A Better Stink: Why New Fertilizer Uses Food Scraps Instead Of Fish Goo

May 19, 2014

When you think organic you probably visualize crisp, sweet-smelling veggies and fruit. But it turns out that fresh food is often grown in some pretty foul fertilizer. In fact it’s so bad it’s been known to make farmworkers gag. Now, as correspondent Anna King found out, there’s one new sweeter-smelling organic option developed right here in the Northwest.

Eric Peterson is a produce clerk at the Redmond, Wash. PCC, he loads some leafy greens into the Harvester.
Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / KPLU

At an organic farm near Eltopia, Washington, workers are busy sorting asparagus into bundles.

When they have one completed, they rubber band it, and cut the ends flat.

This farm is 15 country miles north of Pasco and grows over 300 hundred different varieties of crops -- everything from eggplants to cherries. But what makes all these delicious organic veggies grow?

Anna King: “Are you serious?”

This is my organic innocence-lost moment.

Schreiber: “Smell that.”

The farm’s owner, Alan Schreiber shows me a huge 200-gallon plastic tub.

Anna King: “I can smell it already, that’s gross.”

It’s digested fish parts mixed with molasses. He dares me to take a deep whiff from the spout. It’s vat of fibrous, brown goo.

Schreiber: “And you see those white things on the sides, those are maggots. This gets maggots in it. It smells like a toilet.”

This composted fish juice is one of the things organic farmers use to feed their crops.

Schreiber: “Your options basically are manure-based products, or fish or feather meal, or some sort of animal byproduct. And none of them smell particularly good.”

On top of that, Schreiber says many of them can only be applied to fields early in the winter and not during the growing season. And the fishy fertilizer goo --- well it often plugs up his irrigation lines. Sometimes a line will get so backed up --- workers get splashed with the stuff. That smells...

Schreiber: “…worse than a porta-potty the Sunday morning after a bluegrass festival.”

But now Schreiber has another option. He’s not only an organic farmer, but also an agricultural researcher. And a company out of Redmond, Washington approached him to test a new, sweeter-smelling organic liquid fertilizer. It’s called WISErganic and Schreiber says he noticed a difference immediately. His workers started arguing about who got to use the new grow juice and …

Schreiber: “… who got to put out the decomposed fish guts.”

WISErganic does have a smell. It’s sort of like earthy sourdough bread, but it’s not nearly as bad as some of the alternatives. So what’s this stuff made of?

Eric Peterson is a produce clerk at the Redmond PCC. He sorts through the mustard greens and the rainbow chard … pitching any suspect bundles into his plastic tote.

Peterson: “I just go through each one of them, to see if they are wilty or moldy…"

Then, it’s out the backdoor to the loading dock and to -- the Harvester.

The Harvester is a four-by-seven-foot steel box with a keypad, cameras, and some bone-crushing jaws.

Peterson pops the wilty and bruised items into the Harvester’s hopper, and …

The Harvester can also chew through meat, bone, flowers and pastries -- it’s all part of the fertilizer smoothie. Back at the lab the fertilizer experts tinker with the juice, then …

… Send it back to the farms and gardeners’ backyards as liquid organic fertilizer.

Organic farmer Alan Schreiber says he doesn’t care where his nitrogen comes from -- but he says this stuff developed in the Northwest is easier on his workers. There are four Harvester units around the Seattle area so far. The company has plans for a West Coast expansion later this year and then if all goes well, nationwide.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network