Making moolah with Moo Doo

After five generations and 1,500-plus acres of much loved Middlebury, Vt., land, the Foster Brothers’ spirit of ingenuity is very much alive. As Robert “Bob” Foster, the family spokesman, puts it, “We’re just being true to our ever-resourceful Yankee heritage.”

Their dairy herd of 630 animals (380 milking) produces more than 10 million pounds of milk a year. But today’s business goes far beyond milking cows.

Back in the late ’70s, during the first energy crisis, Foster Brothers’ resourcefulness grabbed hold when the seeds of their highly successful Vermont Natural Ag Products subsidiary were planted. “With fuel costs so high, we realized that we needed more than just milk to keep our business going,” he recounts.

“So we looked to our farm to provide the answer.”

Key Points

• Family business flourishes with organic, manure-derived products.

• Though costly, family’s digester set the stage for next-level products.

• Value-added marketing of composted products supports dairy.

Refining manure’s value

Capturing residual animal waste energy led to their anaerobic digester. The process begins with collecting manure and milk waste. Then, specialized bacteria “eat” it in an oxygen-deprived digester environment.

Next, hydrogen sulfide gas is stripped out, and the methane powers and engine connected to an electrical generator.

“The end result becomes an environmentally friendly source of clean-burning fuel,” concludes Foster.

Startup costs were high. But the outcome more than made up for it by supporting greater farm efficiency. It translated into greater cost efficiency and, ultimately, a positive revenue stream. Excess electricity is sold to the local utility company.

“The process afforded us the opportunity to turn a waste management issue into a resource, enabling us, and consequently our community, to reduce our carbon footprint and maintain good stewardship practices of the land,” he adds. And it opened a whole new revenue stream.

Expanded business model

From there, it was only a matter of time before the Fosters began developing alternative ways to process manure liquids and solids. Their focus was on extracting valuable nutrients.

“We had the equipment,” Foster recalls. “So when the manure was done cooking, it only made sense to separate the liquids — used as a natural plant food — from the solids, broken down by aerobic bacteria and assorted microbes — to create humus, the basic component of good soil.”

That’s how Moo Doo, the Fosters’ compost operation, was launched, and Vermont Natural Ag Products took hold. The product line includes organic soils, composts, grower mixes and manure approved for organic farming and gardening use.

Initially marketed to local businesses, Foster says with a smile that word spread so quickly, they were hard-pressed to keep up.

Realizing a business opportunity in the making, the family gave Moo Doo trademark status. They designed an eye-catching plastic bag and set up a wholesale distribution network now covering New England and other parts of the Northeast.

“The weight of the material affects our ability to service additional areas, although we do get calls from all over, including California,” he notes.

Vermont Natural Ag Products’ organic product line “makes growing a little bit more productive, and a little bit more natural,” adds Foster. The company’s motto proclaims that their products are “Udderly the Best!”

He’s also proud that all of their products promote sustainable agriculture. “It’s hoof energy that’ll provide food security.”

And in typical Foster family fashion, they continue to research new methods and applications to use precious nutrients and add value to the land.

To check out the Foster Brothers’ marketing scheme, visit their Web site, www.moodoo.com.

Raymond writes from Vermont.

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MOO DOO, NOT MANURE: Bob Foster forklifts another load of bagged plant nutrients headed for a retail center.

This article published in the February, 2010 edition of AMERICAN AGRICULTURIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.