FREMONT — The company responsible for implementing one of Michigan’s first large-scale electricity-producing biodigesters has its sights set on putting some of the plant’s byproducts to work.
Southeast Michigan-based NOVI Energy, which developed the Fremont Community Digester in Newaygo County, recently formed NOVI Nutrients, a company designed to commercialize a new brand of garden fertilizer, Nutrasoil AD, that’s made from a slurry produced from the organic material that fuels the digester.
The company hopes by next spring to start selling a fertilizer based on the byproduct, which NOVI had been discarding or selling to farmers by the truckload.
“We split out the slurry, which is compost-like and it really makes for a very nice potting soil basis and great soil booster,” said Anand Gangadharan, president and CEO of NOVI Energy.
Because the digester that opened last year takes in a multitude of organic farm waste, the slurry byproduct of the anaerobic digester process is full of micronutrients in addition to the major nutrients found in most potting soils on store shelves now. It’s these 20-odd micronutrients in NOVI’s product that gives Gangadharan confidence in the company’s ability to compete with brands like MiracleGrow and others in big-box stores like Home Depot, Lowes and Ace Hardware.
With the help of a local farming client, NOVI’s testing group set up two greenhouses and planted crops using traditional methods and soils in one but added the Nutrisoil product to the other greenhouse. The preliminary results from the greenhouse plants with Nutrisoil showed significantly better plant growth than those without, Gangadharan said.
“We’ll be taking a modest start, but we’ve already had the opportunity to run the product through some greenhouses, and those test results have come back very favorably,” Gangadharan said.
The plants grown in the Nutrisoil product showed “very nice and lush growth” thanks “primarily to the micronutrients” in the soil, he said, noting the plants had particularly good root growth.
To get the product in the hand of gardeners in the region, NOVI is partnering with distributors Flat Rock Bagging Inc., which has an operation in Sparta where the products will be packaged. NOVI expects annual production to reach about 500,000 bags measuring one cubic foot each.
The company is hopeful that it could expand and increase production for Nutrisoil as it adds additional digesters, Gangadharan said.
With an initial plan in place to hit the shelves of big box stores across the region, Gangadharan said the product is branded for possible national distribution. The company will consider setting up bulk purchases for commercial farm industry growers, he said.
“We really think that the wine industry and grape growers would be a good market, as well as other larger specialty food growers,” Gangadharan said. “We believe in the long run that we can reduce the need for traditional fertilizers, improve production and (that our products) will lead to very healthy plant systems.”
When plants’ roots are heartier, a crop tends to stay on longer, it’s generally stabler and the yield is typically better, Gangadharan said.
Considering the investment — which Gangadharan declined to disclose, other than to say it was in the five-digit to six-digit range — the founders expect a modest revenue boost from the sales of Nutrisoil that should lead to the new company becoming its own self-sustaining business entity, Gangadharan said.
While no new staff will be hired initially, there is opportunity depending on the market’s reception of the products, he said.
NOVI is also launching a website to support the product in conjunction with the Nutrisoil release. Right now, the company is planning to take the product to various trade shows and farmers markets and is offering Nutrisoil at a discount to start building awareness of the product. Pricing of the bags is not set, but Gangadharan said it would be competitive with similar products currently on the market.
“We don’t know how big this will be, but we are certainly investing in these plans. We’re not in the soil business, but we have this opportunity,” he said. “From what we’ve seen so far, every future digester should be able to support this product. We want to do this because we really think that once people start to use it, they will see it works well.”