The Manure Sharing Economy
You have a car and want to make money. I need a ride. Uber and Lyft are born. Before these “sharing economy” services, the excess capacity in your car was basically worthless.
You have a spare bedroom and I need a place to stay that’s cheaper than a hotel. Airbnb and Homeaway to the rescue! Now this spare bedroom can by monetized through the “sharing economy” rather than requiring a long term lease with a roommate.
The sharing economy exists to connect demand to excess capacity.
Could this same principle be applied to manure and other sources of crop nutrients?
Jason Mauck brings up this point as a guest on the “Future of Agriculture” Podcast.
There certainly are parallels between agricultural waste streams and other problems solved by the sharing economy.
Manure, food waste, and other by-products contain valuable crop and soil nutrients that farmers pay big money for in the form of commercial fertilizer.
Meanwhile, this excess capacity is often not utilized, at least not to its highest and best use.
What would it take to create a crop nutrient sharing economy?
I have written in the past about my skepticism of many attempts to be the “online platform for X” in agriculture. Simply connecting the supply and demand online does not go far enough and ignores the realities of the agriculture industry.
In order to effectively create some sort of nutrient sharing economy, there are some major issues that would need consideration. One that Jason mentions is moisture. Both manure and food waste are both mostly water.
This presents a problem in transportation costs. Water is valuable, but not valuable enough to pay to ship it via truck. In many cases, the nutrition in the manure is not worth the cost of shipping.
On Jason’s farm, he pumps manure from his swine operation onto his crops. This is a great example of maximizing his available nutrients at a commercial scale. However, Jason has the key advantage of managing his waste stream and no added costs of transporting it to his fields.
For others that don’t have a place to go with excess manure, food waste, and other by-products, there is the problem of consistency. Farmers are very precise about what they apply to their crops and when. Manure varies by animal, feed, and conditions (heat/humidity). Food waste obviously varies by source, type of food, timing, and condition as well.
This is not like a car that has to meet very basic standards to join the sharing economy by driving for Uber and Lyft. The quality and value varies wildly. Solving this problem of consistency is another barrier to a nutrient sharing economy.
Challenges such as transportation costs and consistency make this concept a lot more complicated than just launching an online exchange or an app, but I do believe there’s hope.
Currently, there are several startups trying to hone in on this problem in food waste specifically. Companies like WISErg, California Safe Soil, Re-Nuble, and others have developed processes to convert food waste into fertilizer.
There are companies working with manure through the use of bio-digesters, but these can be expensive and do more for energy generation and greenhouse gas reduction than they do nutrient cycling and soil health. There definitely is a place for these digesters, but I wonder if maybe there is also still a place for some sort of a nutrient sharing economy.
I should acknowledge here that manure and food waste are being transacted every day. My intent here is to explore the idea of a model that allows these transactions to happen at a larger scale, where more nutrient value and dollar value gets captured.
Unfortunately, I’m not smart enough to have the answer, but hopefully I can get some ideas percolating from you, my highly intelligent readers. Leave me a reply and let me know your thoughts on this topic.
This podcast episode would be valuable enough just for the concepts listed above, but Jason goes on to describe his intercropping system that is also extremely fascinating.