AQUA Innovations’ hopes for a breakthrough technology depend largely on the experience of a farm in northwestern Wisconsin.
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Before making their pitch to Wisconsin farmers, company investors started working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to come up with a more efficient way for dairy operators to obtain permits for this installation, and they are pursuing additional laws to streamline permitting. “There are a lot of moving parts with the way the law currently reads,” Lenzendorf notes. “First and foremost, the DNR has been really, really good at staying on top of this subject and making sure they are available to expedite the permits right now because it’s such a valuable thing to the state of Wisconsin.
“In the future, yes, we want to shore up the permitting process and make it more efficient,” Lenzendorf adds, “but then equally as exciting is to have the farmers have the ability to use the super-nutrient water without the pathogens and without the phosphorous, through a center pivot.”
The technology’s liquid/solid partitioning system helps farmers produce pure, dischargeable wastewater — claiming zero environmental impact — plus a bedding replacement, compost materials, and the aforementioned nutrient-rich organic fertilizer that resembles tea water. This water contains approximately 1 to 2% of the phosphorous of raw manure but retains nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium as part of a liquid fertilizer that is easy to pump and irrigate on farm fields.
Anyone who has driven around rural areas of the state has seen large irrigation systems on wheels. They operate with a center pivot and spray water and nitrogen onto the fields. For environmental reasons, it’s been very difficult for farmers to get permission to have anything labeled agricultural waste — in other words, manure — sprayed with the help of a center pivot because of the aeration of pathogens. “Studies have shown that pathogens can travel up to 14 miles and make people sick, so it’s always been a nonstarter with the state, and rightfully so,” Lenzendorf notes. “But now that we can eliminate those pathogens and make sure there
is no phosphorous, we can use only the good nutrients — nitrogen and potassium — during the growing season.”
One of the bills under consideration essentially would allow farmers to use the center pivot to spread AQUA Innovations’ nutrient water if pathogens are removed
beforehand. By “removed,” Lenzendorf means virtually eliminated because the
process cannot completely remove everything, but it can virtually eliminate the pathogens in manure and then allow farmers to use the remaining nitrogen and potassium during the entire growing season, which he called a paradigm shift
for the dairy operators.
Not only does the removal of pathogens tame an odor-causing air pollutant, but also the remaining nutrients still increase crop production by 20%. “It’s really exciting for the dairy operator and for the state because even traditional farmers are going more organic,” Lenzendorf notes, “and because we know that when the soil is alive with these nutrients, it’s a really important catalyst for growth — instead of chemicals.
“There are two schools of thought on crop growth,” Lenzendorf adds. “One is the use of chemicals and one is the use of nutrients that always have been from cow manure, but we don’t like the term cow manure anymore. By the time it goes through our system, it’s really not cow manure anymore. It’s nitrogen, potassium, and then distilled water.”
For the DNR, the distilled water produced in the NuWay process is sometimes not the best solution for waterways in Dane County, and the agency will require AQUA Innovations to add calcium back into the distilled water before it’s discharged back into the Yahara River watershed so that it mirrors the composition of the watershed. “Some areas are a little bit different that way,” Lenzendorf notes, “but it’s not problematic.”
With the fall elections approaching, the Wisconsin Legislature is out of session, but AQUA Innovations personnel will be traveling around the state to not only educate lawmakers and would-be legislators, but also educate other community leaders on what this technology could mean for the state, for dairy operators, and the environment. In addition to starting a conversation with a global audience at World Dairy Expo this fall, they hope to lay the groundwork for bipartisan support of updated permitting legislation in time for the next legislative session, which will start in January of 2019.
Asked when AQUA Innovations would have to scale up its manufacturing facility
in Sharon, Wisconsin, located 12 miles east of Beloit, to accommodate new business, Lenzendorf cited the third quarter of 2018. The company now is hiring as many welders as it can to upgrade capacity at the plant. “That’s kind of the unsung story here with the company,” he notes. “We’re a small manufacturer and we’re hiring as many people as we possibly can to make sure our production remains on schedule.”
It sounds incredible now, but there was a time when the business principals thought they might have to move AQUA Innovations out of state to woo investors. Agricultural interests in California were interested in bringing the company out west, which would have been a painful step.
The partners took over the business in 2016 from the family of the late Richard “Doc” Heins, the former CEO of CUNA Mutual Group who originally developed the technology. In the early 1990s, Dr. Heins identified the trend of expanding farms and herd size, and he knew it would have negative environmental impacts. Heins also was a professor at the UW–Madison School of Business, where he taught risk management and insurance and business law for more than 30 years. He invested roughly $15 million in developing the nutrient management technology that eventually became NuWay.
Since taking ownership, the current investment group has committed another $4 million. For Lenzendorf, an out-of-state move would have been a travesty, especially given the fact that a visionary with strong ties to Madison had developed the technology and that it’s truly a “Wisconsin Idea.” Fortunately, local investors stepped up and the company began to make permitting headway with the DNR.
Richardson is one farmer who is glad they did. While he hedges on sales pitches to other farms until the technology does what he believes it will, Richardson remains pretty confident that this newly
installed technology will be well worth the investment. In fact, he speaks in glowing terms about its state, national, and global potential.
“This could be a big game-changer in the way we handle manure in the dairy industry in the state of Wisconsin and the country and possibly everywhere,” he states. “In places that have a water deficit, they will able to reuse this water, and in places where we have too much water, as is the case here in Wisconsin, we’ll be able to concentrate those nutrients and keep our water clean and use the other water as fertilizer.
“The benefits are far-reaching. I’m really excited about it.”
Another keenly interested observer is James Tye, executive director of the Madison-based Clean Lakes Alliance, which has worked with various stakeholders, including farmers, to divert phosphorus from the Yahara Watershed. He views the NuWay technology as a positive development, but he wants to see existing manure management practices continue. “There are a lot of farmers out there trying to up their game on conservation efforts, but this would be something to add to the mix because you’re still going to
have to do the conservation practices like buffer strips to keep the soil in place,” he notes. “There’s no one magic bullet.”
Tye notes the Greater Madison community is at the beginning stages of a transformational shift in how it interacts with local lakes, and the NuWay manure management technology could help advance the ball. “We’ve already done it with recycling, we’ve done it with biking, and we’ve done it with nonsmoking policies,” Tye notes. “All of these things have been transformational shifts in our community, and we’re several years into this transformational shift in how we interact with