Farmers have a big stinky problem: what to do with the poo of their animals?
A single dairy cow can produce a human’s body weight in manure every day – and there are 11 million cattle in Canada. Add waste from other farm animals such as pigs and you have a sea of manure to deal with. With few other options, farmers have tended to store this waste in football field-sized lagoons before spreading it on their fields.
But in this murky mud, water treatment experts Karen Schuett and Ross Thurston saw an opportunity. In the late 2000s, they began building a system of machines capable of turning animal waste into clean water, concentrated fertilizers and feedstock to make renewable natural gas, which can be used as fuel.
After several years of developing this technology, the company they founded, Livestock water recycling, is currently experiencing rapid growth. It has customers across North America as growing demand for protein collides with growing awareness of the environmental impact of agriculture. We spoke to CEO Karen Schuett about how manure lagoons are liquid gold.
How did we get to manure lagoons?
Lagoons have historically been used as a means of storing waste before farmers circulate it over their crops as fertilizer. It worked for many years, but the problem is meeting the growing demand for protein. Farmers have to add animals and then they don’t have enough space to spread the manure. There is very little technology available to help. So the farms are just stuck with these huge lagoons that stink up their land.
Have farmers adopted your innovation?
The road was bumpy. Farmers are entrepreneurs and they are pretty good early adopters, but it has to make economic sense. Initially, we thought everyone would want clean drinking water. Then we realized the farmers had to get their money back on that. We realized we could do it with fertilizers and renewable natural gas. Farmers can either sell the renewable natural gas they produce or use it on their farms. It was a great pivot, because renewable natural gas is a great way for them to make money – more money than milk, potentially.
You started your career cleaning up oil pollution. How did you go from that to that?
My co-founder Ross Thurston and I had worked together for years to clean up much of the oil pollution in North America. A local pig farm in Alberta contacted us and needed help with this manure lagoon. We naively thought it sounded like cleaning diesel. In the end, everyone in our company was working on manure testing and sampling – the smells were intense. We realized that manure is not just a North American problem. It’s everywhere. Every cattle farm on the planet is doing the same thing. So it’s a huge market.
What was the hardest part of developing your technology?
Take a water treatment system that looks like something for a municipality and put it on a farm to be operated by someone who doesn’t deal in water treatment. We soon discovered that farmers didn’t want bells and whistles, they wanted something easy and that would work all the time. We’re on version four of our technology as we scale, which is a great place – you don’t want to scale with version one of your technology and not have it working.
Your company was in business for about a decade before it really started to take off. What advice did you receive that you’re glad you ignored now?
People said stay in your lane — you don’t know farming. But sometimes you have to get out of your lane. Of course, we made mistakes on how you would apply something in a farm versus how you would apply it in a town. But I maintain that we learned everything from the farmers and were very receptive to everything they taught us. At times it was brutal, but we considered it such a gift that people would comment to us on where we missed the mark.
You are clearly an expert at seeing the money in the trash. How do the rest of us get out of our disposable lifestyles?
We may say we want recycling and reuse, but if it costs more, we may be reluctant to do it. If we can create these valuable opportunities from plastics, food waste or manure, then it becomes easier to start moving forward. Currently, we are working on renewable natural gas that can be used without problems in gas pipelines. It’s molecule for identical molecule, so there aren’t a ton of new things that need to be learned to create that value. Bringing something renewable or recyclable where we don’t have to put in a whole new infrastructure is the kind of thing where we can create value. But I’m really optimistic that the waste recovery market is booming. We have never been so busy.
How to get excited before a big meeting?
I am a classic over-preparer. It’s very important that you bring the right energy when you talk about manure — we bring a sense of humor to everything we do. I also have a Spotify list to access my area. There’s a lot of female empowerment music out there.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Disclaimer This content has been produced in partnership and therefore may not meet the standards of impartial or independent journalism.