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New Organic Fertilizer Less Smelly, More Popular With Farm Workers

Anna King
Northwest News Network

When you think organic, you probably visualize fresh, sweet-smelling fruits and vegetables. But what makes that delicious organic produce grow?

Digested fish parts mixed with molasses. It smells so bad that it’s been known to make farm workers gag.

Organic farmer Alan Schreiber grows more than 300 hundred different varieties of crops -- everything from eggplants to cherries -- at his farm north of Pasco, near Eltopia, Washington.

"It smells like a toilet”

Schreiber points to a vat of fibrous, brown goo. “See those white things on the sides? Those are maggots," he says. "It smells like a toilet.”

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

“Your options basically are, manure-based products, or fish or feather meal, or some sort of animal byproduct," explains Schreiber. "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 often plugs up his irrigation lines. Sometimes a line will get backed up and workers get splashed with the stuff. Schreiber says it smells “worse than a port-a-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 who got to put out the decomposed fish guts.

A better-smelling source of nitrogen

WISErganic does have a smell -- sort of like earthy sourdough bread -- but it’s not nearly as bad as some of the alternatives.

Credit Rae Ellen Bichell / KPLU
Eric Peterson, a produce clerk in Redmond, Washington, loads some leafy greens into the Harvester.

So what’s this stuff made of?

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

“I just go through each one of them, to see if they are wilty or moldy," he says.”

Then, it’s out the backdoor to the loading dock and to "the Harvester," a four-by-seven-foot steel box with a keypad, cameras, and some bone-crushing jaws.

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.

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.


KPLU’s Rae Ellen Bichell contributed to this report.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.