Changing roles

Where are they now?

Editors note: This is the first in a series that will update readers on entrepreneurial ventures featured in past issues of Ag Innovation News. Where are these ventures now? What challenges have they faced? What have they added, deleted and learned about bringing new value-added products to the market?

 

Minnetonka, Minn. — Abby Jane “A.J.” Hodges quotes from the movie Rocky when describing how she and business partner Gordon Batdorf  have successfully worked together for more than 14 years.

“Rocky is talking about why he’s attracted to his girlfriend Adrian and says it’s because she fills gaps. He has gaps and she has gaps — together they fill those gaps. I guess Gordy and I do the same thing.”

From 1994 to 2007, Hodges, 72, and Batdorf, 87, operated Renaissance Fertilizers, Inc. — producers of organic fertilizers made from soybeans, corn gluten meal and other agricultural products — in Minnetonka, Minn. They recently sold Renaissance to a Massachusetts company, but immediately started another company to promote organic fertilizers.

Getting started

In 1994, Batdorf and Hodges joined a group investing in a Minnesota company producing soybean-based organic fertilizer. Soon after, the investors formed a corporation and Batdorf and Hodges began running the company.

“We were awfully naive,” Batdorf says.

“I didn’t even know what NPK (nitrogen-phosphorous-potassium) meant,” Hodges adds.

She soon learned.

Over the next several years, Renaissance Fertilizers grew and began producing several fertilizer blends containing various NPK levels: 6-0-6, 8-2-6 and 5-5-5 made from soybeans and other ag-based products.

Batdorf, a World War II fighter pilot and former CEO of boat maker Larson Industries and CEO of toymaker Tonka Corporation, became the Renaissance board chair. Hodges, 72, a former physical therapist and author, served as president “because I was the only detail person,” Hodges says.

The company started carrying a line of liquid fertilizers, biofungicides and corn-gluten-meal weed killer. AURI helped the budding business with marketing and packaging.

“The fertilizers were an innovative new way to use significant amounts of a major Minnesota- grown commodity,” says Max Norris, AURI director of projects and technology. Norris says, whether they knew it or not, Renaissance had become a biorefinery — taking agricultural products into a new arena.

Like the roots of the plants they feed, Renaissance Fertilizers has grown markets across the United States. The products are sold in every state east of the Mississippi River, as well as Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. Five U.S. facilities manufacture the Renaissance line, including two in Minnesota, and plants in Georgia, Indiana and Connecticut.

Growing pains

Before Renaissance became a success, the owners had a few market lessons to learn.

Immediately they targeted what seemed a perfect fit — golf courses. The all-natural fertilizers provide slow-release nitrogen, are made without phosphorous, which in excess can run off and cause algae blooms in waterways, and they are safe around pets and children.

“We thought courses would be very willing to try our products,” Batdorf says. “But then we learned that greens keepers aren’t about to take risks.” Golf course greens cost tens of thousands of dollars and superintendents weren’t willing to take a chance on the unproven product.

Hodges and Batdorf knew they needed independent research results to convince potential buyers their products were safe and effective. Turf research at Iowa State University helped build the product’s credibility. ISU results showed Renaissance products out-performed the other all- atural

fertilizers that were tested.

“That made a big difference in convincing people,” Hodges says. “They started to listen.”

While lawn care, turf management, parks, schools and organic farming have proven to be fertile markets, selling through retail channels has been a more difficult task. Batdorf says it is challenging to get consumers to accept organic fertilizer. “People won’t buy what they don’t know. And if they do accept it, then they question price, and organics cost more than non-organics.”

A new chapter

In early 2007, Renaissance sold its assets, name and trademark to PJC Ecological Landscaping of Rowley, Mass. But Hodges and Batdorf remainactively involved with their products’ success and formed another corporation, Grow Organic, to market and distribute organic fertilizer products. The pair exhibit at trade shows and help clients navigate the arduous task of organic certification to promote and market the Renaissance brand.

While Batdorf wryly calls the Renaissance venture “the most expensive hobby he’s ever been involved with,” he and Hodges are seeing the fruits of their labors in more than just green grass and flowering gardens.

“Our products are getting good recognition,” Hodges says, “and people know we give good service. The word of mouth is good.”

Business partners Abby Jane Hodges and Gordon Batdorf were featured in the July 1997 issue of Ag Innovation News (above right) after they started managing Renaissance Fertilizers, Inc., producers of organic fertilizers made from soybeans, corn gluten meal and other ag products.

They recently sold the company but continue to promote organic fertilizers

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