Robert Joblin and Ted Sniegocki of Cenergy USA based in Little Rock, Arkansas, are not horticulturalists or agronomists. But they are anaerobic digester developers and when falling rates for renewable energy and the loss of the federal Investment Tax Credit grant hit at the same time, the financial models they had been using “fell down.” The need for additional revenue streams for AD facilities was urgent to help projects pencil out. Joblin and Sniegocki recognized the value of the fibers coming out of digesters, but had witnessed various product development initiatives go awry. “While we knew we couldn’t finance a digester project based on revenues from fiber products, it can be the difference between a successful project and one that is not,” notes Joblin. “We believed that we needed to develop a value-added bagged retail product.”
Three or four years ago, Cenergy hired consultants to help figure out markets for the digested dairy manure fibers coming out of two large-scale facilities the company had helped develop in Idaho. “They had us talking with various soil products companies, but in the end, it was all for naught and we didn’t move ahead,” says Joblin. “Then one night, Ted and I sketched out what we wanted to do on the back of a cocktail napkin, and decided to develop a product on our own. The end result is Magic Dirt™, a bagged potting soil that has been certified as 100 percent biobased by the USDA’s BioPreferred Program and approved for use in organic production by the Idaho Department of Agriculture.” The product is also certified as a premium potting soil by the Mulch and Soil Council.
Magic Dirt, introduced in the spring of 2014, is a blend of nutrient-rich digested manure and other recycled natural materials that has a pH within the 6-7 range and a guaranteed analysis of 1.15% Total N, 0.30% available phosphate and 0.35% soluble potash. According to Joblin, that is “6- to 10-times the nutrients found in other brands of premium potting soil.” It is packaged in 1 cu.ft. bags and distributed to garden centers and big box retailers in Idaho and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington State. “Our blend is like peat moss with natural nutrients,” notes Sniegocki. “There is a big push not to use peat moss because of the significant greenhouse gas emissions — both carbon and methane — associated with its harvesting. For every acre harvested, 2,400 tons of methane are released.” In its marketing materials, Cenergy also points out that every cubic yard of Magic Dirt “is the by-product of generating more than 100 kWh of renewable energy” and offsets methane by avoiding peat harvest. (Cenergy does not factor in methane avoidance resulting from anaerobic digestion of dairy manure.)
Another driving market factor is the continuing growth of gardening in the U.S. According to market research conducted by the Garden Writers Association over a 3-year period (2010-2013), of the 164 million homeowners in the U.S., nearly half gardened in the past 12 months and on average, spent $530 to $615/year on lawn and garden products. “The study also found that 25 percent of gardening homeowners are likely to pay more for ecofriendly products such as Magic Dirt,” says Joblin.
Early on in product development, Cenergy determined it needed to use dewatered fibers from DVO, Inc.’s patented Two-Stage Mixed Plug Flow™ digester systems. “From our vantage point, the DVO digester technology is the most effective and efficient system for removing volatile solids and yielding long, linked fibers after solids separation,” explains Joblin. “The long fibers hold water and give Magic Dirt the porosity that emulates peat moss.”