This story appears in the May 2021 issue of Business Alabama Magazine.
A fifth-generation farmer, Christina Woerner McInnis’ childhood memories are of the land.
“I literally was raised in the dirt on the back of a planter,” she says, as she motions to her digital background of a sunrise over her family’s farm.
As chief executive of AgriTech Corp., Woerner McInnis carries the legacy of working men and women who weathered economic downturns in crops such as potatoes, corn and broccoli. During lean times, her mother farmed the land around their home and turned the front yard into a farmstand.
In the 1970s, the family evolved to turf-farming as a way to avoid the vagaries of row crops. After her grandmother raised eight children, Lillie Woerner left the farming to her six sons and two daughters. She started a garden store near a residential area, with the then-novel idea to bring turf to her customers. Her companion at the store? Her granddaughter, Christina.
As a child, Woerner McInnis learned the values of listening to and serving customers. As an adult, Woerner McInnis applied these lessons to solve a riddle common to most homeowners: how to make the lawn look better?
In those days, Woerner McInnis sent frustrated homeowners to the local extension office for advice about their lawns. As a farmer, she was comfortable seeking advice from extension agents. She understood the lingo, and she was accustomed to the proportions of large, farming operations. Her residential customers complained they lacked the time to make the 17-mile trip to the extension office and the knowledge to parse advice designed for large agricultural concerns.
Christina Woerner McInnis had seen her grandparents and parents send soil samples, in brown paper bags, to a lab. She began thinking of ways to bring this service to the home gardener.
In 2016, as this soil-to-the-lab idea germinated, one of Woerner McInnis’ daughters was feeling lethargic due to food sensitivities. When an appointment with a specialist required a four-month wait, Woerner McInnis sent off for a food-sensitivity kit, pricked her daughter’s finger and awaited results. The kit showed a sensitivity to both gluten and yogurt, as well as several other foods. Woerner McInnis suggested her daughter stay away from the yogurt smoothies, which had been a breakfast staple. Her daughter began feeling better quickly.
A combination of this health care experience and what she was hearing from her garden-center customers was the genius of SoilKit.
“Customers would ask, ‘What should I do with the lawn or garden?’” she recalls. “I realized, ‘We need the blood test. We need the diagnostic test.’”
When it debuted, customers liked the concept and immediately began making suggestions. SoilKit includes a brown bag, similar to what her ancestors used, as well as a pre-paid-postage envelope to send the soil to the lab also used by Woerner McInnis’ family.
Deena McMullen, garden center manager at the Elberta Farmers Coop Garden Center, says SoilKit offers relief to puzzled and frustrated lawn owners and home gardeners.
“They have to physically take this test home with them and collect those samples,” she says. “That’s a very important part of this. It gives them a sense of control. Perhaps before there might not have been a lot of understanding about ‘Why do I have all these weeds? Why is my garden not behaving the way I want?’”
Instead of just throwing product and money at the problem, McMullen now offers advice to her customers based on SoilKit’s scientific evidence of their unique situation.
“It goes far beyond just sod,” she says of the assistance of the lab results. “It goes into growing food and vegetables and keeping a nice flower garden.”
Woerner McInnis, who learned customer listening from her grandmother, takes their customers’ suggestions seriously. Early SoilKit customers wanted more than just a lab analysis of their soil and suggestions for types of fertilizer. They needed to know how much product to use. Her technology team integrated satellite images from digital maps to estimate the size of a customer’s lawn or garden.
Then, rather than customers keying in a code for lab results on a portable device in the hot sun, the AgriTech Corp. team added a personalized, scannable code to the brown bag. Later, as larger companies began carrying the kit, they wanted to have the analysis results translated into a shopping list that would make the purchase of needed fertilizer or other products easier for both the consumer and the garden center staff.
Before long, some online retailers, including Atlanta-based domyown.com, asked her to add clickable links to products, which simplifies the customer’s buying experience and also provides valuable analytics to the web company and AgriTech Corp.
Recently, Christina Woerner McInnis and the SoilKit product were one of the finalists in “Making it . . . With Lowe’s,” a web-based reality program hosted by Daymond James that features small businesses run by diverse and underserved business owners.
Woerner McInnis’ ability to translate soil-science into an easy-to-use consumer product impressed the panelists. Her company earned a supplier development marketing package and a $5,000 grant. Now available through Lowes.com, SoilKit will be featured in stores soon, according to Lowe’s website.
“SoilKit was born in an independent family garden center, so it’s exciting — the nation is looking for it now,” Woerner McInnis says. “What I value most from Lowe’s, an expert retailer in a nationwide business, is their number one focus to mentor small businesses.”
Maureen Wallace, public relations manager for Lowe’s, praised Woerner McInnis’ customer-focus and charisma.
“Christina’s story is compelling for many reasons: SoilKit tackles a real customer problem, with credibility backed by science and a family that’s farmed their land for five generations. Christina’s poise, passion and knowledge helped her product stand out, and we’re incredibly proud to call her one of our top Making It… with Lowe’s entrepreneurs.”
For Woerner McInnis, the success of her company lies in the cross-pollination of farming, technology and customer-needs.
“Homeowners are micro-farmers,” she says, and farming isn’t easy. “We put all the puzzle pieces together and made it easy on the homeowner and the person in the store, too.”
The soil analysis and suggestions for products and amounts also has a positive environmental benefit, as it prevents a common problem of over-fertilizing. Too much fertilizer leads to toxic runoff in waterways, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi River. Proper amounts feed the lawn without damaging the ecosystem.
“Fertilizer is not bad. Its misuse and abuse is bad,” Christina Woerner McInnis says. “Food doesn’t cause obesity; misuse of it causes obesity.”
In the future, Woerner McInnis envisions using SoilKit-type technology to offer continual updates and advice to customers throughout the growing season. The company would integrate SoilKit analysis with weather information analytics to customize advice to the home-grower throughout the nurturing season.
She would like to use SoilKit analysis to help residential soil absorb some of the legacy carbon in the broader atmosphere. It would be a win-win: good for the residential owner’s lawn and flowers and also better for the environment.
“We do all this coastal cleanup … yet our fertilizers are running off and killing our sea life,” she says. “Do what is right for the plants in your yard, and do what is right for the environment and be a steward. Begin with the end in mind.”
That’s the legacy she wants to leave for her four children, the sixth generation of the family business.