Green lawns, clear lakes

Alexandria, Minn. — A new fishy fertilizer can green lakeshore lawns and keep lakes clean at the same time.

Bio Builder of Alexandria is manufacturing a phosphorous-free fertilizer made from corn distiller’s dried grain and rough fish. Thrivin’ Natural and Organic Turfgrass Fertilizer eliminates phosphorus runoff, giving lakeshore owners a way to grow green grass rather than green lakes. The environmentally-friendly product was developed with help from AURI by Josh Zeithamer of Alexandria, a 19-year-old college student and entrepreneur.

Green lake syndrome

Zeithamer is from Douglas County, a central Minnesota region marked by some 350 prairie lakes. Growing up in a prime water-recreation area gave him a keen awareness of the link between green lawns and green lakes.

Excess lawn fertilizer washing into surface waters promotes algae blooms that suffocate game fish, destroy water clarity and ruin swimming and boating. Phosphorus — an element of nearly all lawn fertilizers — is the biggest culprit. It takes just one pound of phosphorus to grow 500 pounds of algae. In the Twin Cities alone, homeowners apply over six million pounds of phosphate-containing fertilizer a year, according to a study by the Suburban Hennepin Regional Park District.

Bans not enforceable

Recognizing the threat posed by runoff, counties and cities are beginning to ban phosphorus fertilizer use, says Paula West of Brainerd, executive director of the Minnesota Lakes Association.

At least 15 metro-area cities have banned residential applications and half a dozen counties already have shoreline bans — among them, Douglas County, which prohibits phosphorus within 50 feet of public waters. In addition, the Minnesota Legislature this year took up several proposals to limit or ban the use of phosphorus lawn fertilizers.

Such bans are hard to enforce, West acknowledges. And compliance is hindered by a lack of alternatives. West, also a consultant for Ace Hardware stores, says phosphate-free fertilizers are hard to find.

“None of the major manufacturers makes a phosphate-free fertilizer, and most major retailers don’t carry them in their warehouses. This is the first year Ace Hardware has carried a zero-phosphorus product.”

Jumping in

Josh Zeithamer saw an opportunity. So the summer before his senior year of high school, he formed Bio Builder and set out to create a phosphate-free fertilizer for lake country.

By that time, he already had several years of experience in the fertilizer industry. His father, Alexandria businessman Alan Zeithamer, manufactures fertilizer from liquefied carp and bullheads. The product is sold through a Kansas distributor to certified organic farmers.

Josh began helping his dad in elementary school. “I started out pounding lids on buckets and filling buckets, and by the age of 16, I was doing everything.” The liquid fertilizer is a small operation — but it was a good way to get a hands-on education, Josh says.

A totally new use

Josh and his dad wanted to incorporate their liquid fish fertilizer into an easy-to-use dry product for turf grass. They tried drying the liquid in a vacuum dryer, but that proved too expensive. Then they hit on the idea of blending it with distiller’s dried grain.

A coproduct of ethanol processing, distiller’s dried grain is cheap, low in phosphorus, and a good source of slow-release nitrogen. Currently, it is sold for animal feed. Fertilizer, Josh says, “is a totally new use.”

Robyn Wells, manager of Central Minnesota Ethanol Cooperative in Little Falls, was intrigued by Josh’s idea. “We’re looking for ways to expand the market for distiller’s dried grain,” she says. A 15-year veteran of the ethanol industry, Wells agreed to help Bio Builder develop a fertilizer based on distiller’s dried grain, which is likely to be in oversupply as new ethanol plants come on line.

With technical assistance from AURI, Josh and his dad tested nearly two dozen fertilizer blends. “We thought we had a formula we liked,” Josh says, “but it couldn’t be feasibly processed, so we had to go back to the drawing board.” After months of trial and error, “we nailed down a formula we liked and a manufacturing process.”

The final product, called Thrivin’, is a blend of whole nongame fish and corn distiller’s dried grain, plus molasses, urea, limestone and soluble iron. It looks and smells like cornmeal and can be applied with a broadcast spreader. The Zeithamers tested Thrivin’ last summer on turf grass plots in Douglas County, achieving vigorous plant growth and dark green color, Josh says.

Last fall, AURI helped Bio Builder develop packaging and promotional materials and get labels approved in the five-state area. Early this year, the Zeithamers began manufacturing the fertilizer in a converted barn.

‘Greener’ soil?

Thrivin’ benefits both soil and water,

Josh says, building up soil tilth and

microbes with organic matter and protecting surface waters from phosphorus runoff. These benefits led the Minnesota

Department of Transportation to include Thrivin’ in fertilizer trials this summer near Baxter, on Minnesota Highway 371.

After the ravages of road construction, says Dwayne Stenlund, a MnDOT soil ecologist, there is a need for “products that add life forms back into the soil” while protecting environmentally sensitive areas such as lakes, wetlands and streams below bridge abutments, ditches and slopes.

Carp baggers

There are other benefits, says Jody Koubsky, AURI program specialist in Morris. Besides adding value to distiller’s dried grains, Thrivin’ opens a new market for carp, a rough fish that lake associations are eager to get rid of, she says.

As bottom-feeders, carp compete with more desirable game fish, sometimes overrunning a lake. They also stir up the bottom, clouding the water with sediment. There is a market for carp on the East Coast, says Jeff Riedemann of Cambridge, president of the Minnesota Inland Commercial Fisherman’s Association. But it’s not economical to harvest the fish in Minnesota unless lake associations underwrite part of the expense, he says.

Local demand for carp would allow a larger annual catch, benefiting both lakes and the fishing industry, he says. “So we’re hoping companies like Bio Builder can get going.”

Up against the majors

Bio Builder expects to sell about 200 tons of Thrivin’ this season. The product is available at several dozen garden centers and retail stores around the state, including Mills Fleet Farm and Ace Hardware.

It will be tough competing with the major players in the $5 billion fertilizer industry, acknowledges Josh, who manages to sandwich the venture in between a full classload at North Dakota State University and his 80-acre native grass seed operation. At the same time, he adds, “There aren’t many other suppliers of organic, phosphate-free fertilizers. Our biggest challenge will be making consumers aware that they have an alternative.”

That’s a challenge he relishes, adds Josh, winner of an FFA Kaufman Foundation Entrepreneurship Award and a DECA marketing award.

“I love talking to customers, seeing what they want, what they need. I like the challenge of creating a new product.” Beyond that, “I’m extremely motivated to do the right thing when it comes to our environment.”

For more information on Bio Builder, email: biobuild@rea-alp.com or call (320) 766-7730