Ag technology helps farms and lakes co-exist

The ability to reclaim millions of gallons of manure as distilled water is a remarkable benefit of a new technology that strikes a balance between a farmer’s need to expand and the public’s need for clean water.

Can Aqua Innovations and its novel manure management technology restore lakes here and throughout the state?

That’s the strong conviction of a high-powered local business partnership that includes former Gov. Tommy Thompson and Green Bay Packers legend Frank Winters as they work to develop the agricultural manufacturing business. By the time the 2018 World Dairy Expo wraps up in early October, a global audience will have first-hand knowledge of the ecological and economic benefits of the technology, which is being marketed as the NuWay nutrient management system.

First up, however, is the commissioning of a NuWay system on a farm outside of Spring Valley, Wis., located between Eau Claire and the Twin Cities. After several installations, including one seven years ago on an organic farm in the state of Oregon, it promises to be yet another proving ground. Interested people are coming from as far away as California, and Brazil’s minister of agriculture has expressed an interest in attending, as well.

For company President Chris Lenzendorf and his partners, who have spent the past 16 months developing the business and courting investors, it’s an exciting time. “It’s a true Wisconsin success story,” Lenzendorf states. “It’s a Wisconsin idea.”

Fracturing fertilizer

If widely adopted by large dairy operations, Aqua Innovations’ NuWay technology will change the way farmers handle cow manure. The brand promise of this particular technology is that it can help farmers manage manure in a more cost effective, environmentally friendly, and customizable way. In essence, it’s a nutrient management system that uses a mechanical separation process to remove 100% of the suspended solids and 99% of the phosphorus from manure, produce biodegradable byproducts that allow spreading throughout the growing season, and reclaim some of the manure as distilled water.

The system prevents manure from making its way to the watershed with the use of holding tanks. Once the solids are removed, the system sends byproducts to holding tanks, and farmers take what Lenzendorf calls “super-nutrient water” that resembles tea water and use it to make their soil more fertile. The tanks are pumped through a center pivot, which takes the nutrient water out to farm fields and diverts it away from the watershed.

While removing phosphorus, which is public enemy number one for the Yahara Watershed, 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 phosphorus 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.

The system uses a reverse osmosis process to reclaim 50% of the water in manure as pure distilled water, which then is safe enough to return to the watershed with some modifications to mirror the composition of local waterways. According to Lenzendorf, reclaimed water is the most exciting prospect of the technology because it’s actually cleaner than the tap water available to Wisconsin residents.

Also among NuWay’s touted benefits is that it reduces storage and hauling costs (placing less stress on local roads), minimizes odors, and is supported by round-the-clock monitoring by Aqua Innovations.

The company’s initial focus will be on large farms because of their herd size and the fact that one dairy cow produces 33 gallons of cow manure per day, leading to millions of gallons of waste produced in Wisconsin alone. The inability to keep this farm waste from entering local waterways has led to excessive levels of phosphorus in local rivers and lakes, stimulating the growth of toxic algae, impairing water quality, suffocating fish and other aquatic life, and undermining local economies.

One keenly interested observer is James Tye, executive director of the Clean Lakes Alliance, which has worked with various stakeholders, including farmers, to divert phosphorus from the Yahara Watershed. “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. “We’ve already done it with recycling, we’ve done it with biking, and we’ve done it with nonsmoking policies,” he notes. “All of these have been transformational shifts in our community, and we’re several years into this transformational shift in how we interact with our lakes.”



Partners in progress

Aqua Innovations and its factory are based in Sharon, Wis., about 12 miles east of Beloit, but the majority of the partners are in Madison. In addition to Thompson, Winters, and Lenzendorf, also spearheading the venture is Mike Herl, managing broker and partner with Madison Commercial Real Estate Development, who will serve as general contractor for the buildings necessary to house the installations.

Under the NuWay system, the manure goes into an on-site facility — to be built by Cleary Building Corp. of Madison — and that is where the solids are removed and dried. Sean Cleary, president of Cleary Building Systems, is an investor and a member of Aqua Innovations’ board of directors.

In 2016, the partners took over the business 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 the nutrient management technology that became NuWay. Since taking ownership, the current investment group has committed another $4 million.

One of their challenges was developing an affordable way for farmers to utilize NuWay. Depending on the size of the farm, the NuWay system costs anywhere from $600,000 to $3 million to install, but Aqua Innovations has built a platform that handles everything from permitting, to the construction of the facility to house the system, to the remote monitoring of phosphorus removal. Instead of paying $400,000 here or $600,000 there in capital costs, farmers can lease the system for 10 years and pay a flat monthly rate of about $35,000 to $38,000 with a maintenance fee included. So instead of spending about $70,000 per month for waste management, they can now pay roughly half that cost and reduce storing costs, have no significant hauling expenses, no upfront capital expenditures, and Aqua staffers monitor the system and troubleshoot remotely.

“They can lease it for 10 years with no cap-ex up front, so if you think about it from a milk producer’s standpoint, they know they are going to have $14.70 per hundredweight [for their milk], and they are going to have about $1 million per month in revenue,” Lenzendorf notes. “It’s great money but then it’s chipped away, chipped away, and chipped away by various expenses. So now we’re going to ask them for another $3 million to install our technology? Pretty soon, they aren’t in very good shape.”

As a result of the service platform and leasing model, Lenzendorf believes the company has not only established an affordable solution for farmers, but also a sustainable business model for the company.

World Dairy exposure

Dane County hopes to install the system at the site of its second digester, located just outside of Middleton in the town of Springfield, in time for demonstration tours during World Dairy Expo, set for Oct. 2–6. The company notes that manure digesters remove about 60% of the phosphorus found in manure, but the NuWay system achieves near 100% removal.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi believes the technology will save farmers money in hauling costs and save wear and tear on town roads, a source of contention in rural communities. “So on the phosphorus side, the economics of it, and the relationship with neighbors, this is all positive for farmers,” Parisi says.

Combined with county dredging projects that remove phosphorus muck that has accumulated on the beds of local waterways and results in substantial reductions in phosphorus levels, Parisi believes the widespread adoption of this technology will lead to dramatic qualitative improvement over time.

“No matter how much work we’re doing on the farm fields now, unless we remove that muck, we’re going to see very limited progress [in reducing phosphorus levels],” Parisi notes. “Once we get that stuff out of the system, combined with efforts such as nutrient concentration and the other work we’re doing with farmers across the county, we will see improvement in the phosphorus area.

“Now, it’s still going to take years,” Parisi adds. “One of our challenges is that we need to be realistic with our expectations. We will be reducing phosphorus, and we will see better water, but it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re still looking at a decades-long approach, but this will pay off for our kids.”

Also excited about the prospects for the technology is Sean Cleary, president of Cleary Building Corp. He is enthusiastic not only because his firm will construct the buildings that house the NuWay system, but also because he believes it addresses intractable problems.

“On every large dairy farm, there is potential that this will not only be ecological, but also economical because it will save money with manure waste and also be friendly to the environment, especially where you have neighbors that complain about the odor,” Cleary states. “Plus, again, there’s the water runoff. We have enough pollution issues with our lakes and streams, so this is a potential game-changer.”

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