Last year, I wrote an article about how a few local businessmen and I built a convenience store/gas station on the south side of Worthington. The store has done well enough financially that we have not had to put more money into it, and we have paid off all the construction cost overruns with profit from the store operations. We have not paid any dividends yet on our initial investment. We are always looking for ways to promote the store to the community and increase our sales. Last Saturday, we ran a promotion like none other, and it may never happen again anywhere.
    After construction was finished, we had a pile of mushy, rocky clay left on the west side of the concrete and a pile of beautiful heavy southwest Minnesota black dirt on the north side of the concrete. The dirt contractor, who also happens to be one of the investors, said the black dirt is worth $3/yard, but it costs $4/yard to haul it anywhere close. Some of the close neighbors got a little with their old, two-wheel drive tractors with front end loaders until they figured out that black, wet dirt is heavy. I loaded up five side dump loads on our own truck to fill in a gully I had in a field. And, we still had a huge pile of dirt left.
    The owners decided to try a free dirt promotion right during garden planting season on a beautiful Saturday morning in the middle of May. We had our social media consultant (my daughter, Tae) run a few boosted ads on Facebook and Instagram saying we would load up to 2 yards of dirt on anyone’s truck, trailer or wheel barrow. We did not attach any strings to the promotion like saying they had to buy gas to get free dirt. We did run a special on breakfast pizza and coffee during the 9-11 a.m. time allotted for dirt pickup. We hoped for maybe 10-20 people to show up and that I wouldn’t be twiddling my thumbs waiting in the skid loader to load some dirt.
    When I arrived at the station at 8:45 a.m. with my skid loader, there was already a line of 10 vehicles waiting for free dirt. Of course, they had formed a line opposite of the way I wanted to load them, and when I calmly asked them to circle around in the other direction they cooperated but were hesitant about losing their place in line for free dirt. I started loading dirt as fast as I could, and the line kept getting longer. Some people wanted the max allowed of four buckets, and others wanted a half bucket. The hardest ones to load were the guys driving new,  short-box four-door pickup trucks. Their box was not even close to being as long as my skid loader bucket was wide. I told them to either open their tailgate or I would spill dirt all over their closed tailgate and on the ground. Some opened their tailgate, and some said dump it in. The one thing I did not want to do was get too close to their back cab window with my bucket and scratch their truck. The most fun pickups to load were the old junky long boxes. I watched the rear bumpers almost drag on the ground when they pulled away.
    The trailers that people used to haul dirt were even more varied than the cow trailers seen at the local livestock auctions. Some people had electric heavy-duty dump trailers, and some had lawn mower trailers with tires smaller than a lawn mower. Some trailers had mesh wire bottoms with pieces of plywood wired in them so the dirt would not fall through. The best dirt haulers of the day were the 5-gallon bucket people. Yes, people showed up with 5-gallon buckets wanting free dirt. At first, I didn’t know how to handle that, but luckily Kia and Vince showed up to help. I had a few shovels in the back of my truck. I made a small pile of dirt with the skid loader right next to the parking lot, and Kia helped the person fill the buckets with the shovels. Vince loaded the heavy buckets in the trunks or minivans. You read that correctly, minivans. One lady had 15 buckets in her minivan. She came back three times and got in line. She was elderly, and she had to have had someone on the garden end of her round trips to help her dump the buckets and get back as fast as she did.
    We never advertised the free dirt day in the newspaper, and I think it was only mentioned once on the local radio station. And yet at least half of the 100 people that came for free dirt would be considered non-social media types, meaning older individuals. It kind of proves how the world has changed and yet how much people want real things like dirt. We have had many requests for another free dirt day and are considering it. The community goodwill created was priceless, and our station has increased sales every week all spring. Milk and butter sales along with all groceries available have definitely increased as people do not want to go into the big chain stores right now.
    The free dirt customers were all smiles and none were wearing masks. They seemed to be thrilled at seeing other people in the long line and were enjoying getting out and doing something productive. It reminded me of a bunch of farmers waiting at the elevator to dump grain at the tail end of harvest. By then, nobody is in a great rush, and we all have stories to share.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minn. Send him feedback at [email protected]. Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.