CowPots: One Dairy Cow’s Manure is Another Man’s Garden Gold
June 18, 2018
Garden pots that are made from cow manure, containing nitrogen, and biodegradable. In the northwest hills of Connecticut is a second-generation dairy farm run by two brothers, Matt and Ben Freund, who saw the potential of the idea, and made it happen.
The brothers milk 300 Holstein cows with five robotic milking units. With the variable profitability of a dairy farm and increased regulations on nutrient management, Matt Freund started to look for other ways to be sustainable on their farm and to make better use of the manure that his cows were producing.
The family invested in a methane digester in 1997 to get better use of their cow's manure. The methane gas is burned in place of propane to heat the farm house and hot water. After digestion, the manure is separated; liquids stored in a lagoon for field application and solids sent through a composter.
After using the digester for a couple of months Freund noticed that the dried solids resembled the material used in fiber seed-starting pots.
Freund is not only a farmer, he is also a mechanic and mechanically-minded. He wanted to see if he could accomplish something with the composted material. So, he headed to his wife's kitchen. That is where Freund started his first batch, on the kitchen stove with his wife's kitchen pots. Freund then recruited the help of a retired engineer from the local town. Freund needed someone to help him with his ideas and the engineer needed something to do in his free time. It worked out well for both of them.
Once they discovered that they were onto something, Freund applied for the Northeast Sustainable Ag Research and Education Program Grant, in hopes of receiving money to build a prototype of the biodegradable product. He received the grant and CowPots really began.
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It was a solid 10 years before they actually formed the manure into a product. The entire process was all trial and error and a lot of hard work.
"We literally made thousands of prototypes over an eight-year period," said Matt Freund. "Each year we got a bit more sophisticated with our design and process."
It turns out that developing the product was the easy part.
"The biggest challenge has always been marketing," Freund said. "It's making people aware of our product and the benefits of using CowPots versus any other biodegradable. It's difficult to make a big splash in the marketplace as a small business, especially when we're trying to reach a national audience, from backyard gardeners to commercial growers."
In 2006 they were ready to show the product to others. To introduce CowPots to the community, they delivered shrink wrapped stacks of pots to local hardware stores for them to sell.
They found success locally, but ran into problems distributing on a larger scale in the beginning. "Having just one product to market as a manufacturer has made it difficult to get distribution," Freund said. "We manufacture 12 sizes of a biodegradable pot used for horticultural production. Distributors want more than just pots. We have prototyped other types of products like packaging corners from our manure, but it brings us back to that same challenge of marketing.
In 2006, Freund applied for and received the USDA Small Business Innovation Research Grant. He used this grant money for horticultural studies to really see if the pots worked better than or just as good as the competition.
Researchers have compared CowPots to peat pots and discovered that CowPots degraded 88 percent compared to others in a three-month growing trial. They have also been rigorously tested and validated by numerous universities and many independent nursery partners. These tests have revealed that starting your plants with CowPots can help shorten the growing cycle and increase fruit set by up to 10 percent. You also don't need to tear or crush the sides of the CowPot when you plant it in the ground because roots can easily penetrate the sides and bottoms of the pots.
One of the questions they get is "do they stink?" Because the ammonia is removed from the manure, they have more of an 'earthy' smell.
Karen Harter, Certified Sustainable Landscaper, said, "I have bought them for my own production (small grower for landscape clients and myself) and I recommend them to everyone. They don’t break apart on the bench which is such a huge deal with biodegradable pots. I use these exclusively and will continue to do so."
In addition to satisfied customers, the Freunds have had the opportunity to meet several celebrities, including Mike Rowe, Larry King and Martha Stewart, who were all intrigued by the value-added product.
But the most satisfaction comes back to their original resource issue—cow manure. Their favorite thing about CowPots, Freund said, is, "The influence we've had on manure management on our farm."
Today, they are a growing company with 300 cows to fuel their dairy farm and CowPots business. When asked if they plan on growing the herd to keep up with demand, Amanda Freund, daughter of Matt Freund, said that when the demand outpaces the supply for their biodegradable pots, the family intends to investigate a production facility in another region of the US. It's expensive to ship products across the country. Ideally, by forming CowPots on the west coast, they would be helping another farm add value to their byproduct, reduce nutrient overload on their farmland and make CowPots more accessible to growers and gardeners west of the Mississippi River. They're not quite ready for that expansion; but they're hoping to see that goal realized in the future.