Current agribusiness practices have caused numerous problems in our food supply. Common among them is sludge waste management, which in the age of factory farming is having some devastating effects.
The system looks like this:
Hundreds to thousands of livestock are raised in close conditions.
The livestock waste is collected inputs and lagoons which emit greenhouse gases.
Lagoons are then pumped or driven miles and miles and miles until…,
It is sprayed (uncomposted) over the soil where…,
The runoff is contaminating groundwater, streams, and wildlife.
But beyond the obvious design flaws, there are additional impacts on our health, our economy, and our environment. By laying out the problems of our current sludge waste management, we hope to convince you the industry is long overdue for innovation and show you how you can be a part of that innovation.
Problem #1: Sludge Waste is Costly to Manage
Distributing waste sludge the way the industry does it today is expensive. First, a large tanker or applicator is loaded with sludge for land application on nearby crops. Then, the rig meanders along row after row of soil either injecting or spraying a thick mist of the watered-down excrement hoping it’s evenly applied. The cost to distribute waste like this is enormous including diesel fuel, labor, and equipment costs to boot.
Specifically, it will cost farmers on average 2.5 cents per gallon. Each liquified manure truck holds approximately 5,000 gallons, meaning it costs the farmer at least $125 per load to spray.
Paul explains, “When you start adding up the costs for a facility that produces over 8,000,000 gallons of liquid manure, it winds up being around $200,000 for a farmer just to move some poop.”
Problem #2: Sludge Waste Stinks
The problem is so bad it’s driving property values down in surrounding communities. People are suffering from airborne illnesses and respiratory complications. Some homeowners report entire sides of their homes are covered in spray, multiple times a day.
Could you imagine what it’s like having poop sprayed on your house, seeping into your walls?
We can’t either.
Related: Manure Spraying Under Scrutiny
Even with these awful instances, over 100,000 square miles of land are being “used” in this way in Iowa alone creating nearly unlivable conditions for people outside of the agriculture community (and even those inside).
Some farmers are beginning to pay legal fines for their impact, this one, Smithfield dinged $50M for damage to their neighbor. Smithfield is in ongoing litigation on multiple cases.
Problem #3: Sludge Waste Disposal Doesn’t Match Cropping Schedules
Waste sludge application needs often do not match farmers cropping schedules.
What does that mean?
“Weather is a huge factor for liquid manure application. To ensure it’s disinfected properly and has enough time to absorb into the soil before planting, you must allow the manure to sit for extended periods in the sun,” says our Co-Founder Russell Vering.
As we all know, the weather is extremely unpredictable and that’s the problem. “When the weather plays into harvest or planting, it creates urgency for manure application. For example, you know you need to apply manure, but frost is coming soon, or it looks like it’s going to rain, then all of a sudden you’re scrambling. Now you have to do it quickly all inside of a couple of days or a couple of weeks or even a one month window, twice a year,” explains Viroment partner Russell Vering.
That short window of time may not be optimal for the farmers’ fields.
Paul adds, “You can’t spread this stuff when crops are in the field, you have to spread it when the crops are not in the field. In the spring, the farmers want to get into the fields as quickly as possible so that they have more crop growing time. At the end of the year, there’s only so much time before the snow or the freeze comes. Since you can’t spray when it’s frozen (which is illegal in most areas) there’s only a short two extremely short windows a year to fertilize.”
Nature is a tough yet fickle mistress who will not be toyed with long term. Try ignoring any of her rules and a price will be paid. “That’s what happened this last year, we had record rains from Florence which resulted in massive flooding. Where did all that waste on the ground and in lagoons go? It got flooded everywhere which resulted in lawsuits because the health and environmental impact was extremely negative.”
Problem #4: Sludge Spraying Tractors Cause Soil Compaction
The tractors that lug around liquid manure weigh an average 150,000 pounds. Driving these tractors on cropland causes soil compaction—a farmer’s enemy.
Soil compaction limits drainage and water absorption, making it difficult to irrigate farms. Compacted soil also makes it difficult for delicate sprouts to extend their roots and absorb the necessary nutrients they need to thrive.
Problem #5: Sludge Manure Potency is Inconsistent
Since liquid manure is typically collected for months to years before it’s sent to the field, it’s almost impossible to know the concentration of the end product when it’s mixed with more water and added to tankers.
Because farmers are largely unaware of what’s in the tank they follow conventional wisdom—spray more just in case the potency is low and ensure that your soil is properly fertilized for a rich crop.
The problem is that potency is not able to be monitored amongst loads resulting in an application which more potent than what the field needs. Too many nitrates can burn crops and damage them, they can also runoff into nearby fields and cause damage to the local environment. Runoff full of nitrate creates large scale environmental problems and the main proponent of algae issues plaguing so many waterways.
“Today’s cropping plan is all Precision Ag[riculture],” shares Russell. “Precision Ag is taking traditional fertilizer (manmade), and prescribing it to an acre-by-acre basis. Farmers like to know all of their inputs to an exact science so they’ll have an agronomist grid the field. That way, if there’s high ground or low ground or the pH is off, they can turn up or turn down fertilization levels according to GPS. But with liquid pig manure they spread a solution that’s inconsistent, which results in over-fertilization.”
Problem #6: People Breathe In Hydrogen Sulfides From Underground Manure
There’s either one of two things on a standard protein farm; (1) either a pit underneath the barn, (2) or an outside lagoon, or both. Those pits and lagoons are emitting hydrogen sulfide and ammonia year-round which the livestock and laborers are breathing.
Hydrogen sulfide exposure causes acute nausea, conjunctivitis, headache, and respiratory inflammation. With long exposures, hydrogen sulfide can cause death—a huge hazard that’s not being appropriately addressed for the workers or pigs.
“When you have a barn with a lot of gases, it ultimately is presenting a tremendous health concern to the workers. They also affect the immune system of the pig. It causes stress and gives them more of an opportunity to get sick. Relaxed, unstressed pigs put on weight and grow faster so the industry is all about de-stressing,” says Paul.
Problem #7: Sludge Waste Has High Carbon Emissions
“The problem with all the carbon emissions, the greenhouse gases, is two fold,” Russ explains. “Number one is that because these pits or lagoons are gassing off all the time, year round. Then secondly, you have the carbon emissions that are generated by the tractor when you’re hauling these loads of sludge to the fields for field disposal or application.”
According to ScienceDirect,”The average emissions from lagoons ranged from 30 to 126 kg/hectare of methane per day.” That’s the same emissions as if you decided to burn 309 gallons of gasoline. When these lagoons sit for months to years, they become a huge contributor to the overall climate changes we’re currently experiencing.
It’s Time For Innovation in Sludge Waste Management
As more open-minded people try impossible burgers and plant-based foods, increasingly more people will be demanding clean and sustainable food sources that are good for our health and environment.
“We talk to farmers every day who want a cost-effective way to deal with this problem,” said Russ and Paul. “They’re not excited about being pariahs in their communities, they want to be aligned and contributing.”
Viroment’s tech eliminates the multiple problems with sludge waste by: :
Lowering costs of managing waste
Creating profit center from our pelletized dry waste
Reducing carbon emissions in two ways (no open storage, or hauling emissions)
Recycling water from waste and leaving fresh water in the water table
Removing odor and contaminants from the air
Making fertilization measurable and precise with pelleted fertilizer
Making animal farmers friends with their neighbors again
Viroment is expanding rapidly, currently accepting investors, partnering with farmers and planning to install their clean-smelling barns across rural and agricultural America.