How one firm mined gardening gold from old farmyard waste
Slurry is a costly inconvenience for farmers but a Cork scientist's brainwave turned it into a big earner, writes Tom Prendeville
Farmyard slurry waste and manure costs a lot of money to dispose of and with cash in tight supply, farmers often have to temporarily store it on their land until they have the cash to cart it away; which produces its own dilemmas, namely accidental leakages into the local water supply.
However, west Cork-based scientist Tony Grubert had the brainwave of transforming a huge and expensive problem into a potentially very big earner.
Last March, he set up the Celtic Worm Company, which buys farmyard waste and uses the services of the Tiger Worm to eat the waste and transform it via their digestive system into rich, pro-biotic compost, which is highly valued as a fertiliser.
The fledgling Bantry-based company has signed up 40 local farmers – who are delighted with the extra income – and is now producing a range of unique products.
Explaining the business idea, Grubert says: "Basically we are turning a liability into an asset. We are currently producing six tonnes a day and our main product is Celtic Gold multi-purpose compost, which comes in a 50-litre bag.
"We also do Celtic Gold Extra, which has extra nutrients and minerals; it is very strong and is sold in bulk to commercial growers. We also do Liquid Gold, which is fabulous for bringing on plants. There has been phenomenal demand from growers of all kinds, from gardening centres to horticultural growers. We now plan to start exporting, starting with the UK market first and then elsewhere.
"There is a huge team of people involved; we have five staff and 40 part-time staff; farmers who are all shareholders in the company. They bought into the project together and showed us tremendous support from the word go. We really could not have done it without them," added Grubert.
As an industrial scientist and lecturer in Sustainable Technology, Grubert was always very passionate about the environment.
In 2010, he decided to leave the classroom behind him and put his environmental business theories to the test.
Over the next three years, he engaged Professor Peter Jones, a specialist in Plant Science in the School of Earth and Environmental Science, UCC, who studied the properties of worm cast (droppings).
They noted that root systems fed on the cast were 60 per cent bigger with the above-ground plants almost double their normal size. The chief researcher, Tara Duggan, an Environmental Scientist, was so impressed with the results that she later went to work with the fledgling Celtic Worm Company.
Knowing that he had a winning product, Grubert had to raise €600,000 to get his business up and running and fund the construction of a 5,000 square foot wormery for a one million-strong army of Tiger Worms.
Fortunately, local farmers were very enthusiastic. The local Bank of Ireland in Bantry also offered a business loan and was generally very supportive.
When slurry arrives at the Celtic Worm Company facility, it has to be pasteurised first and made safe for the Tiger Worms to eat; a process that involves dewatering the slurry. Air is then blown through the damp mixture, which encourages microbes to breed and multiply. In the process the material naturally heats up, which encourages more microbes. After several weeks the mix is ready.
"The bacteria does most of the work and when it is pasteurised and ready for the worm beds there is no smell of decay – it is really nice and sweet," explains Grubert.
Under the nitrogen cap laws, farmers are only allowed to spread a thin veneer of slurry and manure on their land with any excess waste having to be disposed of.
Due to the fact that farmyard manure and slurry is classified as a hazardous bio-waste, the removal costs can be quite hefty.
"The costs can be anything from €1,000 upwards. One local pig farmer's cost was in the region of €20,000 a year – admittedly, he is the exception."
There is also another hidden cost for farmers; when slurry is spread on the land, cows and sheep can't graze there.
"With no waste you can put more cows and sheep on the land. You can also sell any excess manure so it is a win situation," added Grubert.
Local farmer Tom Coppinger, who is a shareholder in the business, is quietly confident that his farmyard waste can now turn a tidy profit.
"It seems like a great idea to get rid of the dung and turn it into compost because there is a market for compost. I plan to seed some ground with Liquid Gold. It is supposed to be very helpful so we will see how that works out."