Photo illustration by Kelvin Li
Farmers have a big, stinky problem: what to do with the poop from their animals.
A single dairy cow can produce a human’s body weight in manure each day — and there are 11 million cattle in Canada. Add in waste from other livestock such as pigs and you have a sea of manure to deal with. With few other options, farmers have tended to store this waste in football-field-sized lagoons before spreading it on their fields.
But in this murky sludge, water treatment experts Karen Schuett and Ross Thurston saw an opportunity. In the late 2000s, they set about building a system of machines that can turn animal waste into clean water, concentrated fertilizers and feedstock for making renewable natural gas, which can be used as a fuel.
After several years developing this technology, the company they founded, Livestock Water Recycling, is now growing rapidly. It has customers across North America as soaring demand for protein collides with growing awareness of agriculture’s environmental impact. We spoke to CEO Karen Schuett about how manure lagoons are liquid gold.
How did we end up with lagoons of manure?
Lagoons have always been around as a way of storing waste before farmers circulate it onto their crops as fertilizer. It worked for many years, but the problem comes in meeting the growing demand for protein. Farmers have to add animals and then they don’t have enough space to spread the manure. There is very little technology available to help. So, farms are just stuck with these huge lagoons stinking up their land.
Did farmers snap up your innovation?
It’s been a bumpy road. Farmers are entrepreneurs and they’re pretty good early adopters — but it has to make economic sense. We originally started out thinking everyone’s going to want clean water. Then, we realized that farmers need to make their money back on this. We realized we could do that through fertilizer and renewable natural gas. Farmers can either sell the renewable natural gas they generate or use it on their farms. That was a great pivot, because renewable natural gas is a great way for them to make money — more money than from milk, potentially.
You started your career cleaning up oil pollution. How did you go from that to this?
My co-founder Ross Thurston and I had worked together for years cleaning up a lot of hydrocarbon pollution across North America. A local pig farm in Alberta contacted us and needed help with this manure lagoon. We naively thought it was similar to cleaning up diesel. In the end, we had everyone in our company working on manure testing and sampling — the odours were intense. We realized manure is not just a North American problem. It’s everywhere. Every livestock farm on the planet does the same thing. So, it’s a huge market.
What was the hardest part of developing your technology?
Taking a water treatment system that would be similar to something for a municipality and putting it on a farm to be operated by someone who isn’t in water treatment. We soon found out farmers didn’t want bells and whistles, they wanted something that was easy and would work all the time. We’re on version four of our technology as we’re scaling, which is a great place to be — you don’t want to be scaling with version one of your tech and have it not perform.
Your company was in business around a decade before it really started taking off. What piece of advice did you get that you’re glad you ignored now?
People said to stay in your lane — you don’t know agriculture. But you sometimes need to get outside your lane. Of course, we made mistakes around how you’d apply something on a farm versus how you’d apply it in a city. But I maintain that we learned everything from the farmers, and we were very receptive to everything they taught us. Sometimes it was blunt, but we took it as such a gift that people would give us feedback about where we were missing the mark.
You’re clearly an expert at seeing cash in trash. How do the rest of us break out of our throwaway lifestyles?
We can say we want about recycling and reuse, but if it costs more, we can be reluctant to do it. If we can create these value opportunities from plastics or food waste or manure, then it becomes easier to start moving forwards. Right now, we’re working on renewable natural gas that can be used seamlessly in natural gas pipelines. It’s molecule for molecule identical, so there aren’t a ton of new things that need to be learned to create that value. Bringing on something renewable or recyclable where we don’t have to put in a whole new infrastructure, that’s the kind of thing where we can create value. But I feel really bullish on the fact that the waste-to-value market is booming. We’ve never been busier.
How do you get amped up before a big meeting?
I’m a classic over-preparer. It’s really important that you bring the right energy when you’re talking about manure — we bring a sense of humour to everything we do. I also have a Spotify list to get in my zone. There’s lots of female-empowerment music on there.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.