Closing the Yield Gap in Organic Farming w/ Stanley Janicki
Interview with Stanley Janicki, Vice President of Business Development at Sedron Technologies
What if a nitrogen product could help close the yield gap between organic and conventional farming? Stanley Janicki of Sedron Technologies discusses this possibility by way of a new waste processing system that produces an OMRI listed nitrogen source — one that can help organic farmers improve their operations while also protecting the environment.
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Learn more about Sedron Technologies: www.sedron.com
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INTRO: Welcome to Organics Unpacked, a podcast for the business-minded organic grower, where we hear from top experts in the commercial organic industry. With a focus on the business elements of organic growing both in and out of the field, you will gain insight and grow your operation. This show is brought to you by Avé Organics, a Wilbur-Ellis company. Here’s our host, Tom Buman.
TOM: Welcome to the show, Stanley.
STANLEY: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it tremendously. It’s always nice to talk about organic products and organic applications and the new technologies in this space with people who are interested and then have an audience of people who actually want to hear about it. On the subway, when I’m taking it here in New York, the person next to me doesn’t always care about organic fertilizer. It’s nice to be able to talk to someone who does.
TOM: They generally care about organic foods, but not necessarily what goes into it, right?
STANLEY: Exactly. And sorry, my dog here is exploring in the background. The perks of working from home.
Sedron Technologies & the Varcor System
TOM: That’s right. For sure. So, Stanley, you have developed some really exciting technology in the last couple years. Tell us about that.
STANLEY: Yeah, totally. So, here at Sedron, we’ve developed something known as the Varcor system. The Varcor system, really, was initially designed for agricultural operations with dairy as the main focus. If we kind of take a 10,000-foot view of it, the primary objective being lagoon elimination, we said, ‘Hey, if we can take a dairy farm and eliminate a lagoon and the methane produced out of that lagoon?’ Tremendous greenhouse gas emitter. Nitrous oxide? Eliminate it from that lagoon and then eliminate this idea of liquid manure application on fields, where then it rains, and you get manure runoff. You get nutrient pollution from that. You get pathogens coming off of that. When you apply it onto various crops, you can get pathogens in the crops. So that was the goal at the highest level, and we said, ‘What can we actually do?’ Well, what we need is a crystal-clear, clean water that can be used for beneficial reuse around irrigation. It can be used for direct discharge. It could even be fed back to the cows. We said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do that, we need to see what we have to take out of that water.’ And we realized we’re going to end up with dry solids. These are going to be a really nice granular fertilizer that can be applied to the fields. Then we realized, well, in that water, there are also aqueous constituents, specifically ammonia. We said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to remove that separately.’ So we recover from this dairy manure clean water, a dry solid fertilizer and an aqueous solution of ammoniacal nitrogen. And the way the Varcor works, it’s a thermodynamic process utilizing mechanical vapor recompression at the highest level that allows us to do that with no additives or chemicals in an OMRI certified process. Both our outputs are OMRI certified. So, to be able to do that with no chemicals, we realized that, wow, we have some cool organic products at the back end, and so that’s how we’re here talking about Organics Unpacked.
Manure Lagoon Elimination
TOM: So, Stanley, how did this idea even come up? Somehow, a guy from New York has to be thinking about manure and dairies. How did the idea even come up?
STANLEY: Yeah, so I’m actually from a place that’s even less focused on agriculture: Seattle. Really, it’s a tech city, right? So people think of Seattle as tech. The background of our company is actually aerospace, so we own two companies. One is Sedron Technologies. The other one’s Janicki Industries. Janicki Industries is a large-scale aerospace parts and tooling supplier: work for Boeing, Lockheed Martin, kind of the whole gamut of aerospace companies. And being located in Seattle, it was a natural proximity to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. So, early on, they came to us. Maybe this was like probably 10 years ago, and we do a lot of custom engineering. So people will come to us with just a problem statement, and we engineer a solution for it. So the foundation asked us to develop sanitation technologies for developing countries. So that got us an introduction into this world of water and wastewater. So there’s this great video of Bill Gates drinking the poop water that came out. It’s online. You should watch it. It’s a great video.
But after that came out, a lot of people reached out to us, and one of the groups was actually a group called Nutrient. They’re run by many of the milk co-ops where they do diligence on manure management technologies, and they asked us some questions around, ‘Hey, how can this be applied to dairy?’ And we realized that the system we’d worked with the foundation was not applicable to dairy at all. But we realized they introduced us to the scale and the impact of that problem and also the impact that a solution to that problem could have from a greenhouse gas standpoint, from a nutrient pollution standpoint, from a water quality standpoint. Solving the idea of manure lagoon elimination in the United States would be critical. The Washington Post actually had an article. It came out about six months ago. 10,000 people per year die from the ammonia that volatilizes out of manure lagoons in the U.S. alone. So, to think that we have such a huge problem here, that there aren’t widespread technologies to eliminate the lagoon, is something we felt we had a great, great solution for. So we developed the Varcor technology over the last five years or so, and now we’re ready here, cruising into prime time with it.
TOM: So the Varcor gives you clean water. It gives you a source of nitrogen that’s OMRI certified, and it gives you a solid source too that’s OMRI certified. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
STANLEY: It is. We’re very excited about it. We have a number of systems under construction. We have a full-scale system running on a large dairy in Indiana that’s an organic dairy actually. So that farm actually uses its own nutrients. And yeah, it’s very, very exciting for them.
Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
TOM: So let’s talk about the environmental impact. Obviously, water quality will be a big thing if you can reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus that are being emitted into the water. But how about greenhouse gas? Where do you stand? How much energy does it take to run this compared to what you get out?
STANLEY: So, from an energy standpoint, it’s incredibly efficient. As I said before, it utilizes mechanical vapor recompression as the backbone of the technology. Mechanical vapor recompression is a well-known process that’s used really specifically in condensed milk factories. It’s used in recycling deicing fluid at airports (propylene glycol). It’s used in salt crystallizers — really, desalination plants. It’s a well-known technology that allows incredibly efficient distillation of products. So we combine that with a number of other patented processes to produce a very, very efficient process, but we see where the true efficiencies and greenhouse gas savings lie. It’s in avoiding the manure application onto fields and avoiding that lagoon wet manure. 66% of a farm’s field-to-farm gate greenhouse gas emissions come from their manure lagoon and the liquid application of manure on their fields.
STANLEY: Which is tremendous. So being able to eliminate that gives us a tremendous tool in solving greenhouse gas emissions for large and any agricultural installation that utilizes a manure lagoon. So, if we look at it from that perspective, that is really where the savings are because we’re removing things like methane going into the environment from that lagoon, the nitrous oxide when you’re applying the manure to the field, this idea of the N2O profile of the manure on the field. All of these things we eliminate by allowing the farm to have a precision application. Then, even more so, we see that the nutrient pollution that comes off in algae blooms can also have greenhouse gas impacts there. So being able to solve all of that is tremendous.
Anaerobic Digestion Process
TOM: Yeah, so you say you can eliminate the lagoon. So does that mean you’re taking the fresh manure that’s coming out of dairies and utilizing it immediately? Putting it into your system? Or is there somewhat of a delay of weeks, months or whatever?
STANLEY: So we see, for us, that it’s going to come out depending on the farm installation, but we’ll use an example. The cow goes to the bathroom, and then there’s a vacuum truck, maybe 10 minutes later, that will suck up the manure. Then, from there, it goes into a manure reception pit where the fiber is taken out — the really coarse fiber — and if there’s any sand in it. So we’ll see, on some farms, the cow sleeps on sand. So, obviously, there will be sand that’s in the manure. Then, from there, it will go either through an anaerobic digester, if a farm utilizes one, or directly into our system. So the only delay you would have would be inside an anaerobic digester.
TOM: Okay, and the anaerobic digester does what? What part?
STANLEY: So this is not something we do. There are lots of people who do anaerobic digesters. You’ll see that, currently, California has something known as a low-carbon fuel standard that will buy methane gas or natural gas produced via dairy anaerobic digestion for a high price. So, for a farmer, the goal is — a large portion of it — is making money, but you’ll also see that it does take the organic carbon that’s in there, a certain portion of it, and convert it into natural gas. That natural gas can then be used to displace fossil fuel natural gasses, which is tremendous.
TOM: So does that in any way impact your Varcor system?
STANLEY: Honestly, we’re kind of ambivalent. We will see that a digester has the potential to convert biologically-organic nitrogen, so slow-release nitrogen into ammoniacal nitrogen. So you end up with more ammoniacal nitrogen with the anaerobically-digested stream.
TOM: Very good. Yeah, so it’s all about making the most efficient use out of dairy manure.
STANLEY: Exactly. The other thing we see that an anaerobic digester does is it will increase your analysis of that final dry product because you’re removing some portion of the carbon that’s in there, but you’re not removing the phosphorus. You’re not removing the potassium. So your final analysis could be a little bit higher potentially.
Benefits for Organic Farmers
TOM: Okay, so we talked about dairy manure. Does your Varcor system have potential to work with other livestock? Swine? Beef? Anything else?
STANLEY: Absolutely. We’ve seen that there are a number of applications. We see the dairy industry as so large for us. We’re really focused. We have a laser focus here right now, but we see swine and other industries being prime targets later on, as well.
TOM: Okay, so let’s talk about your outputs, and let’s talk about the benefit to organic farmers, right? Because this is a podcast about organic farming and inputs and outputs, let’s talk about your Varcor system, what products it produces that an organic farmer would be interested in.
STANLEY: Yeah, absolutely. So we see that that ammoniacal nitrogen solution is something that a farmer would be very interested in, and same thing with the dry solid. Both products in our process, everything’s heated to above 100 Celsius for an extended period of time. So we see that, from a pathogen kill standpoint, we eliminate all pathogens in the stream. So our OMRI labels for both of them don’t have a time delay from when it’s applied to when it’s harvested. So it allows a farmer who’s growing blueberries or spinach, or something like that, a really precise application of nutrients without the introduction of pathogens, which is something we see as exciting for them.
Closing the Yield Gap in Organic Farming
TOM: Yeah, that is a very exciting thing. If organic farmers — especially people that have high-value crops, those leafy greens — if they can get those to market without an introduction of pathogens, what a great thing.
STANLEY: Exactly. The other thing that we see is that the ammoniacal nitrogen is plant-available. And we see — if we just take a quick step back, and we look at organic versus conventional — we see that, on average, there’s a yield gap of about 30%, with the primary driver of that yield gap being the lack of ammoniacal nitrogen. This is according to a university study. If we look at it from that perspective, and we look at it through the lens of resource conservation, what this means is that you’re getting less crops per acre, which, from a resource standpoint, we want to be able to get the most per acre we can, utilizing these great organic farming principles. So, if we can use the organic farming principles of regeneration, of sustainability, all of those things, while also eliminating as much of that yield gap as possible, we see, from a resource conservation standpoint, it’s just an absolute win.
TOM: Yeah, and from a person who’s always been interested in precision conservation, getting the right amount of nutrients at the right time delivered at the right place — all those four Rs — and just really making this work, it seems like a real advantage because I can apply some of my organic nitrogen or my nitrogen to my organic farming at the very critical time that my crop needs it. So I still have my other products. I still have my cover crops, my legumes, my raw manure that is going to supply nitrogen throughout the season. But if I can feed it at some of these really critical times, then that really makes a lot of sense to me.
STANLEY: Absolutely. You totally nailed it there. The idea of precision application is really what both of these products are about, allowing a farmer the ability to apply it when and where they need it. And it’s a storable product. A manure lagoon is causing problems as it sits there for six months. Whereas this, you can put it in a tank. You can put it in a building, and it will store for months so they can apply it exactly when and where they need it.
Scaling the Varcor System
TOM: Right. So talk about your scaling. You’ve got one or two units now. How can you scale?
STANLEY: So we are very passionate about scaling this, and we are working with a number of dairy farmers in the Midwest on taking their manure. We have a number of them signed up already. So you’ll see that we’re going to have systems under construction this year to really increase the output we’re doing. And we’re working with people in this space who want to buy the product, and they’re very excited about it. So we see making sure that it’s matching the supply with the demand as we continue to grow out. But from a scale standpoint, we’re growing very rapidly.
TOM: All right. From an OMRI certification, where are you in the process? OMRI listing? Are both your dry and your liquid listed?
STANLEY: Yep. Both products are listed, and they’ve been listed since last year, mid last year.
TOM: So, Stanley, tell me where Varcor — you talked a little bit about the expansion — but where do you see it in five to 10 years? Can you give us a little, kind of paint a vision for us?
STANLEY: I see it as really being part of the solution to greenhouse gas and nutrient pollution in animal agriculture. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to drink a glass of milk and sequester carbon when you do that. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to have some bacon for breakfast and sequester carbon by doing that. So, for us, we want to be part of that solution, part of transforming every animal agricultural operation to the forefront of sustainability. And, again, not just on greenhouse gas emissions, but on nutrient pollution, on nutrient recovery. Right now, in a manure lagoon, most of the ammonia that’s in that lagoon evaporates into the environment. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be captured and precision-applied to crops when and where they need it.
Partner Dairy Farms
TOM: Yeah, that’s great. So, if you were sitting down with a dairy farmer, right? Well, let me backup before I ask you that. If a dairy farmer now says, ‘Hey, this is great technology, Stanley. I want it on my farm,’ I know that you’re growing, and you’re looking for opportunities. But if somebody were to call you up and say, ‘I want one on my farm,’ what would your answer be?
STANLEY: I think it’s just a matter of fitting them into our pipeline and the timing of it. We’re looking for all of the partner dairies. This is a key part, as well, that we view the dairies as our partners on this process. We’re going to work with them long-term. We support the technology long-term. We operate the technology long-term. So it’s something where we’re working with the farmer for a long period of time. So we’re really about relationships, both with the people we sell the fertilizers to and the people we’re actually getting the manure from. How do we create a tremendous partnership long-term to ensure the farm can stay in compliance and actually far exceed the compliance of any permits they have? Then, also, we can produce these great products.
TOM: So, Stanley, is there a size of an operation, so many heads of cows or something that you’re looking at? Does it scale to 100 head, to 10,000 head? What’s the best scale for you?
STANLEY: From a technical standpoint, there are no limitations on that. Every farm is different on the costs and all of this. So, usually, what we’ll do is we’ll just work with each individual farm and understand what the value proposition is for them. But we see, in many applications, the value proposition for a farmer is tremendous.
Value of the Varcor System
TOM: Okay, so let’s say the last question is that if you’re sitting down with a farmer, and he says, ‘Stanley, in two minutes, tell me why I should implement your Varcor system,’ what is your two-minute elevator pitch for him?
STANLEY: Well, I don’t really need even two minutes. I can tell this dairy farmer, I can say, ‘Mr. Dairy Farmer, I can eliminate your lagoon and eliminate your application of dairy manure on fields and give you clean water back that you can use for irrigation, you can use for direct discharge. You can use it for any kind of beneficial reuse you want while simultaneously solving many of your greenhouse gas emission problems.’ That’s my value proposition to a farmer. We have to work through the ‘financials’ of a specific farm, and we can go into the details, but that’s really what we can allow for a farm.
TOM: All right. Well, Stanley, I appreciate you coming on and being a part of Organics Unpacked. It was great to have you, and we want to stay up to date with where you’re at. So let us know when you have your next update and you’re making some significant progress because we’d love to have you back on Organics Unpacked.
STANLEY: Of course, of course. Well, stay in touch.
TOM: Yeah, absolutely. Stanley Janicki, Vice President of Business Development at Sedron Technologies, thank you.
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