The modern system of farming, supported by the innovations of the Green Revolution, is a wonder.
Since the end of World War II, the innovations brought forth by new hybrid crop species and agricultural chemicals has allowed the earth’s finite resource base to support an exponential increase in global population.
Using synthetic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium) fertilizers, one acre of land can produce 200 bushels of maize. The same field, unfertilized, might produce only around 60 bushels—a drop in yield of 70%.
Not only is the crop yield greater using fertilizers, but production is steadier. Synthetic fertilizers essentially force plants to grow on ground that would otherwise be barren. In the old days, farmers would leave a field fallow (i.e., unplanted) and perhaps spread some animal manure to return nutritive organic matter to the soil so the field could be replanted in the next season.
Fertilizers allow farms to circumvent the inefficient process of leaving a firm fallow in the same way that factories allow manufacturers to circumvent the inefficient process of artisans crafting custom-made goods.
While synthetic fertilizers might sound great, the added yield and production regularity comes at a cost that science is just starting to understand.
The cost is high. It includes degradation of the soil, making plants more susceptible to pests and pathogens, pollution of human and animal water sources, large, persistent dead zones in the oceans, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are rapidly making our planet more difficult to inhabit.
To produce crops naturally, carbon is necessary.
Carbon— usually in the form of decayed organic matter—feeds helpful bacteria and fungi in the soil that in turn provide nutrients to plants. As the soil organic carbon (SOC) level increases, soils can hold more water—handy in an age of increasing drought—and can spur bacteria and fungi to convert atmospheric nitrogen, which is inaccessible to plants , into a form of nitrogen that plants use to grow.
One of the best sources for organic matter is manure, and that’s a good thing because in these days of concentrated dairy and beef farming, we have stores of manure so significant that they can create health and safety problems themselves.
Fresh manure cannot, however, be poured willy-nilly in fields because the nitrogen and ammonia contained within it are in a form that is not consumable by plants and will “burn” them – turning them as brown as if you forgot to water them.
A company that I featured in an earlier article, The Future is Circular, PrairieFood, has developed technology that solves both the problem of cleaning up concentrated organic waste stores and solving the problem of depleted SOC levels simultaneously.
Since my last article, I have been speaking more with PrairieFood’s founders, Robert Herrington and Dr. Griffin Roberts. The more I hear, the more I think that PrairieFood is a business in which intelligent investors would be wise to support with their capital.
The PrairieFood team has developed a patented reactor that allows biomass waste like manure from a wide variety of sources to be processed into a high-carbon soil amendment that makes soil so happy that crops planted there grow like gangbusters.
PrairieFood’s patented system uses hydrothermal processes to do a few important things:
- It destroys bacteria, viruses, trace antibiotics, weed seeds, and other pathogens within the manure to provide a sterile compound while not destroying the macro- and micro-nutrients within the manure originally.
- It deconstructs the input biomass down to the molecular level and reconstructs it as carbon chains with macro- and micro-nutrients bound to it in mere seconds.
- It generates carbon in two forms: a short-chain form that is available immediately to feed the microbiome (the helpful bacteria and fungi in the soil that exist in a symbiotic relationship with plants) and a long-chain form that is sequestered in the soil for thousands of years.
While the firm’s product is useful across all crop production systems, PrairieFood’s plan is to target the organic farm market first. This plan makes a lot of sense; most farmers would love to farm organically because the price they can receive for organic crops is much higher than that received for conventionally grown ones. However, there is a big catch: to be certified organic, a field must have been free of synthetic fertilizer for a full three years.
That conversion is painful. If you’re a farmer who is used to producing 200 bushels of corn using synthetic fertilizer, you are going to have to scrape by producing much less corn – maybe only 60 bushels a year – for the next three seasons. What’s more, during the transitional period, will only receive the commodity price for lower value conventional crops. Very few farmers can afford to take such a long and severe hit to their top line.
PrairieFood allows a farmer to switch from synthetic fertilizers while maintaining high yields. Once the field has been producing using all-organic PrairieFood for three years, the field can be certified as organic and suddenly the farmer’s revenue increases by 3-4 times as he or she starts receiving the organic price for what had heretofore been a commodity crop.
Not only does the grain or vegetable farmer win in this scenario, but the dairy farmer or beef feeder wins as well. The PrairieFood reactors are the size of a shipping container and are sited adjacent to the dairy barn or feedlot.
PrairieFood pays a royalty to the ranchers supplying the manure, so the same pile of manure that had been a costly problem of hazardous waste suddenly becomes a source of extra revenue for the dairy/beef operation.
Herrington walked me through the economics of the operation, and let’s just say that I have suddenly gotten interested in poop.
The technology that PrairieFood has developed operates on a different paradigm than that on which synthetic fertilizers are based.
Synthetic fertilizer manufacturers extract finite resources (especially natural gas) and convert it into two things – fertilizer and pollution. The scientists and entrepreneurs at PrairieFood have figured a way to reuse an infinite and overlooked resource—manure—to produce crops and profits, all while cleaning up rather than producing harmful waste.
The world needs a new paradigm like this. Intelligent investors must vote with their capital.