By Dan Lemke
People aren’t likely born with an innovation gene, but if there was such a thing, the Asmus family of rural Winthrop, Minn. would likely have it in their DNA.
The Asmus family established their farm in Sibley County in 1910. Like most farms of the day, diversity was the name of the game. However, by the mid-1960s, the family put up several large barns and began focusing on egg production.
“Our grandfather and great uncle started to focus more on poultry,” said Adam Asmus. “At that time, people around the area kind of thought they were crazy for going into something like that and specializing in poultry.”
Adam Asmus’ parents took over from his grandfather in 1988 and expanded the operation. The farm grew again in 2013, going from 180,000 laying hens to about 550,000 birds.
In addition to producing millions of eggs each year, over half a million chickens also produce copious amounts of litter, which is an excellent source of nutrients for the soil.
“We had used the poultry litter on our farm for decades,” added Michael Asmus. “As soon as our grandfather and great uncle built those first barns, that was really when we started to use the poultry litter. We’ve always used that product on our own land with great success.”
When the farm expanded in 2013, a manure drying system was added to tap into the bulk fertilizer markets.
“We started drying the product down just to see what we could do with it, and we found that there really wasn’t a major market opportunity, because while the manure was definitely drier than it was before, it still was really bulky and kind of hard to move around,” Adam Asmus said.
“We had a couple of farmers who were interested in the dry product, but because it was so light and there was so much volume but so little density, we could fit maybe two or three tons on a 10 ton truck,” Michael Asmus recalled.
Michael and Adam Asmus knew pelleting the litter would increase the density of their dried poultry litter, but they found the prospect of purchasing the necessary equipment to be cost prohibitive. But by 2017, the brothers felt it was time to take a serious look at pelleting the chicken litter. They enlisted the help of Alan Doering and AURI’s coproducts facility to analyze the potential and to conduct test runs to help establish a process for making pellets. Not only would pelleting the litter make it more cost effective to ship, it would also eliminate some environmental concerns.
“We were quite concerned that the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency was going to either severely limit or ban the winter spreading of manure because of the runoff that can occur,” Michael Asmus said. “Our main goal with this whole effort was to figure out a way to handle this material so that there would be less of a chance of any sort of potential runoff or any potential problems with us having to try to store the manure and then figure out a way to spread it in the springtime before farmers plant.”
By 2019, the brothers decided to move ahead with construction of an on-farm drying and pelleting system. Rather than utilizing natural gas or liquid propane to power the drying system, they installed a biomass-powered system.
“We were trying to find something that would be more carbon neutral and wouldn’t be so expensive when you’re having to use a huge quantity,” Michael Asmus said. “We were able to find a company that was creating biomass burners. That’s what we use to pasteurize the product so there are no pathogens in the litter. We use pelletized and post-consumer recycled pallets, and that has really worked very well for us the last couple of years.”
Adam and Michael Asmus formed a separate enterprise called Agricultural Innovations, LLC, and began marketing litter-based fertilizer under the High Island Organics label, named for the watershed in which the farm resides. About 95% of the High Island Organics fertilizer is sold to community supported agriculture farms, vegetable gardeners and row crop farms, while the brothers market the remaining five percent through more than 30 Midwest retail locations.
Several years ago, the brothers again sought the assistance of AURI to help develop some additional fertilizer blends.
One thing that is big on the retail side is to make specific blends for different types of plants,”Adam Asmus said. “That was the next phase for us and now we actually have two new blends coming into the retail space this spring.”
High Island Organics offers an all-purpose fertilizer, a garden vegetable blend, lawn blend and a biochar soil amendment, which utilizes ash from their biomass dryer.
Not only is its fertilizer product gaining a foothold in the marketplace, but Agricultural Innovations, LLC is also being recognized for its innovation. AURI selected Agricultural Innovations, LLC as its 2023 Ag Innovator of the Year. The award recognizes a Minnesota company that is achieving commercial success and utilizes agricultural products in an innovative way.
“They truly took a leap of faith,” Doering said. “They invested capital into an additional large facility right on the farm site. They focused on how to add value to the manure, and they took the steps to move forward.”
“Agricultural Innovations, LLC and their High Island Organics brand has taken an innovative approach to the fertilizer business,” added AURI Executive Director Shannon Schlecht. “Although fertilizer may be thought of as a less innovative category, the forward-looking vision at Agricultural Innovations to create a circular approach utilizing their livestock coproduct was notable. Not only did they create a circular pathway, but they also looked at gaps and opportunities which resulted in creating specific fertilizer applications for different plants and uses. They have grown their rural Minnesota business from an on-farm approach into a regional market opportunity.”
The Asmus brothers credit AURI with helping them grow their business and they appreciate the recognition of their efforts.
“If it wasn’t for AURI, I don’t think we would exist, honestly,” Adam Asmus said. “It’s strange to think that what we’re doing is being seen as innovative because we live it every day, but it’s great to be recognized by others.”
“It always feels like we’re working in our own silo, so it was very humbling to receive this award, something that we never thought possible,” Michael Asmus explained. “It’s greatly appreciated that the things we’re trying to do are being recognized by the people who helped us.”
High Island Organics received the Ag Innovator of the Year award at the 2023 New Uses Forum on April 11.
“If companies aren’t innovating, they are falling behind,” Schlecht said. “Agriculture has definitely changed over the years and market opportunities continue to change with different consumer preferences from different generations. There are so many individuals and businesses in Minnesota that are very creative and are continuously exploring curiosities with us to either create a new innovative product line, launch a new business or become more efficient at what they are doing through process and technology improvements. Simply put, innovation keeps companies relevant and open to change to meet evolving market needs and to take advantage of new opportunities.”
As times change and market conditions evolve, it’s highly likely that the Asmus family will be on the lookout for new opportunities.
“It’s kind of a familial trait to find different ways that we can innovate or try to be as efficient as we possibly can,” Adam Asmus said. “We’re not afraid of trying new things that can make the operation run more smoothly or increase efficiency. We try to be as close to the cutting edge as possible and to be proactive rather than reactive. That’s what our whole mantra is, to look at the future, see what it might hold for us and then try to move in a way that puts us ahead of the game rather than behind the curve.”