AgriSolve Tries for Paydirt with New Soil Amendment Technology

On a farm, nothing goes to waste—not even the waste. But even though manure has value as fertilizer, it’s not valuable enough to transport far, says Roland Kessler. That’s why farmers typically keep it for their own fields.

As animal operations get bigger, Kessler says, so much manure is produced that using it all as fertilizer would saturate the soil. Kessler, who grew up on a farm raising hogs and field crops, now wants to offer farmers a way to make money from cow waste. His Greenwood, IN-based startup, AgriSolve, has developed a technology that turns part of the manure into a useful soil product that he says is valuable enough to ship to markets beyond the farm.

“I never thought I would see the words manure and technology associated, but that’s exactly what we’re doing now,” says Kessler, the company’s director of research and development.

Farmers supplement soil for various reasons, such as adjusting the pH level, controlling weeds, or adding nutrients. Soil treatment products totaled $24.1 billion in global value in 2015, and are projected to top $36 billion by 2020, according to Markets and Markets. The research firm says that organic soil amendments are growing, in part because of environmental concerns associated with overuse of agrochemicals. AgriSolve believes it can feed some of the demand for organic soil products with a soil amendment made from manure.

Much of a cow’s diet is grass, but cows can’t digest it all so it passes through as waste, Kessler says. Exposure to air and microbes converts these grass solids into a crumbly, chocolate-colored material called dairy biofiber. Applied to soil, this material becomes an organic mulch, explains North Carolina State University soils scientist Carl Crozier. It works like a sponge that soaks up water, and in turn, helps keep soils moist. The benefits of the dairy biofiber depend on the amount applied as well as what’s already in the soil. Microbes will grow on it and though some will be harmful, most are probably beneficial to plants, Crozier says.

Crozier was unfamiliar with AgriSolve, but he says that farmers and entrepreneurs have tinkered with ways to make dairy biofiber production faster and more efficient. The lowest-tech method is simply spreading manure out in rows under the sun and periodically turning it, Crozier says. Other methods include various mixers, conveyers, or driers. More technical approaches involve placing manure in bioreactors and adding microorganisms to speed up the conversion. These higher-tech approaches work in a lab setting, but Crozier says they aren’t scalable. The value of a soil amendment falls between $50 and $500 a ton, “so you’ve got to come up with a process that’s relatively inexpensive to handle a large volume,” he explains.

AgriSolve’s system,WasteSolver, has two components. The first collects the manure from cows and separates the solids from the fluid. Stored in a lagoon, that fluid can be reserved for fertilizer uses. The solids move on to the second component, which spins the material in a large drum like clothes in a drier. The process needs no additional microbes. Kessler says WasteSolver’s tumbling action activates naturally occurring microbes that heat up the material, killing pathogens and eliminating odor in the process. After about three days, what’s left is dairy biofiber.

Though Kessler acknowledges that other devices and methods are available for dairy biofiber production, he says AgriSolve’s research found its process was “among the most efficient.” But AgriSolve isn’t focused on outdueling other dairy biofiber production technologies. The company is trying to create a new business model for handling animal waste and in doing so, offering an alternative to a different soil amendment that comes with a higher price tag. Dairy biofiber can be used on the farms where it is produced. But Kessler says the material is worth more to the greenhouse and container plant industries.

Greenhouses mix amendments into soil for many of the reasons that farmers do. Sphagnum peat moss, a popular soil amendment made from partly decayed Sphagnum moss, helps soil structure by improving water retention in sandy soils and improving aeration in clay soils, explains the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association. Canada is the world’s largest producer of Sphagnum peat moss used for horticulture, and the country accounts for more than 65 percent of the peat used in U.S. horticulture applications, according to the association.

Because most of the peat moss sold in the United States is imported, home-grown dairy biofiber would offer an economical alternative for … Next Page »

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Frank Vinluan is editor of Xconomy Raleigh-Durham, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at fvinluan [at] xconomy.com Follow @frankvinluan

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