildren.

When Meléndrez’s hands aren’t in the soil, he’s usually trekking the New Mexico mountains, just as he had decades before, in search of that perfect tree.