AURI has helped to design a number of landscape-oriented projects and more are expected in the near future. Projects range from fertilizers to oil-absorbent mats; many add value to low-value commodities or crop residues.
Optimistic for organics
Minnetonka, Minn. — Ask A. J. Hodges her perspective on the future of organic fertilizers, and you won’t wait long for an answer.
“Our business is up 54 percent over last year and that was 30 percent higher than the year before. What does that tell you?”
Hodges is president of Renaissance Fertilizers, which produces natural fertilizers from ag products, such as soybeans and corn gluten meal, for Midwest and East Coast markets. Products designed for turf care and organic farming are finding increasing reception among consumers, Hodges says.
“People are becoming more conscious of what they are doing to the soil,” she says. “They’re concerned about what their children are rolling around in when they’re playing in the lawn. Plus they’re pleased with the results. Many say their lawns have never looked better and the products they are using are good for the environment and good for the soil.”
Alexandria, Minn. — Alan Zeithamer, in the organic fertilizer business for years, cautions that consumer acceptance is not a quick process. Zeithamer and his son Josh operate Bio Builder, an Alexandria-based company specializing in fertilizers for turf grass.
Zeithamer says it has taken a lot of “missionary work” to get people to try their phosphate-free Thrivin’ brand fertilizer, comprised of dried distiller’s grains and rough fish. Once they’ve tried it, the majority become repeat customers.
“A lot of consumers simply shop by way of the price tag,” Zeithamer says. “We have to demonstrate to those consumers the added value that an organic product brings. It’s more than just supplying the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous.”
Subtle differences need to be promoted, Zeithamer says. For example, the oil and fibers in distiller’s grain supply carbon needed by soil microorganisms, which in turn are vital for nutrient transfer and disease protection. Organic nitrogen, like that found in Thrivin’ products, tends to be released more slowly, sustaining plants longer.
Zeithamer is looking to research being conducted at North Dakota State University to confirm Thrivin’s lasting nitrogen release. He hopes it will show that despite the higher price tag, organic fertilizers pay for themselves in the long run.
One niche Bio Builder has carved out is golf courses, since superintendents generally are highly educated about the added value of organic products.
“To be sustainable in the marketplace initially you need to find a niche,” Zeithamer maintains. “As education continues and a greater awareness of the added value results, price won’t be the determining factor.”
Soaking up opportunity
Mat Inc. fiber products
Floodwood, Minn. — Nestled in the woods near Duluth is the home of Mat, Inc. This small-town business manufactures a variety of products including fibers for oil filters, a floating oil-absorbent blanket, mulches and fiber mats for reseeding and erosion control.
Company founder and president Joe Karpik uses wood or paper fiber in many applications, but has tested and sees potential for ag fibers, especially in the landscape and erosion-control arenas. Karpik’s business is taking over an Iowa operation that uses corn stalks for fiber blankets.
“Corn stalks should start replacing paper,” Karpik says. “Paper isn’t as good — it’s just available. Corn has a better carbon to nitrogen ratio and contributes much more to the soil. That’s what we want.”
Karpik says erosion-control mats are used on road construction projects, airport runway construction, playgrounds, lawns, golf courses or wherever fields cannot be left barren.
“You can only afford to ship so far,” Karpik says, before shipping costs of the light, yet bulky materials begin to make them less affordable. However, “it would be easy to set up operations every 500 miles or so to take care of opportunities.”
Bagging the compost market
Cold Spring, Minn. — Turning dried poultry processing waste, wood chips, leaves and grass into quality compost doesn’t just happen. It takes close monitoring of a computerized process, says Brad Matuska of Mississippi Topsoils.
The company produces Soil Essentials Premium Compost in 20-ton sealed bins. Computers control the process of mixing waste materials, maintaining optimal temperature within the bins, recycling leachate and channeling exhaust to reduce odor. After about six months, bacteria and heat transform the mixture into clean, odorless humus.
Mississippi Topsoils has the capacity to produce about 50,000 one-cubic-foot bags a year, using waste from the nearby Gold’n Plump poultry processing facility. The bagged compost is sold statewide in garden centers. Since production costs are relatively high, the compost is marketed as a premium product. “We found that price wasn’t a driving force,” Matuska says. “But quality is.”