It’s not often that a side business outgrows and out-profits a primary dairy business that milks 275 cows.
But, as Amanda Freund is quick to say, “There’s profit in the poo.”
This catchy tagline comes from manufacturing and selling eco-friendly
gardening containers appropriately dubbed “CowPots.” Any type of plant, from spring flowers to Christmas trees, can be planted in the pots.
The biodegradable pots, in turn, can be directly planted into soil. Thus, they eliminate the need for plastic pots, which must be disposed of after use. To date, tens of millions of CowPots have been manufactured in a modest building on Freund’s Farm near East Canaan, Conn., and have been sold across the U.S., Canada and Europe.
The venture has gained national recognition, too. Just this past month, Freund’s Farm won a U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award, the “Outstanding Achievement in Resource Stewardship,” from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Amanda Freund heads up sales and marketing for Freund’s Farm “CowPots” venture. She says the eco-friendly, biodegradable venture began nearly 20 years ago. Amanda’s dad, Matt, and uncle, Ben, wanted to find a way to market manure solids off the farm.
The desire was three-fold:
- Reduce the amount of phosphorus being applied on the farm through manure.
- Work with neighbors to find a way to collectively reduce nutrient loads in the local watershed.
- Create an additional profit center for the farm.
“We have a dairy neighbor who had a large-scale composting operation,” she says. “With just 275 cows, we didn’t want to compete with that, but there had to be a way to manage manure beyond spreading and selling compost. It forced my dad to think outside the box.”
His solution: Mix digested manure fibers with a binder, trying everything from bees’ wax to Elmer’s Glue, to form a garden pot. The experiments started in the late 90s with lots and lots of prototypes.
Amanda’s mother, Theresa, runs a nearby, 7,200-sq.-ft. retail greenhouse and a second, 3,600-sq.-ft. greenhouse for tomatoes. That offered the opportunity to experiment and fine-tune CowPot production and use.
“We finally went to market in 2006 and received a process patent in 2009,” Amanda says. “This past year, we utilized all the fiber material from manure waste available from our farm and created over $1 million in income, producing a socially responsible, value-added product.”
The return on investment is staggering when you do the math: “We have raised the value of manure from fertilizer of $50 per ton to $100 per pound in value-added product,” she says.
The CowPots production facility strives to run at 60% of goods sold. “By any business standard, this is a healthy, sustainable business,” Amanda says.
The CowPot venture will run 24 hours per day, six days a week now through January.
The farm, CowPot business and the family’s farm market and bakery now employ seven family members.
They include brothers Matt and Ben; Matt’s three children, Amanda, Isaac and Rachel; Matt’s wife, Theresa; and her brother, Michael Hanlon. It takes another 21 full-time (14 of whom make CowPots) and six seasonal workers to get everything done.
Freund’s Farm intensively grazes its milking herd from May through October. As such, it can be short of manure fiber for its CowPot operation over the summer. “One of our neighbors is more than willing to supply raw manure in summer, and we run it through the digester to increase our supply of manure solids,” Amanda says.
The Freunds also just broke ground on a 300-cow, five-robot dairy. It is constructed adjacent to the CowPots factory, bringing the production of CowPots even closer to the raw material.
The digested solids will continue to be used for the growing CowPots business. Freunds began working with Tractor Supply Co. this year to stock its 1,100 stores with CowPots. “That’s a big deal for us. We started with a 25-store test last year, and it went so well, Tractor Supply decided to go national,” Amanda says.
“We also work with a number of distributors who work directly with wholesale growers. And we supply some hardware stores and independent garden centers,” she says.
The Freunds are always considering new products. One is a manure-based weed barrier mat. “This product has already been tested and proven valuable, and could potentially replace plastic mulches,” she says.
They have worked on a cow-fiber product that could replace Styrofoam corners used to protect windows during shipping. They have also developed prototypes for manure-fiber golf tees and even bait cups.
None of this has been easy, and every day presents new challenges. Customers have to be continually educated on the benefits.
“Some consumers still want to take plants out of the CowPots like they do plastic containers. No, you plant the whole pot,” she says.
Pricing is also a challenge. If plastic is half the price, or if CowPots are priced 50¢ more, some consumers will choose plastic. “That’s an on-going struggle—and opportunity,” she says.
Still, the sky is the limit. The Freunds have received media attention from the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” and CNN. “As a result of the media coverage, we’ve received queries on a global level for potential licensing of our technology,” Amanda says.
“Our model is based on nutrient export through product innovation. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg,” she adds.