One Dairy's Work with Waste Leads to New Revenue Streams
Farmers and ranchers have long proven abilities to hit curveballs thrown at them attempting to disrupt their operations.
A New England producer faced new rules for disposing of waste from a family dairy farm.
How they handled the challenge is this week’s Cover Story.
Here’s John Torpy.
The fall foliage in Northwest Connecticut provides an idyllic backdrop for Freund’s Farms, a dairy operation where the management practices are designed to ensure the family farm’s future.
Matthew Freund, Owner and Operator, Freund Farms: “New England is a tough spot to milk cows. There's just, our costs are much higher than the rest of the nation.”
Matthew Freund is the second generation working on this operation rooted in the rolling hills of Canaan, Connecticut. Freund’s father, Eugene, started the operation with sustainability in mind. When Matthew and his brother Benjamin took over the dairy, they continued using the same sustainable mindset.
Matthew Freund, Owner and Operator, Freund Farms: “We've always been astute to the fact that there's other things that have to happen to make the dairy stay solvent.”
Facing new manure disposal regulations, the Freund brothers decided to turn a potential negative into a positive. They took the manure from their 300-head dairy and used it to generate additional revenue by building one of New England’s first anaerobic digesters.
The methane captured from the manure is burned to heat water, the barns and their family home. The pasteurized liquids are sprayed back on fields as fertilizer, reducing input costs for the farm.
Matthew Freund, Owner and Operator, Freund Farms: “Okay, so what do you do with it? At the end of the digester, you really didn't change your nutrient load. You made some methane and you converted some of your nitrogen to a more readily available, uh, chemical. But you still haven't changed anything. You still have all that nutrient. So at first we started to try to sell it for compost and that didn't work out so well because my next door neighbor, who milks four times as many cows as I do, was selling compost as well. ”
The brothers continued to search for a use for the manure solids. Around 2001, while attending a local farm cooperative annual meeting, an official from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture suggested making flower pots out of the manure
Matthew Freund, Owner and Operator, Freund Farms: “And I thought about that for a little bit and then came home and started doing some research and just spent an enormous amount of time looking to see how I could make a pot out of cow manure.”
With a little outside help, the Freunds finally came up with a working model and a plan for marketing what are now known as CowPots.
Amanda Freund, Sales and Marketing, CowPots: “You're taking this pot as it is and you're setting the whole thing in the ground.”
Amanda Freund is the third generation to work on the family dairy and currently holds the sales and marketing reins for CowPots.
Amanda Freund, Sales and Marketing, CowPots: “This is awesome for me, like just, to like, be able to be reminded and to have the firsthand experience in our own market garden here. That this is a parsley plant that went in the ground in June with the pot intact. We didn't score or crush it, we just put it in the ground as a full pot. And you can see there was absolutely nothing preventing the roots from growing right through that pot wall. And you can see, look at all these grubs I've got here. Hey, Mister, come here.”
She also helps out at Freund’s Farm Market and Bakery, a storefront business run by her mother. Amanda notes proper land stewardship and economic opportunities are working hand in hand on the farm.
Amanda Freund, Sales and Marketing, CowPots: “Being able to generate revenue from producing CowPots, which are these biodegradable pots from our cows manure that we then get to use in our farm market garden center. And so the manure from the dairy is then formed in the cow pots at our cow pots factory and then used to grow plants for our farm market. So it's a synergy of these three businesses all being able to work together.”
CowPots footprint has grown from supporting gardens in New England states, to supplying gardeners with compostable flower pots nationwide. Some of Freund’s products can be found in Des Moines, Iowa, at the city’s Downtown Farmers Market.
Jana Erickson, Owner, Wit’s End Gardens: “I wanted something that disappeared…”
Jana Erickson is owner of Wits End Gardens. Her business specializes in growing perennials for pollinators. When she started selling flowers at the Farmer’s Market in 2015, she was having a difficult time deciding how to pot her flowers.
Jana Erickson, Owner, Wit’s End Gardens: “I'm not even sure how I found cow pots, it's cow cow poop, which is like the best thing in the world for our plants. It is beyond sustainable. Um, cuz when I tell people, you know, I'm like, you know, their day job is making ice cream and cottage cheese, but their side work is, you know, pooping and, and you're never gonna run out of cow poop.”
Erickson believes the biodegradable flower pots have improved her plants, her sales, and her mission.
Jana Erickson, Owner, Wit’s End Gardens: “I'm not, I am not selling a plant just so I can sell the plant, make money. I'm selling the plant so you have a beautiful plant in your garden and the pollinators are gonna come, so therefore it has to live and grow. Right? And I, to me, that's a point of pride.”
To carry on the tradition of maximizing potential while remaining sustainable, the Freund’s decided to sell their herd last September to a young producer looking to get started in the dairy business. Their focus is now on their storefront and CowPots production.
Benjamin Freund, Owner, CowPots: “You know, we have a lot of farms with very mature leaders on those farms and that farm needs to get to the next, next generation in order to to keep a actually a vibrant vision on that farm. Because if you're trying to stick with people my age, you're kind of gettin’ stuck, I want to I don't say in a rut or that all people my age don't have any place to go, but the vision of someone in their 60s versus someone in their 20s is vastly different. So we’ve been searching for the right individual to kinda come in and take over the cows and we were finally successful at just the beginning of last month. And it was a very long process and I think a very good process and I think the prospects for making milk in Connecticut are brighter with these young people coming up and through.”
For Market to Market, I’m John Torpy.