by Angela Criser, CFO, 3fold Communications
Forget the latest app release or newest social media platform. Some of the most innovative work in tech is happening in industries that seem as far removed as one can possibly get from Silicon Valley and its legions of coders.
Here in the Sacramento region, the agricultural industry is a major driver of the economy, not to mention producing a huge portion of the nation’s produce. Until recently, though, I’ll admit I hadn’t given much thought to its role in the tech industry. In fact, thanks to some innovative thinkers and startups, technology is currently redefining the future of farming—and tackling some major issues along the way such as food waste, soil depletion, and ground water pollution to name just a few.
One company that’s creating it’s own solution is West Sacramento-based California Safe Soil (CSS). Founded by brothers Daniel and David Morash in 2011, the company uses enzymes to convert supermarket food waste into an organic fertilizer called Harvest-to-Harvest™. The process takes only three hours and this is kind of a big deal, especially in creating a beneficial use for organic waste.
With consumers demanding unblemished, fresh produce, many retailers end up throwing away a massive amount of food. In fact, according to the US Department of Agriculture, a full 10 percent of the available food supply in the US is wasted at the retail level. According to CSS, on average, a single supermarket produces one ton of food waste every four days. With CSS’s process, this generates enough fertilizer to cover four-acres of farmland for a year instead of adding to a landfill.
Mark Bauer, Director of Business Development for CSS, and an upcoming speaker at SARTA’s TechEdge event on June 5, was kind enough to give me an inside look at the West Sacramento pilot facility to see the process for myself.
It all starts with the collection. The waste is expired produce and meat which partner grocery stores load into insulated totes (basically large blue coolers on wheels). Grocery stores usually have to pay to have waste hauled away to landfills, but Safe Soil collects it for free in refrigerated trucks. This ensures the food waste stay fresh—as well as the plant’s air quality.
To turn food waste into liquid fertilizer, CSS runs the organic material through a grinder then uses heat, enzymes and mechanical action to pull the nutrients from food. Finally, the liquid product goes to be pasteurized for food safety (with methods producing options for both conventional and organic farming) while the leftover solids, suitable feed for swine and poultry, are sold to a local sustainable pork producer as a replacement for commercial soy feeds.
The process is all-inclusive. “Everything ends up somewhere,” said Bauer. “Nothing goes down the tube.”
Currently, the product is being used primarily in the Central Valley, but has trials happening throughout the state, up to Washington, down to Arizona, and even in some greenhouses in Holland. However, as every tech company knows, getting from the startup phase to being a full-scale, commercially viable business is a major hurdle, especially in an industry whose customers are slow to change and reluctant to try new products.
“Growers don’t open up a journal, read the information and say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll order some of that,’” said Bauer. “They already believe they’re doing the best thing possible, so you have to go in and find growers that will say, ‘Yeah, I’ll try something different.’”
So how is CSS doing this? Bauer says it about providing materials to growers so they can experiment. So they can say, “Yeah, this does work for me. This is better/easier/smarter solution.”
And the timing is right. While growers still use chemical nitrogen fertilizers in conventional agriculture, Bauer says they’re looking to supplement and figure out how to stop the soil depletion and, in fact, reverse the process, not to mention find better solutions for farming during droughts and reducing ground water pollution. “Agriculture is growing up. They’re starting to recognize that they can’t continue to deplete the soil.”
Beyond building the customer base, startups must also create a strong supply chain and operate in a facility that can handle demand. CSS is currently making headway in both, having recently signed a 10-year deal with Savemart and Nugget to receive their food waste and moving into a commercial plant at McClellan Business Park by the end of the year.
Founder Daniel Morash certainly believes CSS is on the right path, and sees endless opportunity, especially in locations like California producing high-value crops like almonds and strawberries. Additionally, he has his eye on expanding the supply side of the business to include green waste from the agricultural customers buying the Harvest-to-Harvest™ product.
For him, success hinges on timing and patience, especially in an industry with purchase cycles tied to crop growth seasons. “It’s something where we have a lot of opportunity to grow the business. It takes time to get out in the market,” Morash said. “It’s a great market, but you have to start someplace.”