Turning Ammonia into an OMRI Listed Liquid w/ Eugenio Giraldo
Interview with Eugenio Giraldo, Founding Partner at NuOrganics
Did you know it is possible to capture ammonia gas and convert it into an OMRI listed liquid ammonium nitrate? Eugenio Giraldo of NuOrganics joins us to discuss this innovative process, which uses technology developed in the wastewater world to transform an environmental burden into an organic farming benefit.
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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: Today’s guest is Eugenio Giraldo with NuOrganics. He’s one of the founding partners of NuOrganics. Welcome to the show.
EUGENIO: Thank you, Tom. Thank you for having me and having this opportunity to share some of our experiences with you and your team.
TOM: Yeah, well, you’re really doing some exciting work, really kind of turning the whole idea of nitrogen for organic farming on its head a little bit, which is very, very exciting. So it will be good to get in and talk to you about it, but give us a little bit of background on NuOrganics.
EUGENIO: NuOrganics is actually a spinoff of a company called Natural Systems Utilities, which is an environmental engineering company focusing on resource recovery. For many, many years, they’ve been at the forefront of water reuse application from decentralized wastewater in towns and small developments and industry. A couple years ago, we saw, also, the opportunity to start recovering nutrients along with water, and we started going that way. And some of us decided to open NuOrganics as a spinoff of Natural Systems Utilities.
Capturing Nitrogen from Poultry Manure
TOM: What was the main idea? Yes, you could capture nitrogen out of a waste stream, but what was unique about this kind of business endeavor that led you to the chicken industry and organic farming?
EUGENIO: We started working on manures in general. As environmental engineers, we realized a lot of the work on what we call point sources for treatment and environmental recovery had been already addressed, and a lot of tools that we environmental engineers have to handle nutrients and reduce impacts were in place. We knew that the agricultural world had been a latecomer into some of these impacts and reduced some of these impacts. And we saw an opportunity of transferring some of that knowledge into the agricultural world. We started looking into all different kinds of manure, and we really quickly realized that the poultry manure had a unique set of characteristics because of the high content of nitrogen and the amount of losses of the nitrogen that happen on the way manure is currently used in the industry. We saw an opportunity of transferring the technology that we already had on the wastewater world and the issues that some of the manures had on this lost nitrogen. And nitrogen being in the organic agricultural world, the main nutrient is in high demand. We usually can have an organic agricultural excess of phosphorus and potassium, but nitrogen is always deficient. So a lot of it was being lost to the environment and creating environmental and public health impacts. We said, ‘Hey, we captured that nitrogen, and we put it to good use. We not only reduce environmental impacts because we are avoiding those emissions but also make a product that is in high demand in organic agriculture.’ That’s the core of what we do in NuOrganics.
The Four Rs of Application
TOM: Right. I often hear organic farming described as a nitrogen-limiting system. There’s just, oftentimes, not enough organic nitrogen. Whether it’s through cover crops, or whether it’s a combination of cover crops in manure or just manure, it’s hard to get enough nitrogen at the right time, in many, many cases, without significantly over-applying nitrogen.
EUGENIO: That’s correct. So, just to back up a little bit into organic agriculture and looking at the bigger picture of conventional agriculture and why organic is limited in nitrogen, that will lead me to the ammonium nitrate that you ask. If you go back probably 100 years ago, there were predictions that we wouldn’t have enough nitrogen in the world to feed and create the amount of food that we needed to feed the population, the growing population in the world. And there was, at that time, a very significant discovery of how to synthesize nitrogen out of the air chemically and make this synthetic fertilizer. It’s what we call the Haber-Bosch process. And that created what, during the 20th century, we called the Green Revolution, that we were able to feed all the world population by producing this synthetic nitrogen from the Haber-Bosch process, to the point that about half of the population in the world right now can be fed because we have nitrogen from the Haber-Bosch process. Organic agriculture avoids that. We cannot use any synthetic fertilizers, and we have to rely on recycling the naturally occurring nitrogen. So one of the issues, like you mentioned, is to have the four Rs of application, which is the right source at the right time in the right place and the right rate. That’s sometimes difficult in organic agriculture. With the process that we have, then we capture that ammonia that otherwise would be lost to the environment, creating environmental impacts. And because ammonia is a gas, then it is difficult to contain. So what we do is we bring it into a liquid, and we use microorganisms that are naturally occurring in soils, for example, in a process that is something that occurs in organic agriculture in the soil called nitrification. And we convert that nitrogen into nitrate. About half of it, we convert it to nitrate. In that way, we balance out the nitrogen in the liquid with the nitrate that we put in. That stabilizes the nitrogen and makes it no longer able to escape into the atmosphere and is something that you could deliver at the right time at the right rate as the right source. And we are recovering a resource that would be otherwise lost.
A Pathogen-Free Dry Product
EUGENIO: Because we are located just a couple miles away from the barns where the manure is produced, the manure can be transferred very quickly from the production site to the plant. When you don’t have a plant like ours, the manure has to be stored in this barn for up to six months. And when it’s stored in the barns, a lot of those reactions that the composition happens within the barn. And through the course of the six months, ammonia, which is a gas, is slowly being released out of that manure, and all that is part of the losses that create the environmental impacts. By transferring the manure quickly from the barns to the plant, then you avoid the losses of storage. You also avoid the losses that you mentioned in application because now the product that we make is stable. It’s no longer a gas, and ammonia cannot escape. So, when you put it in the soil, you would feed directly the soil and the organisms in the soil and the plant at the time. Also, it’s worth mentioning that not all the nitrogen in the manure is nitrogen that ends up in the liquid product. We also have a second product, which is dry manure, and dry manure has about half and maybe up to 60 – 70% of the original nitrogen. And that one has, also, a lot of the organic matter that comes with the manure, but it’s in a dry form. It no longer degrades, and the ammonia can no longer escape. It’s already stabilized, as well. It’s pathogen-free, which is also very important for organic agriculture. When you apply raw manure to crops, you have regulations that require that you cannot apply a manure that has pathogens to a crop that could be for direct consumption, for example, and there are time delays otherwise on the application of that manure to the field.
Also, by separating some of the nitrogen from the phosphorus and potassium that ends up in the dry product, you have the ability to apply one and the other in the right ratios. When you have all mixed in one manure, usually you have too much phosphorus compared to the needs of the crop. And you’re deficient in potassium, and you’re deficient in nitrogen. So, if you apply manure to meet the nitrogen needs of the crop, you would be over-applying phosphorus. So there are ways around that. In organic agriculture, we use crop rotations and cover crops and other sources of nitrogen to balance that equation. And this is very site-specific. In places where you might have a wet spring, and the manure that you applied earlier in the season is washed off of your soil, then you are in a condition where you don’t have enough nitrogen for the crop in that place. Our product, the liquid one, would enable you to just make up for that deficiency. It’s not meant to be the sole source of nitrogen. It’s only to balance out the equation with all the other components in organic agriculture — the cover crops, the crop rotation, the dry other manures — and has just that ability to make up for any deficiencies within season. Because it’s pathogen-free and readily available, then you can apply it at the right rate in the right place and the right time.
Precise Application for Organic Farming
TOM: Yes, I think that’s really an important distinction, that nobody is recommending this product be used for 100% of the nitrogen. We still, in organic farming, have the idea that we need to support the soil. We need to feed the soil. We need to put organic matter back into the soil. Because of tillage and other things, we’re going to lose them. So I think cover crops and animal manures are always going to be important. As you said, this is just a way of balancing out the seasonal differences and then the weather differences that we might have from some of those other organic sources.
EUGENIO: Correct. Correct, and, in the process, avoiding environmental impacts by collecting nitrogen that would’ve been lost.
TOM: Right, right. So the liquid is one part of the equation. I do have some insight to the other part, the dry. Obviously, our company helps market that dry product.
EUGENIO: And it’s pathogen-free. So you could apply it in crops that have direct consumption for humans, and you have that barrier of pathogen inactivation that we often see as a risk in organic agriculture. So, on both products, by being heat-treated, we avoid and destroy pathogens. Also, the dry product, that same heat treatment destroys other seeds or seeds of weeds and things that, when you apply it with manures, can become a problem for organic agriculture. In this case, you can apply it in a much more precise way than the raw manure. The raw manure — if you see raw manure — is clumpy. It’s wet. It’s difficult to spread. The dry product is much easier to spread. You can have a more homogeneous and precise application. It’s pathogen-free. So you have that security for your customers of your product, that you are applying something that is health-wise safe. You are also conserving that organic matter that feeds the soil and a lot of the trace nutrients that are always a benefit in manures. If you look at comparisons when, in organic agriculture, manures are applied, there’s always a very interesting boost in the yields because all the trace nutrients that come with manures, and those are preserved in the process.
TOM: So we have the liquid. We have the dry. Are they both OMRI listed at this point in time?
EUGENIO: Yes, they’re both OMRI listed, and we also have them listed at the CDFA.
Understanding Ammonia Extracts
TOM: Okay. So, a couple months ago, I had on Dr. Jerry Hatfield, and we talked about some of the things with ammonia extracts and what’s happening with the National Organic Standards Board. And I don’t want to get too deep into it, but there is some pushback on some of these products that have been termed ammonia extracts. Is that correct?
EUGENIO: Yes, that’s correct.
TOM: Okay, and so, obviously, there are two sides as there are always two sides, right? But what’s your thought on the discussion about whether they should be certified or not for organic farming?
EUGENIO: I think it is easy to lose sight that what we have is a complete manure, just split in two. And if you only focus on the ammonia extracts or, say, only on the nitrogen-heavy product — in this case, it would be our liquid — and you’re not looking into the dry, you might say, ‘Hey, you’re going to take this liquid, and you’re going to make organic agriculture very similar to conventional agriculture.’ We are capturing that nitrogen from the manures, that manures are actually encouraged in organic agriculture as one of the main sources of nitrogen and nutrients, in general, for organic agriculture. The only thing we’re doing is separating it in two, actually making it more available for organic agriculture because that nitrogen that is in the liquid would’ve been lost and never available for the organic farmer. Now, we make it. We avoid environmental impacts, which is exactly what organic agriculture wants, but we also have the dry product. And here, you have the carbon. And here, you have the phosphorus and the potassium and the micronutrients, and it’s pathogen-free. And you can apply it in the right ratios, which is an additional tool to balance that complicated equation of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, micronutrients that the organic farmer has to face all the time, considering, like we mentioned before, weather and availability sometimes to local products.
TOM: Yeah, I think that’s really important. It’s easy to kind of lose track of where this nitrogen is coming from, and that it really is coming from a manure source that, again, we are using in organic agriculture every day. So are you producing? What are you producing? I know you’re producing the dry, the VydaTilth, that we’re selling. It’s got the 4−4−3 analysis, but are you producing the liquid yet?
EUGENIO: We have produced liquid. We are not at the scales of production that we expected originally. There have been some technical issues around the production, but we have, right now, all the tools to make the leap from a small production to a larger production.
The Benefits of a Liquid Ammonium Nitrate
TOM: Well, that is exciting to hear. So I want to be careful of your time. I know that you’re busy with the plant and getting things running and keeping them going. But if you had a couple minutes with an organic farmer, what would you want them to kind of take away from this whole discussion about your liquid product, the ammonium nitrate?
EUGENIO: I would say don’t look at it only as a liquid product. There are always two sides to it. You have the dry, and you have the liquid. We split part of the nitrogen into the liquid, which enables you to have a precise application of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium independently at the right time, at the right place, at the right rate. So it is the ultimate nutrient stewardship, the four Rs of nutrient stewardship for protecting the environment. This is the product, and you are helping to use local resources. You are also helping to protect the environment by collecting something that otherwise would be lost, and you can apply it at rates that would minimize any other impacts. It’s also pathogen-free, which gives you peace of mind if your crops are direct consumption for the population.
TOM: Well, Eugenio, thank you today. It’s been a pleasure interviewing you and getting to know more about your process. Eugenio Giraldo, founding member of NuOrganics, thank you. And hopefully, we can get an update when you start producing your liquid and we get a little further down the road.
EUGENIO: Thank you, Tom. Thank you for having me, and thank you for the opportunity to share experiences with you.
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