Making money from their poop and other secrets
“My father could get these cows to do anything. He could get them to all wear hats if he wanted to,” says Matthew Freund as he tries coaxing his camera-shy Holsteins into a photo. But the bovines won’t budge.
His Dad may have been the ultimate cow whisperer. But Matthew and his brother, Ben, came up with the ingenious idea of turning what comes out of the back end of the cow—and we’re not talking milk—into an novel revenue source.
These second-generation Canaan dairy farmers turn manure into a patented line of odorless, biodegradable seedling containers made exclusively from—yep—cow poop.
For Matthew, the journey from the manure pile to the production line took years of experimenting beginning with molding pots with Elmer’s glue and baking them in his wife Theresa’s toaster oven. “My Dad started experimenting making pots when I was in middle school,” recalls Amanda Freund, 29, a Cornell graduate who is now in charge of sales and marketing for CowPots. “I remember smoke billowing out of the shop (not unlike that scene from Beauty and the Beast). A CowPot sat on our lazy-susan on the kitchen table for a long time. This never seemed strange to us, but visitors sure did wonder,” she says.
Most of the Freund’s four grown children are immersed in some way or another in the farm. But no one knows more about manure than Matthew. And his knowledge has finally paid off. “Who would have ever thought we’d make more money from manure than we do from milk,” says Theresa, who runs the farm’s year- round produce market and catering business.
But without their dairy operation they wouldn’t have CowPots, adds Freund. Even with an ample supply of manure, agricultural grants were required to the business, says Freund, who now employs 20 workers.
This year Freund expects to produce millions of pots, a staggering increase from 10,000 first made in 2008. They range in size from three-inch-wide seedling cells to jumbo seven-gallon CowBuckets, composed of two pounds of manure. In fact, business has been so brisk that Freund now hauls manure from a dairy farm next door because his herd of 265 cows don’t produce enough.
Humor, too, has helped propel the product, says Freund, who learned early on that people find cow poop fascinating, even hilarious. So he has been invited on televised shows, including Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” “Larry King Live,” and “The Tonight Show.” Even Martha Stewart raved about CowPots. “Once we have an audience it allows us talk about the real attributes of the product,” says Freund.
The durable fiber containers allow for unrestricted root growth, which create stronger, healthier plants that can be planted directly in the ground, he says. CowPots decompose three times faster than other biodegradable brands made from wood chips or peat, he adds.
The idea of making flower pots out of cow flops first took root out of need to manage manure in a more environmentally sound way. On average, a cow produces 120 pounds of manure daily. En masse that results in the release harmful amounts of methane gas into the atmosphere and excessive nutrients into watersheds.
The Blackberry River, which feeds into the Housatonic River, flows through the middle of the Freund farm. “This is what its all about,” says Freund, standing on a bridge overlooking the river that separates the dairy barns from the pastures.
The Freunds solution was a methane digester, which converts organic matter into methane biogas used to heat the farm office and house. Nutrient-rich liquid is separated from solid and transported to a lagoon, where in spring it’s sprayed over the fields as fertilizer. The solids continue composting which removes much of the offensive smell, and the dry, odorless fiber used to make pots.
It is not the only sustainable step the Freunds have taken. Last November, they installed 550 panels on about half an acre that will create 130 kilowatts of energy to run the dairy operation bringing them closer to their net-zero energy use goal.
And there may be more manure products in the future. The possibilities are limitless, says Freund, who is close to signing a deal with Andersen Windows to make packaging. In the past, all sorts of prototypes have been made from golf tees to novelty gift items.
“It’s a green alternative to using wood products, and it’s totally biodegradable so people can just toss it into their garden when they’re done.”
As for the cows, their pastures couldn’t be greener.