If Harry Potter and his friends at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry wanted to grow crops or a garden, all they would have to do is wave their magic wands and utter a few incantations.
It wasn’t that simple for Robert Joblin and his partner Ted Sniegocki, but the two Little Rock, Ark., businessmen are busy casting a spell over gardeners and others with Magic Dirt, an environmentally-friendly organic soil amendment produced using digested solids from patented DVO, Inc., anaerobic digesters.
Magic Dirt was named the 2015 Biogas Product Innovation of the Year by the American Biogas Council. A year earlier, it received the 2014 Bioproduct Innovation of the Year Award from the Bioproducts World Showcase and Conference. It is certified as a premium potting soil by the Mulch and Soil Council, certified 100 percent bio-based (contains only organic materials) under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s BioPreferred Program, certified organic by the Organic Materials Research Institute (OMRI) and is certified for use in organic production by the Idaho Department of Agriculture.
Joblin’s and Sniegocki’s company, Cenergy USA, Inc., came up with the idea for Magic Dirt as a way to deal with the effluent from DVO anaerobic digesters. The digesters take in dairy manure, then methane is extracted and used to create electricity. What is left behind is a treated non-odorous liquid stream for crop fertilizer and a nutrient-rich biosolid used to produce Magic Dirt.
“We’ve got this organic waste coming out of the digesters,” Joblin notes. “What are we going to do with that? We gave other people the license to go out and create a product with it. It didn’t work. We went to all the major horticultural companies… They weren’t interested. So we came up with Magic Dirt.
“Enough beer, enough cocktail napkins, enough airports and we put it together,” Joblin says with a chuckle. “We came up with Magic Dirt, which is a sustainable alternative to peat moss.”
After several years of testing, a pilot project was launched in Idaho in 2014. Magic Dirt in 2015 was packaged and sold in retail garden supply outlets and big box stores in Idaho. In 2016, the product is expected to be available in 15 states throughout the Pacific Northwest and Midwest.
Joblin says two main factors set Magic Dirt apart from the competition.
“We’re the only product that I know of with no peat moss, coir, vermiculite or perlite. All the others contain one or more of those elements,” he says. “Secondly, we have about six times the nutrients of any of the other competition.”
The key to the production process is the two-stage, mixed plug-flow digesters from DVO, based in Chilton, Wis. The company has installed nearly 100 digesters at more than 70 sites in the U.S. since the first unit was built in 2001. DVO boasts that its digesters process more farm and industrial wastes in North America than any other company or design.
Joblin says other digesters aren’t suitable to produce Magic Dirt since the ongoing addition of materials does not result in a “complete” mix.
“What went in last week is mixed with what goes in today which is mixed with what goes in next week and you never get complete digestion,” he says of other digesters. “Whereas with the plug-flow aspect [of the DVO digesters] what goes in today isn’t mixed with what went in last week.”
The primary ingredient for the digesters is organic farm waste (manure from dairies in the case of the Magic Dirt product) which is heat treated for about 21 days in an air-tight, oxygen-free vessel that converts part of the waste to methane gas. The methane gas captured during the process is then used to generate renewable energy.
“We’re putting in 130,000 gallons a day at the smallest project and 550,000 gallons a day at the larger projects,” Joblin reports.
What remains after the process, he says, is a clean, odor-free fiber that can be used to replace peat moss. When that fiber is combined with other organic ingredients — Joblin won’t say what those “secret ingredients” are other than to note the Magic Dirt contents label shows them as “aged forest products — a premium potting mix is created.
“The fiber mixture is not compost, but rather a fluffy rich growing medium,” he says.
“Unlike composted products, the digested fiber has a longer fiber length and good air porosity,” states the Magic Dirt website. “This gives the fiber a spongy quality with the ability to retain more than three times its weight in water for improved moisture control.”
At least one Magic Dirt customer finds that feature especially important.
“One of my favorite aspects of Magic Dirt is the fact that if something prevents me from watering my plants I know there’s enough water still held in those fibers to last the plant until its next watering…” she notes.
Joblin explains the process: “Basically what we’re doing is we’re taking organic waste, processing it and creating renewable energy and then from the organic waste we’re making horticultural product. And there’s no waste.”
For each cubic yard of Magic Dirt used in place of peat moss, the release of about one ton of greenhouse gas is avoided (by bogs not being harvested), he adds.
“There’s a huge environmental benefit,” he says.
His opinion is borne out by a report by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. The report was titled “preliminary assessment of the environmental advantages of replacing horticultural peat moss with dairy farm digester-derived fiber in the United States.”
“The findings indicate that dairy digester fiber provides an environmental advantage in comparison to peat moss for all environmental indicators examined,” the report says. “In terms of climate change impact, replacing peat moss with dairy digester fiber in the U.S. market could avoid the release of greenhouse gasses equivalent to 5.8 million metric tons of CO2-eq (equivalent global warming potential as 1 kg of CO2). This equates to the annual tailpipe emissions of 1.1 million cars or to reducing U.S. annual methane emissions by 0.8 percent.”
Cenergy, obviously, cannot use all of the effluent produced by the digesters.
“If we took just the extra fiber from the existing DVO digesters, we’re talking about 40 million bags of Magic Dirt a year. That’s a little larger than we can handle right now,” says Joblin, adding, “I would like to hire somebody to run the company at that point.”
Leftover fiber can be used by dairies as animal bedding or it can be land applied.
“It’s cleaner, softer. It’s a better bedding for the cows than sand or composted manure or wood chips which they’re probably using now. There’s a lot of reasons for them to use this pathogen-free fiber for bedding,” Joblin says. “But they can’t use it all. They may be selling it to other dairies for bedding or land applying it. What they can’t use for bedding is what we look at for Magic Dirt.”
Joblin says both he and Sniegocki have been somewhat surprised by the success of Magic Dirt.
“I’m an optimist. Ted is a pessimist. And even Ted is surprised. We’re surprised at the same time,” Joblin says. “We did enough research to know the stuff is really good. We knew if we could get it on the shelf we had a chance. Fighting for shelf space is the hardest part of this deal.”
The other challenge, he points out, is the fact that it will take customers one growing season to see the benefits of Magic Dirt, unlike Harry Potter and his friends who could get instant results by waving their wands. “So all the people who tried it last year will hopefully be repeat customers, along with new people this year,” Joblin says.
One Portland, Ore., woman who describes herself as a “picky gardener,” says she’ll be a repeat customer.
“I love everything about your product, from the efficiency of its production, the environmentally responsible ingredients, and the efficacy it has in feeding my plants to its simple, clean structure and affordable price,” she wrote in a letter to the company. “I’ll recommend Magic Dirt to anyone who will listen to me, and you deserve every bit of notoriety and commendation that comes your way.”
Originally printed in Soil & Mulch Producer News