To pass the time while stuck at home during the pandemic, many Americans took up new hobbies. People put together puzzles, made sourdough starters, brewed their own beer and exercised in record numbers.
Of all the ways they filled their free time, the most popular was gardening. First time and seasoned green thumbs alike grew their own vegetables, spruced up their lawns and bought seeds for raised beds. The popularity of gardening shows no signs of slowing down nationally with COVID-19 lockdown restrictions having eased.
Over the past year and a half, the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) played a role in this by partnering with a Sauk Centre, Minnesota business to develop renewable, all-natural and organic soil and gardening products. Later this year, Kristy Kay Organics will debut new fertilizer, compost and mulch — and the timing couldn’t be better.
“People have definitely started gardening more and a lot of people became plant parents,” said Kristy Flowers, the founder and manager of Kristy Kay Organics. “There are so many benefits with gardening from being outside more to growing your own healthy food. It makes sense and people have taken notice.”
Flowers and her husband, Jim, grew up on organic farms. Natural methods of growing plants, free from chemicals, have been a lifetime passion for both. They started their company with a desire to save the planet through the pursuit of sustainable environmental practices and to introduce people to the benefits of natural gardening methods. Beautiful grass, vegetables and flowers can be created in an environmentally sustainable way. Kristy Kay’s makes its products with simple, all-natural elements.
Healthy soil treated with chemical free fertilizer can continue to grow and capture carbon dioxide keeping it out of the atmosphere and groundwater, Flowers said. According to Kristy Kay, feeding the soil beneath grass with beneficial, chemical free fertilizer can potentially capture between 46.0 to 127.1 grams of carbon per square meter per year.
About 18 months ago, Flowers contacted AURI seeking assistance to develop the new products. Alan Doering, AURI’s senior scientist for coproducts, and Harold Stanislawski, AURI’s business development director, were assigned to the project. Doering and his team conducted analysis on new organic fertilizer, compost and mulch products. The organic compost is the “heart and soul” of the business, Flowers said. The company recently formed a partnership with a local chicken farmer to add manure pellets to the mix. They also produce products specific for vegetable and flower gardening.
AURI’s scientists helped identify the right base products. In order to meet the standards for organic labeling, the new products must contain certain levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other materials. Finding the right mix that is producible, affordable and in bulk was the biggest challenge with this project, Doering said. Work for this project was conducted at AURI’s labs in Waseca and Marshall.
“Kristy is very focused and dedicated to soil health. She wants to use products that will grow beautiful plants but also those that will lead to better quality soil, air and water,” Doering said. “Many of the organic fertilizers you see on the market don’t have the high levels of nitrogen that you would find in other, nonorganic products. The fun part was finding the right ingredients to meet nitrogen performance levels.”
Kristy Kay Organics is in a competitive marketplace and one of the company’s main distinguishers is the organic nature of its products. Therefore it was important to focus on utilizing products that are both economical and can meet the nutrient requirements, Doering went on to say.
Flowers said she discovered AURI by doing research into funding partners as well as research and development sources. She is very happy she found AURI. Using the analysis from AURI, she will be able to launch new mixes specific for vegetable gardens and flower gardens. Currently, the company sells straight to consumers from the website. Flowers plans to make her products available at local businesses as she continues to expand and as conditions in the global supply chain improve.
“We have always used our own recipes and formulas to make our products. One thing we always wanted was to work with a scientist to make sure the product was as healthy and environmentally friendly as we thought it was,” Flowers said. “Alan and Harold toured our facility and took a sample back to the lab for testing. I can’t say enough positive things about [AURI]. They are the friendliest people you could imagine working with.”
The biggest advantage of working with AURI, Flowers said, was the organization’s access to equipment that she would otherwise not be able to use.
“Anytime we thought we hit a roadblock [during the testing] the team at AURI would talk us through the issue. They were always honest and optimistic. Sometimes I would ask Alan a question and he would tell me, ‘I don’t know, but I will do research and get back to you with an answer.’ To have that resource was very helpful,” she said.
Doering and Stanislawski also understood the bottom line of the business, Flowers said. The team was able to identify less expensive options for base materials that yielded the same results in testing as more expensive ingredients, thereby saving money on production costs.
In addition to testing and analysis for the organic fertilizer, AURI also provided guidance on labeling and general business questions. For example, Kristy Kay Organics has bagging equipment at their facility in Sauk Centre and AURI worked with Flowers to increase efficiency and improve the process.
Stanislawski noted the team at Kristy Kay Organics was very driven and focused on their goals throughout the process. They are competent, savvy businesspeople. They are also collaborative.
Flowers is also exploring the possibility of partnering with other local businesses to use the bagging equipment when it is not in use for her products. “Whenever we can, we want to support local businesses,” she said.
“They were great clients to work with. While they were new to the fertilizer and mulch products they wanted to develop, they know business,” Stanislawksi said.
“They know how to manage people and understand the issues that come with having a growing business. They have been through the regulation and certification process before as well, so they know what to expect. That familiarity and experience made it a very smooth process.”
Flowers said she hopes to continue the working relationship with AURI. There is an opportunity to advise on pelleting, business networking and to help the company find new financing resources for additional equipment purchases. Her next goal is to produce an organic lawn fertilizer and sell it in hardware and home and garden stores.
“That is where we think we can do the most and have the biggest impact. Everyone wants to have that beautiful front lawn and you can do that with organic products. People love the idea of a natural lawn fertilizer because they know it is safe for their kids and their pets. But consumers need to be able to afford it. That is what we are working on next,” she said. “People are starting to realize now that organic farming and organic gardening is good for the earth. And if we take care of the earth, the earth will take care of us. If we can get the perfect mix of organic lawn fertilizer out in the market, that will just make a huge difference.”
Working with Kristy Kay Organics highlights the breadth and depth of service that AURI can provide to clients by working across the entire organization, Stanislawski said.
“The success we had with Kristy just shows that when we can cross pollinate within AURI’s different disciplines we can really accomplish a lot for clients. A project like this brings the full resources and expertise of AURI together,” he said. “When we work with a client like Kristy Kay that is on a journey of constant innovation and really understands what it means to run a business, the sky is the limit.”