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Startup is turning dairy waste into lawn product

Dairy Dirt co-founder Brendan O’Brien of Starksboro shows off a load of his company’s Lawn Fiber product, which is made from waste processed in the anaerobic digester at Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport.

STARKSBORO — When Brendan O’Brien moved back to Vermont in 2016, the Starksboro resident was thinking a lot about the dairy farms scattered throughout the state. More specifically, how to make use of an increasing amount of organic waste piling up on Vermont farms. 

And it was not just manure and other stuff scraped off barn floors.

The passage of Vermont’s Universal Recycling Law in 2012 had included a phased-in food waste ban, diverting food scraps from the landfill and toward composters or anerobic digesters slated to start in 2020. O’Brien, then a graduate student at the University of Vermont, was interested in finding ways to make use of the increasing amount of food waste being shifted toward dairy digesters, which are located on dairy farms. 

“These farms were all doing their very best but also struggling to manage their existing nutrient loads to meet clean water quality standards. So, there was a real need to devise creative solutions for exporting nutrients off of Vermont farms,” O’Brien explained. 

Dairy Dirt, a Starksboro company O’Brien helped found in 2020, seeks to offer such a solution. The company repurposes digested dairy manure from Vermont farms into Lawn Fiber, a grass seed germination mulch. 

Dairy Dirt founders are hoping the lawn product will cater to both the lawn owners using the stuff and the farmers providing the raw materials for it.

“We’d really like to make ourselves attractive to farms themselves. Looking forward to a time when farms may be able to claim that they’ve exported a certain volume of nutrient off farm in the form of our product, that could also be a financial benefit to the farm,” O’Brien said. 

SEEDS OF COLLABORATION

To form Dairy Dirt, O’Brien teamed up with fellow founders Ryan Lau, Michael Curtis and Terry Therrien. The seeds of that collaboration had been planted throughout New England in the years prior. 

Curtis, a project developer and consultant based in Connecticut, had spent years as an energy consultant and saw potential for use of digestate — material leftover from anaerobic digestion. During his time as a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., Curtis began exploring that potential with Lau, a student in Curtis’s entrepreneurship seminar. 

“At that point, we refined some ideas and tried to figure out over the course of a year, what are going to be the best applications of this product and where is the market looking for something new,” Curtis said of the class. “We found that grass seed coverage would be the best, first place to go.” 

Back in Vermont, O’Brien was also thinking about how to make use of digestate. While studying for his master’s degree at UVM’s School of Environment and Natural Resources, O’Brien explored various uses for the leftover material.

“The simplicity of the Lawn Fiber product that Dairy Dirt has come up with really appealed to me, and I had some existing collaborations with Mike Curtis. From there, my introduction to Dairy Dirt was born,” O’Brien said. 

Curtis also helped connect Therrien to the project. Therrien’s family owns and operates a number of home and garden stores, Mackey’s, in Connecticut. 

Around two years ago, the team began developing their debut, Dairy Dirt lawn product. Lau said the group realized when it came to creating Lawn Fiber, less was more. 

“Initially what I had personally been doing was just some baseline experimenting, blending the Lawn Fiber with a number of other products and trying to figure out what was going to work effectively as a growing medium,” he said. “It kind of hit us that the most simple application of this is going to be not needing to blend it with anything, use it by itself and see what benefits we can reap from the natural properties of the product.” 

With that lesson in mind, the team got situated with a bagging company and connected with Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport. Lawn Fiber is a byproduct of anerobic digestion of manure. 

Once the material comes out of the dairy digester at Blue Spruce Farm, it goes through a four- to six-week composting or break-down process where gases are released from the material as it’s turned in a composter.  

“That’s just so the material is stable and so that it’s not going to be blowing up any bags that it goes in,” O’Brien said of the process. 

A RECYCLED PRODUCT

Lawn Fiber then gets bagged in Dairy Dirt’s cow print packaging, sealed with a heat sealer and transported from Bridport to Connecticut, where it hits the shelves of Therrien’s stores. Lau and O’Brien have bagged the first two trials of Lawn Fiber by hand. 

Dairy Dirt is currently exploring ways to automate the company’s bagging set-up, such as by collaborating with local compost operations that have the infrastructure to process and bag digestate material. 

“Doing that work manually has been very labor intensive. I wouldn’t call it a problem, but it’s definitely been a challenge,” O’Brien said. “(Collaborating) will be a key part of being able to meet the market demand going forward.” 

Dairy Dirt launched its first trial of Lawn Fiber this past fall, selling out of the around 85 bags the company produced. An additional 500 to 1,000 bags of Lawn Fiber will hit shelves throughout the spring. 

“In the short term, we’re hoping that the 500 to 1,000 bags that we’re planning for our spring run move as effectively as we’re anticipating that they’re going to,” Lau said. “From there, we’re hopefully going to expand that network from four stores to some of the surrounding stores.” 

The Dairy Dirt team is hoping to reach a variety of customers with Lawn Fiber, including the sustainability-minded lawn owner. 

O’Brien noted that Dairy Dirt offers a two-for-one product, acting as both a top-seed dressing and nutrient product. While not a fertilizer, Lawn Fiber has some inherent nutrient value. 

“We’re looking to target those consumers that are interested in reducing their inputs to their lawns, which can have a deleterious effect on sustainability,” he said. “This is a recycled nutrient product that is already in existence, and it works much better.” 

GOALS FOR GROWTH

Lawn Fiber has debuted in four home and garden stores throughout Connecticut, including the Mackey’s home and garden shops that Therrien helps operate.

O’Brien said Dairy Dirt saw the Southern New England state as a simple entry into the market and a promising place to launch Lawn Fiber. The hope is to expand to other shelves throughout the Northeast with additional lawn products. 

“The very near-term goal is to assess the scalability of our market outside of Vermont, and also in Vermont. So, focusing on New England states and some of the tri-state area,” he said. “Long term, the sort of pie-in-the-sky vision is to sell as much Lawn Fiber as we can, and build Dairy Dirt as a brand into a household name and offer a variety of other nutrient-based products.” 

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