All Articles Infrastructure Sustainability Farm-Powered Sustainability with John Hanselman from Vanguard Renewables

Farm-Powered Sustainability with John Hanselman from Vanguard Renewables

Learn how the agriculture sector is becoming more sustainable through the use of anaerobic digesters that take food waste and cow manure and turn it into products like natural gas, fertilizer, bedding for cows and cash for farmers.

50 min read


John Hanselman

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Get ready to hear a whole lot about poop. Cow poop to be precise. John Hanselman, the founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Vanguard Renewables, joins the show (15:52) to talk about the work he and his colleagues collaborate with farmers to make the agriculture sector more sustainable. They do this by building anaerobic digesters that take food waste, and yes, cow manure and turn it into products like natural gas, fertilizer, bedding for cows and cash for farmers.

Other segments

“Sustainable or Suspicious” –   (1:13)

The team looks into an effort underway to reduce the carbon footprint of websites. We gauge a few popular websites like Google, Microsoft and Apple … and then take a very disappointing look in the mirror.

“Headline Check” – (18:25)

  1. PwC and Workiva survey shows business leaders taking proactive approach to climate disclosure, regardless of SEC timeline
  2. IKEA’s Latest Climate Target: Glue
  3. United Airlines and Sesame Street partner on green education campaign

“Here and There” – (12:40)

Singapore stands out for sustainable tourism




Sean McMahon  00:09

Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of the Sustainability SmartPod. I’m your host Sean McMahon, and I’m joined today by Karen Kanter, Evan Milberg and Jaan vanValkenburg. How y’all doing today, everybody?


Karen Kantor  00:22

Oh, things are great over here.


Evan Milberg  00:24

Fantastic, sir.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  00:25

I’m already.


Sean McMahon  00:26

All righty. Today, we’re going to cover a lot of ground when it comes to sustainability. And when I say a lot of ground, I’m even including ground that is covered in poop. Cow poop to be precise. That’s because we’re gonna be joined in a few minutes by John Hanselman, the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Vanguard renewables. John and his team are collaborating with farmers to make the agriculture sector more sustainable. They do this by using anaerobic digesters to take food waste, and yes, cow manure and turn it into natural gas. I got to tell you that Karen and John had a good old time talking about life on the farm. While the surfer boy in me just listened and learned a lot. Be sure you stick around for that educational conversation. 


Right now let’s kick things off with our first segment, sustainable or suspicious. When you think about the websites you surf every day, you probably don’t put too much thought into how sustainable a specific website might be. The types of content found on a website, like videos or graphics can make the website either more or less carbon intensive. And of course, whether or not a website uses renewable energy to power the servers that host it also impacts a website’s carbon footprint. A recent story in the BBC looked at an effort underway to quote slimmed down websites in order to reduce their carbon footprints. Did you all see that article?


Karen Kantor  01:57

Yeah, I was actually really surprised by some of the ways that websites pull more power than you would think. Honestly, I’m embarrassed, it just never really occurred to me, other than what was happening on my own screen, to think about how much energy it takes just to store I was really shocked.


Evan Milberg  02:14

Yeah, what I found particularly interesting about this article shine is this woman named Valentina Corellas, who has the sustainable knitwear brand. And the whole premise of her entire business model is she’s making sustainable knitwear. And imagine her dismay, when she finds out that her website isn’t sustainable.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  02:36

And I’m sure she’s not the only one who would have that problem. There’s a way to tell, there are a couple of tools out there, website, carbon calculator and eco grader, that you just punch in your website. And you can see what kind of carbon footprint it may have.


Evan Milberg  02:56

Yeah, so of course, at the sustainability, smart pie, we want to see who’s walking the walk. So we decided to take a look at these resources. And check out what some purported leaders in sustainability are actually up to.


Sean McMahon  03:09

And what did you find? Well,


Evan Milberg  03:11

some interesting findings here, the first thing that came to my mind is, of course,, because you’ve got a Biden administration that prides itself very much on the development of sustainable infrastructure ESG principles across the entire federal government. So of course, you would expect to be sustainable. And it turns out, according to website, carbon calculator, it, it pretty much is, it’s cleaner than 53% of web pages tested. Only point four, four grams of co2 are produced every time someone visits the webpage.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  03:48

It’s also one of the most boring websites. It’s just text, which, which sounds very sustainable. But the engagement, if you’re the government, and you’re the White House, you’re going to have kind of some guaranteed engagement, even if you don’t have any eye catching photos that are really big, or a fancy video, so it feels a bit off calling that a good example won’t No, no, it’s it’s actually trying to get engagement up,


Evan Milberg  04:19

you know, yawn. That’s actually a great example. Because in this in this BBC article, they talked about that exact issue about how in order to generate the business, you have to have these eye catching graphics, but the eye catching graphics go completely antithetical to what you’re trying to sell. So how do you reconcile that? Not


Karen Kantor  04:38

only that, but for many of us who are in media, you want them to come to you. So it’s not just that when they’re there, they’re engaged, but you’re actively driving them there. So just the very act of that.


Evan Milberg  04:52

And also in terms of energy usage, you want them to stay there and the longer they stay there, the more energy they’re generating to


Sean McMahon  04:59

and everyone It’s fair to say that got. So


Evan Milberg  05:02

they scored pretty well. They they were cleaner than 53% of web pages tested.


Sean McMahon  05:08

I don’t know, my pushback on that being a good score. I mean, if you’re trying to lead the way, it sounds like they’re in the middle of the pack.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  05:15

Yeah. Yeah. And not fun. Exactly.


Sean McMahon  05:20

Evan, did you look at any other websites?


Evan Milberg  05:22

I sure did.


Sean McMahon  05:23

Sean, what’s the gold standard?


Evan Milberg  05:25

So the gold standard is Google. They’re cleaner than 96% of web pages tested.


Sean McMahon  05:33

But that’s just the homepage right? Well,


Evan Milberg  05:34

that’s that’s just the homepage. That’s not if you get into any cache data or, or specific features, or God forbid, the Image section.


Sean McMahon  05:43

Okay, I think we’re kind of letting Google off little easy there. Like I said, since their homepage is really just kind of a search window. Microsoft, I did a quick check on Microsoft. And Microsoft is actually cleaner than 76% of other web pages tested. Meanwhile, sticking in the tech sector, Apple doesn’t score that well at all. Their website is dirtier than 72% of web pages. So that’s a little kind of a look at Apple, Microsoft and Google. And it looks like it’s actually an apples to oranges comparison. And any other website you checked out.


Evan Milberg  06:13

So I was particularly interested because I cover the built environment for smartbrief. What the US Green Building Council’s main website us came in at, and I was a little surprised to find out that the US Green Building Council’s main website, US was dirtier than 52% of web pages tested.


Sean McMahon  06:37

That is surprising, considering you know, what their whole business is all about? Yeah,


Evan Milberg  06:41

they’re I mean, they literally set the standard for green building, and they have a whole set of criteria for what does and doesn’t constitute a sustainable building, you would think they would have more sustainable website.


Karen Kantor  06:54

I think in a lot of cases, nobody even thinks about your sustainable website, you put it up. And you know, you look at it, because it’s beautiful. And then you don’t think about the data underpinning it and what that costs, so I’m not as surprised as I think you are. I think it’s an area that needs a little education.


Sean McMahon  07:11

The job any fun checking any other websites.


Evan Milberg  07:14

We checked ESPN just for fun. They were on the dirtier side dirtier than 81% of websites tested.


Karen Kantor  07:21

Red it was 92% Shockingly 92% dirtier than everybody else. Well, I mean,


Sean McMahon  07:29

he’s been on Reddit, if you’ve been on Reddit, you know, it’s nice.


Evan Milberg  07:33

They don’t need any help being dirty on.


Sean McMahon  07:36

Yeah, I’m not surprised this ESPN, check it in pretty poorly because considering this just a very, very video, heavy site and all kinds of graphics. And finally, we did do a little bit of navel gazing. And we looked at what our own corporate website would register on the scale and drumroll, please, Evan.


Evan Milberg  07:58

So we found out that is dirtier than 89% of websites tested?


Karen Kantor  08:05



Sean McMahon  08:07

Yeah, that’s painful.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  08:09

All of us have some work to do. Exactly. Hey, at least we’re transparent.


Sean McMahon  08:14

Time to talk to Dennis over in tech and see we can get cleaned up. Another we’re all feeling just a little bit humbled about our own carbon footprint here at smartbrief. It’s time for your Karen to check in with all the headlines of the most popular stories from the smartbrief on sustainability. Karen, what do you have for us?


Karen Kantor  08:35

Thank you, Sean. The most read story in smartbrief on sustainability this week came to us from environmental And that was about a survey done by PwC and Workiva. That shows that 70% of the 300 business leaders they surveyed said that they are not waiting for the Securities and Exchange Commission to come up with reporting rules. They’re going ahead right now and implementing some solutions so that they’ll be ready when the time comes.


Sean McMahon  09:07

Yeah, so the SEC is slow roll towards climate disclosure rules has been much talked about. But I think you’re right, a lot of companies that kind of know what’s coming or at least you know, kind of within the guardrails, and they’re already trying to come up with, you know, internal reporting standards and solutions. And we’ll see if what they line up matches up with the rules the SEC finalizes.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  09:30

I think they’ve got to show at least that they’ve tried. It might not match up, but they’ve got to show an effort.


Sean McMahon  09:36

I think there’ll be a lot of, as they say, in the business regulatory relief, the first couple years, with companies that they try to keep up with the SEC is trying to do, but it’s definitely a hot topic. That’s for sure. What else you got for us, Karen?


Karen Kantor  09:49

Oh, well, for the Wall Street Journal. I’ve got an interesting story about Ikea. Ikea has actually moving towards a more climate friendly glue. Now when I think of it Yeah, I mostly think about those little ratchet things.


Sean McMahon  10:02

I forget the ratchets and the little wooden nubs that hold it together.


Karen Kantor  10:06

That’s what I think of. But the glue that I’m talking about is the glue that holds together that pressboard that we’re also very fond of. Turns out that that makes up 5% of IKEAs carbon footprint. So they are moving to a more renewable bio based glue.


Evan Milberg  10:22

Yeah, that’s really interesting considering in the building sector, there’s a lot of use of different resins and adhesives. And those can be very energy intensive. So anything that’s more natural based, I think will go a long way for IKEA.


Sean McMahon  10:39

Okay, and Karen, one more story for us.


Karen Kantor  10:42

This one’s more fun. United Airlines, according to USA Today is rolling out a new green education campaign. And they’re partnering with Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street. Oscar is explaining to people how the things that they’re eating when they’re on the airplane, all those healthy snacks can be recycled into sustainable air fuel.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  11:04

I love that. That’s so much fun, isn’t it?


Karen Kantor  11:07

And it reminded me in Back to the Future when the professor comes back and he tells the kids we’ve got to go your kids are falling apart. And he’s got the little reactor that they put in garbage in.


Sean McMahon  11:21

Karen, come on. It’s the flux capacitor.


Karen Kantor  11:24

Oh my god.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  11:27

Of course, Sean knows that.


Sean McMahon  11:29

How could you forget that?


Evan Milberg  11:32

From scrap this gram?


Karen Kantor  11:36

I’m sorry. I hang my head in shame.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  11:41

No, that’s fantastic. A fantastic


Karen Kantor  11:45

is just an Oscar the Grouch is the first chief trash officer for United Airlines, which I think is pretty cool.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  11:51

That should be another sea level at most of our companies. Don’t you think?


Sean McMahon  11:55

Mother CTO,


Evan Milberg  11:57

except Except Yan. I think a lot of people in that field would take umbrage with that, because trash implies single use. And we’re all about extending the life cycle.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  12:08

Oscar will have to be


Karen Kantor  12:09

the only one. Well, you can take that up with Oscar.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  12:13

Yeah. Oscar will be the only CTO


Evan Milberg  12:18

or the chief up cycler.


Sean McMahon  12:20

And the Cookie Monster just wants to make sure more of the snacks on United Airlines flights or cookies, right?


Evan Milberg  12:24

Yes. Oh, he’ll eat anything.


Karen Kantor  12:26

There won’t be any leftovers.


Sean McMahon  12:28

Okay, thanks, Karen. And for those of you listening who want to have sustainability news arrive in your inbox five days a week, use the link in the show notes to sign up for the smartbrief on sustainability. Alright, Jaan time for a here in their section. On our last episode, we spent a lot of time talking about the United Arab Emirates, where we go in today,


Jaan vanValkenburgh  12:51

Singapore, and for vacation. So if you’re like me, you’re waiting for spring to arrive. And to make some summer travel plans. Singapore has been in the news for a couple of really good reasons. It is now the only country in the world to win global destination sustainability certification. Now you’ve got to remember, Singapore is a island nation state of about 6 million people. But during the pandemic, you have to know that they were really hurting because tourism is a big business for them. So they’ve looked at their tourism and tried to rearrange it, try to reimagine it a bit and start some innovative efforts.


Sean McMahon  13:38

Yeah, the Lion City is amazing. Any travelers who want to head that way, you will not be disappointed. It’s almost sensory overload. When you get there. I’ve been there a couple times. You know, you’ve got the Marina Bay Sands, which is the hotel that looks like a giant ship, like the size of the Titanic was plopped on top of three skyscrapers. And there’s other sites all over the city that are just incredible. The airport’s attached to a mall and in the middle of the mall is this indoor waterfall. So you can fly into Singapore, see amazing things and not even leave the airport.


Jaan vanValkenburgh  14:05

No, absolutely. It’s a fantastic place. But when I think of going there, I don’t think of sustainability. And actually, when I think of going anywhere, I actually I have to say I don’t think of sustainability. Because to me when they think about sustainable tourism, I think of low pressure showers. I think of not enough hot water. Not enough AC when I need it, fewer services or do it yourself services, which is kind of an oxymoron if you ask me and not having fluffy fresh towels every day in my hotel room. I think though, Singapore has the potential to change that discussion, as does the next generation generation Zed of travelers. So looking at them what it could mean the Sustainable Tourism is cleanliness without potential harmful chemicals, like the type of chemicals I was ignorant of as a kid. But I always remember the smell of those roadside motels where our family used to stay on holidays. Also, business travelers are having to look at their carbon footprint. And so any place that can tell you what your carbon footprint is, let alone reducing it is going to be more popular.


Sean McMahon  15:30

Okay, thanks, Jaan. It’s always nice to get a fresh look at sustainability efforts going on around the world.


Karen Kantor  15:35

And next up, Sean and I will be talking to John Hanselman from Vanguard Renewables. He’s the founder and chief strategy officer for the company. And I think you’ll enjoy the conversation. He and I really hit it off and you just can’t go bad with a poop story, can’t you, Sean?


Sean McMahon  15:50

I learned a lot. Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us today. Karen and I are pleased to be joined by John Hanselman. John is the founder and chief strategy officer at Vanguard renewables. John, how you doing today?


John Hanselman  16:08

I’m great and really delighted to be here.


Sean McMahon  16:10

Yeah, thanks for joining us. I think I want to start off by just letting you kind of tell your own story real quick. What is Vanguard renewables? What does your team do and what kind of technologies do you deploy the sustainability space?


John Hanselman  16:21

Sure. So Vanguard renewables is a farm based anaerobic digestion company that recycles organic materials, primarily, food waste, and EML waste into renewable natural gas, renewable co2, organic fertilizer, and other regenerative ag products for our lovely farm hosts


Sean McMahon  16:43

the term anaerobic digestion that might sound painful to some of our listeners who might not be initiated to how that works. So what are we talking about that what does that process involve?


John Hanselman  16:52

Anaerobic Digestion is actually a naturally occurring phenomena where small micro organisms in a zero oxygen sets the anaerobic part of IT environment, eat, consume organic materials and emit methane, much like us, that we do it with oxygen. So swamp gas is produced by anaerobic digestion. What happened is probably about 35 years ago, a bunch of smart folks over in Europe, recognize that you could actually take anaerobic digestion and utilize it productively to actually break down organic materials, waste materials, and turn it into renewable energy by basically creating a perfect environment for a lot of these little micro organisms to do their thing. So they did it on a kind of small scale to begin with, I’m kind of bolted up and bolted up. And we do it here in million gallon Insta pots, if you will. So we’ve built these massive containment facilities that we pump the materials into, we cook them up. So we set the temperature gauge on our two and a half million gallon instapot to about 105 degrees, and we set the timer for 30 days, while we’re cooking and bubbling away all this wonderful methane that otherwise would be going up as a as the most corrosive greenhouse gas from a landfill. Or if if that same material was just stuck out into a lagoon, or onto the land, we get to capture all that. And that becomes renewable natural gas. And so it has been incredibly interesting process for us to kind of take those technologies that were developed in Europe, Americanize them, which actually was a lot harder, a lot more involved than we expected. But we now do those all across United States.


Sean McMahon  18:43

So how did you first discover you said did some folks over in Europe figure this out? How did you connect with that team, and it was


John Hanselman  18:49

one of those crazy stories. So prior to doing so. So back around year 2000, I decided I was gonna spend the rest of my I’ve always been in technology and entrepreneurialism, but I really, really wanted to focus on climate change. And really, to me, it’s the challenge of our generation. You know, we all kind of face this existential crisis of what this planet is going to be in the coming years and what we’re going to leave for our children being a father of four, I thought the only responsible thing to do is spend the rest of my professional career focused on reducing the impact of climate change and trying to slow climate change and or reverse. And so was had a solar development company and battery storage company that would ran before this was at a show in Germany. The InterSolar show to look at equipment, was doing one of those wonderful day trips into the countryside and saw some farms out there and there was solar on the farms but in the fields and next to the buildings started seeing all these little domes and my family’s had a generational dairy farm in Vermont. forever. And I thought I was pretty familiar with most farm buildings and kind of asked somebody, you know, what, what’s the big Domi thing in the back? And they said, Oh, it’s our anaerobic digester. And I said, I’ll bite, what’s an anaerobic digester. And they proceeded to tell me it was something that took cow manure and turn it into renewable electricity. And, of course, my response was bullshit. They said, No, cache it. But we are able to kind of work out and it’s, of course, broken German and English. So it took a really, really long time to figure all this out. But it was, then something that just became a passion for me. And I couldn’t stop thinking about why it hadn’t worked United States. So came home, really started to investigate in my spare time, why anaerobic digestion was such a mess. And there had been people who had tried to do in the States, and had failed. And so in the meantime, had kind of sold our solar company. And was was really just free to kind of dedicate some time to looking at it and really looked hard at what was the problem and thought we had figured out what were the major challenges. I think we saw, we saw two of the five. And so went out, raised some some some lovely money from some fantastic private family offices start the company started, the company, bought two anaerobic digesters that were on farms in New England, kind of stripped those down, rebuilt them as our kind of learning laboratory and then went crazy and started building them throughout New England first, just kind of that extension of that laboratory, and then all across the states.


Sean McMahon  21:43

So when you’re talking about these domes, or I guess you said Insta pots, how big are these? How big are these structures on a farm,


John Hanselman  21:50

they’re they’re pretty big. So our average one now is about 15 feet below ground. So we actually dig, excavate and put about half of the, this this vessel underground, you can think of it it kind of looks like a huge bathtub, or a huge tank, kind of storage tank. And so we put about 15 feet below grade about 15 feet above of flexible membrane roof on top of that, and that expands and contracts based on how much gas we’re making that day.


Sean McMahon  22:19

So 15 feet deep, and how how wide are we talking to football field? Or what are we talking about?


John Hanselman  22:25

That two football fields long? If it’s if it’s the oval version? Yeah, it’s it’s a not insignificant structure. Now, building on farms, it’s roughly the same size as as you know, a five or 600 cow barn, we’d like to put it right somewhere near the barn. Because of course, that’s also where we’re getting all the manure with, with all those great little micro organisms, they come from the gut flora of the cow. So we don’t actually use anything synthetic or inorganic, we use all of the naturally occurring gut flora of the cow. And that comes to us in the manure. And then we, we add the food weight, sometimes we do just manure, depending on where we are in the states and what we’re looking to, to kind of mitigate. And then other times we combine food waste with it. The food waste is about five times more energy value than than just straight winner. The winner has been digested twice by the cow already. So by the time it gets to us, the cows used up most of the good stuff. So it’s, it’s the food waste. That is the real nitro for our little instapot.


Sean McMahon  23:32

So where are you getting the food waste from? We get


John Hanselman  23:34

food waste from virtually everyone. So food waste the United States is I think everyone knows a pretty awful problem. I think the the the last statistic I saw on my favorite statistics is that food waste if it were a country would be the third largest greenhouse gas emitter behind China in the United States. So it is a profound problem. What’s what’s amazing is we get to turn it into a solution. So if you don’t send it to a landfill, if you don’t send it to an incinerator, if you don’t send it into a lagoon or land application, it becomes a really wonderful tool. So we get it from food manufacturers. We get it from cafeterias, colleges and universities, we get it from households, that’s probably the smallest contribution where we get the most of it is really the inedible process waste that comes out of food manufacturing. So anything that’s edible, we don’t take credit, make sure all of that makes it to food banks and to our local partners that can handle it anything that is inedible. It’s part of the process waste. It’s the wash water from the machines, stuff that’s fallen on the floor at the factory or the stuff where we get lots and lots where a refrigeration unit has gone off and the temperature has been lost on frozen food. All sudden we’ve got 10,000 chickens that need to be broken down Um, our little bugs go to work.


Karen Kantor  25:01

So it’s like a super composter.


John Hanselman  25:04

It is a super so wonderful way of thinking of it. Yeah. And it didn’t you can take meat in it. We take me we take fats, oils and greases we take a lot of beer waste. Tasty. Yeah, exactly what our bugs are very much like us. They love doughnuts and beer that’s actually makes a lot like me.


Karen Kantor  25:22

Oh, my, I’m starting to like these guys. They’re wonderful. They’re great. We can party. Can I ask as a farmer type person? Yes. Do you keep adding to this continually? I mean, can you just have a manure scraper just going straight to this thing every day? 100%. Yeah, so Oh, wow. So no lagoon.


John Hanselman  25:42

Yeah, Milligan’s lagoons are gone. So we take 100% of the manure, everything is scraped, we scrape down into a pump pit, and then that pumps straight into the digester,


Karen Kantor  25:55

I see your farms are pretty big that are partnering with you. So that is, I can see why you’d need the size of that Digester. That is some serious,


John Hanselman  26:04

it spans. So we are the smallest farm we worked on, has about 150 cows. Our average for a food waste digester is about 500 to 1000. Cows. And, but we are we’ve we’ve got a farm in Texas that has 47,000 cows. Of course, we kind of span the gamut. Yeah,


Sean McMahon  26:25

everything’s bigger in Texas.


John Hanselman  26:28

And it’s important for us to be able to work with all size farmers, not just the big kids.


Karen Kantor  26:34

So if you’re adding it continually, yes, at what point are you removing what is no longer useful once you’ve sucked all the energy out of it?


John Hanselman  26:43

Exactly. So what you have, and that’s why the things are so, so deep and so tall, you’re pumping into the top, and you’re mixing and blending, we’re also raising the temperature. So you want the entire vessel and all of the contents to be at about 100 and between 102 and 107 degrees. So it’s kind of cooking away. And things really kind of dropped down to the bottom, over a period of weeks. And so you’re constantly mixing constantly, kind of stirring, but it does have a tendency to really stratify. So we then pull the material out of the bottom, where it has lost all of its gas value, and we pull that out. And that digestate is really that’s our organic fertilizer. So we we run that through a separator, so pull out the actual solids, the solids, we give back to the farmer as bedding for the cows. And that’s turned out to be amazing, very beneficial to them. Because it’s actually a better bedding material, a lot of our farmers are using sand or they’re using woodchips or, or others sawdust. And that microbial underbelly of the cow and the others actually doesn’t recognize that and take material that is actually from them and with them has cut the incidence of mastitis and other things down by as much as 80% for some of our farms,


Karen Kantor  28:06

that blows me away. Honestly, I would never have expected that you could put basically cow chips underneath cows, and have it be beneficial. That’s amazing.


John Hanselman  28:18

We and we had no idea. And the other part of is we then take once we pulled the gas and we pulled the solids, we’ve got you know, an average asst for us is about 25 million gallons of this high nutrient liquid from all the food waste. And we give that back to our foreign partners. And we kind of hoped that that would be beneficial. We knew at least would be an arrogant, yeah, if not a and it turns out one of our farmers refers to it as the super poor juice.


Karen Kantor  28:51

And it doesn’t smell like slurry.


John Hanselman  28:53

It does not smell so amazing. It is our biggest fans are the downwind neighbors as folks, and as a kid who used to drive a manure spreader on the Fourth of July weekend and get nasty


Karen Kantor  29:08

waves and a laugh. I know that you did.


Sean McMahon  29:12

How many fingers run those waves.


John Hanselman  29:15

Just Just one. folks weren’t very happy about that. But yeah, it’s it’s it’s virtually odorless. And it turns out super helpful for hay corn and alfalfa. So they’re, they’re increasing their yields pretty materially and the nutritional that and again, for those of us who spend way too much money buying organic foods, you should feel a lot better. Because the fields at least are telling us that we’re doing the right thing. And all of the I think now, every farm where we have digesters have they’ve reduced their use of conventional or synthetic fertilizer by at least 90% and most all of them are completely off. Maybe they do an early season top off or something but It is, it’s incredibly cool to see what we’ve been able to do for them.


Karen Kantor  30:04

How does that interact with the watershed?


John Hanselman  30:07

Ah, great, great question. So we worked with the agronomist, and we work with the local watershed folks to look at the N, P and K. The thing that’s most important is to understand that where you’re talking about conventional nitrogen can preventional. Phosphorus, it’s usually it’s mined, and it’s long chain polymers, or it’s or it’s mined or killed. Where our stuff is coming from old school food is all monomers. And so the uptake into the into the plant part of the problem with overspray. And my family is as guilty as anybody we were always told by the local ag and by our agronomist, that, that we had to put 1020 30 and all that stuff out on the fields, we overdid our phosphorus by a huge factor because it just didn’t get the uptake and what was left, sitting in the soils ran into the watershed and created all the problems that we have now. We can actually tune it, we have Phosphorus Removal system. So if there’s too much phosphorus, there’s there’s seldom too much nitrogen because the uptake is so clean and so sweet. So we’re able, if we have to, we’ll pull that phosphorus out.


Karen Kantor  31:19

So your pawns are not green.


John Hanselman  31:21

Exactly. And more importantly, our downstream neighbors probably aren’t green. Yes. And that’s you know, and that’s been, again, something that we have no idea was going to be part of the process.


Karen Kantor  31:33

That is just stunning. It almost sounds too good to be true.


John Hanselman  31:37

It does have that win win win win win kind of component to this is I’m tired of saying when


Karen Kantor  31:43

just out of curiosity, how hard to sell was that betting?


John Hanselman  31:48

Holy cow, it was to use a really bad pun. Sorry,


Karen Kantor  31:52

I cannot imagine a farmer saying Sure I’ll do that.


John Hanselman  31:56

Well, you’re right on it was and it wasn’t a different for the fertilizer, too. So when we first started working with our farmers, we said, you know, everyone in Germany does this and they like, we don’t have German cows, you gotta get out. You know, some, some flat sheet bald guy from from Boston trying to tell me about fertilizer. And it took a little while it took a while we had a couple of wonderful, our initial farm partners here in New England. were amazing. And let us kind of iterate until one corner of their crops and another corn that crops and we were fortunate the first couple of years, we were in drought and having 26 million gallons of fertilizer liquid fertilizer turned out to be not a bad idea. So I think that accelerated for us. You are right. But in the bedding is the same way. So as you know, yeah, I can’t imagine that. cow comfort is religion. Yes. It took us a while.


Karen Kantor  32:52

But I can’t imagine putting that underneath a cow. It just rubber mats. Yes. sawdust. And it’s great. But I imagine once you’ve got it all cooked down. It’s it’s pretty fluffy.


John Hanselman  33:04

It’s very flat. And so it’s it looks kind of like almost like cork material kind of or like super dry peat moss,


Karen Kantor  33:11

you could pack it into bricks. You could you can


John Hanselman  33:15

we haven’t tried that there is I think there’s a farmer in Connecticut who is making a little planters with it, he cooks it and molds it into a seed pot. That’s that’s where we used to do that as well. Otherwise,


Karen Kantor  33:30

it would make the kitchen smell terrible when we bake them. country life, Sean, you’re missing out?


Sean McMahon  33:40

So what are some of the other benefits? I know you’ve outlined a few of them here, John. So walk us through from the energy production side or for various sized farms, things like that.


John Hanselman  33:49

Yeah, the number one thing, I think for all of us, and is how do we decarbonize our lives, right? And I think that’s a very grand statement. And one I think that almost everybody can agree to is there very few things we all agree to that one’s probably fairly safe. And if we can lower the carbon footprint of all of our activities, we’re all going to be a lot happier. So the amazing thing about a digester is you’re taking all of that methane and methane is is the nastiest of all those greenhouse gases. And when we’re capturing it, and there’s, if you put your food waste in the landfill, it goes anaerobic, it produces that methane, even a well sealed landfill, is losing the vast majority of the methane seeps out of the system. They capture some of it, which is great, but still, most of it runs out into the atmosphere. Same thing with with incineration, right? So being able to take that food waste and capture all of the different values. You know, our big saying is there’s no such thing as waste. It’s really just a misplaced resource and finding the best home For the organic material, whether it’s cow manure, pig manure or, or food waste and getting into a steel tanks, we get all that methane. What the doubling effect and why renewable natural gas produced from digesters is actually carbon negative is we then use it to displace fossil gas. And so if you’re a food factory, and you’re able to send that food waste to us, we reprocess it, we send you back, the gas portion of it, and now you don’t have to buy fracked gas. That’s pretty cool circularity. And I think that being able to get people just rethinking of everything that’s coming in or out of your home or in or out of your, your factory, or in or out of your store, as resources, and there’s a resource cost and there’s a resource placement. And we’re able to take that and put it into a circular motion instead of a one way trip. And a one way trip to the landfill is or the incinerators that’s a pretty archaic, you know, that’s we’ve been, we’ve been doing that for 400 years. And that’s, that is the crazy thing. If you think about it, we really haven’t changed our holes, or we dig bigger holes for our landfills and we build fancier pits. But, you know, my great, great, great, great, great grandparents, they burned stuff and they dug a hole and stuck it in there. And that’s, that’s the same as us.


Sean McMahon  36:29

So how does that circularity will work from a logistics perspective, you saying you send the energy or the the r&g back to the to the companies?


John Hanselman  36:36

Yes. So basically, we do is we build the digesters on the farms, we take the food waste, and we truck it to unless we’re super close, and can pump it there. But for the vast majority of our systems, were going to aggregate it at the home or aggregated a transfer station or aggregated at the factory, run those vehicles out to the to the farm, dump the materials into the bale Digester, cook it down. And then when we take the the natural gas out of the backside of the system, we inject it into the local natural gas pipeline, and then send the molecules out to our our buyers.


Sean McMahon  37:14

There’s a lot of issues in the energy space right now, with transmission queues and things like this. It sounds like yes, it just bypasses that those queues and goes right back into


John Hanselman  37:22

the system. It’s one of the wonderful things about working with natural gas versus electric. So having spent years in the solar and battery world, the the electric infrastructure in the US is much, much older and much, much harder to modify. So the natural gas system has been in existence for a much shorter time and is moving an electron versus moving a gas molecule, it’s actually turns out it’s much easier to move the gas molecule, you got a lot more flexibility. So we can pump straight into the system. Our interconnection time, is weeks, rather than I think, what is it? Pew Research just came out and said, If you build a new solar farm, it’s a two and a half year queue to get interconnected. Yeah, it’s it’s up there.


Sean McMahon  38:07

It’s quite, it’s quite a line.


John Hanselman  38:09

That seems nuts. So we’re super fortunate that again, we can build right there. And if we don’t have local utility access, we actually in this is the case, I think we’ve got a couple of farms in Nevada, and a couple of farms in Colorado, where we actually just are trucking, it will actually fill these tanker trucks up with the renewable natural gas and send them directly to our customer. And that user can pull it off the truck when needs it, or we can inject it into a centralized injection point somewhere where the utilities got one. And that’s been really neat to see and and makes us much more nimble than the poor folks are kind of waiting in queue for the electricity.


Karen Kantor  38:51

Getting back to how that benefits farmers. We’ve talked about bedding, we’ve talked about fertilizer, what else can you bring to the table for a farmer.


John Hanselman  39:00

So for our farm families, we start the whole conversation really about paying rent on the land. So we take on average between five to 10 acres of the farm land to build the digester, and all of the the infrastructure that we put on there, we pay a very good rent on that to the farmer. We also share with them if there are other costs, plus we then pay them a portion of of kind of what we we make annually to help them and it’s been a material impact for all of our farmers.


Karen Kantor  39:35

So that’s actually a nice alternative. I know for my farm, we were approached for solar, yes. Which I ultimately decided not to do because it takes a huge footprint. And also you’re not really sure what’s going to the land is going to look like when they’re done. If you do need to pull out what will you leave behind?


John Hanselman  39:54

So we actually have an insurance guarantee. So virtually every in Environmental Regulatory Agency that we’ve worked with in every state and has made us put up a bond so that if we leave the farm, there is all the money that would ever be required to return it to exactly the pristine state before we put the digester there. And we think that’s fair. I mean, it’s not a, it’s not a crazy ask.


Karen Kantor  40:22

I know you’re talking about fairly large concerns. If a small farmer say somebody with 50, head 50, milking, were to approach you, what would you say to them?


John Hanselman  40:33

I think the thing is twofold for us. One is, if you had 50 head, the size of the digester, you’ve got to kind of scale it down and start to become less and less economic, you can do it, what you would do is we will be building primarily a food waste digester that has a little bit of a newer going into it, the challenge there is, we’re going to still produce 20 million gallons of fertilizer. So we want to make sure that there were folks nearby that could use it, so that we’re not tracking it. We never want to track things too far. That that starts to affect the the carbon footprint of what we do. So if we, if we’ve got to haul the fertilizer, miles and miles miles away, it starts to go counter to our whole ethos. So we want to say, if you’ve got enough land, or if you and your neighbors have enough land for this fertilizer, great, that would work for us.


Karen Kantor  41:32

Are there other kinds of farms beyond dairy that you’re looking at? Maybe moving into?


John Hanselman  41:37

Sure, wait, so we’re actually we’re working with our first poultry farm? Right now. We’ve been asked an awful lot by the hog community, for community


Karen Kantor  41:47

of their neighbors with Thank you.


John Hanselman  41:49

Yeah, I think they


Karen Kantor  41:52

those who’ve got to be the worst.


John Hanselman  41:55

Yeah. Somebody who grew up with a pig farm just through the woods. I would, I would agree. Yes. So So yeah,


Karen Kantor  42:05

you could take up a collection.


John Hanselman  42:08

The neighbors might pay for the whole thing themselves. So we are looking at those very, very hard there are folks who are doing swine digesters right now, and very successfully, we kind of focused on dairy first, as just kind of where we came from, and things that we’re most comfortable with. But swine is for real.


Karen Kantor  42:25

So we know that beef cattle, especially toward the end of the process, when they’re into feedlots produce considerable amount of material is, is that an area you’re looking to get into? We’re hoping


John Hanselman  42:37

to the biggest challenge with beef is, and again, great news for the cow if they’re open range, harder for us to collect the manure. When you’re in a milking parlor, when you’re in a other places where you’ve got a standardized floor, we can actually collect all of that manure, when you’re out wandering, which is great for the cow. Much much harder for us to actually find that waste material and not have a lot of it becoming dirt and and other materials that don’t have the energy and then have the tendency to clog up our systems.


Karen Kantor  43:15

Are you testing for P FOSS for your what you’re putting down on the fields we have tested,


John Hanselman  43:20

we’re what we’re very lucky in that using food and food safe materials. There’s just not a lot of P Foss and what we do, as long as we stay away from from kind of human waste. I mean, sadly, the real P FOSS concentrators are those of us sitting here on the podcast. And so we veered away. Luckily, we never kind of went down the the human waste pathway. So we’ve been able to stay away from that.


Karen Kantor  43:49

Cows are cleaner. That’s nice to know.


John Hanselman  43:52

Those are great foods. Great.


Sean McMahon  43:54

Okay, so you mentioned you the investors that have come in and helped you who are those and what is your interaction with them look


John Hanselman  44:00

like? So, this past August, so as I said earlier, we’ve we started the company with a fund of private family offices, Vision Ridge was our our single and only investor for the first eight years, the company, just remarkable team there that lived through all of our crazy learning and the ups and downs of figuring out this industry this past summer, when or actually kind of the prior year before that. When we really looked at all of the work that we’re going to do in the coming decade. It was clear we really needed to to have a much larger investor. So we all went out, and we were incredibly fortunate to partner up with BlackRock and so, last August we became a Blackrock company. So they’ve been with us since this past year and it’s been phenomenal. I couldn’t be happier with with kind of the level of excitement that they share with us. And you know, we thought We were incredibly ambitious, they have put us to shame. So it’s been great fun. We’ve really enjoyed having them as as our, our big brother, and they are, are wonderful in terms of their ability to also kind of look into the marketplace and help us decipher, you know, who’s growing, who’s not and where we should be spending our time.


Sean McMahon  45:22

All right, and I noticed on the website, you have corporate partners like Cabot Creamery. So walk me through that relationship.


John Hanselman  45:27

Sure. So, back in 2019, for the years before that, you know, we’ve been meeting with and going to a lot of these different conferences and sitting and talking with the sustainability professionals for all these different consumer products and food and beverage industry, folks, and there was an enormous amount of desire to decarbonize, there was an enormous amount of imperative to decarbonize. There was not a lot of clarity on how to do that, especially on the waist side of the business. And so we formed an entity called the farm powered strategic alliance. And Starbucks and Unilever and the Dairy Farmers of America were our first three corporate partners in that alliance. And it was really the chief sustainability officer and their teams coming together with us to try and create a first a public commitment to recycling food waste on farm. And the second part was to really see how to create all of the metrics of carbon accounting to make sure that because it’s kind of the Wild Wild West, there’s all this claims of potential greenwashing. Because there that we were doing the first real circularity and the first real production of carbon negative energy we want, we wanted to have kind of a standardized way of talking about and that’s been a really phenomenal partnership and an alliance and we’ve now got up to 15 members, 16 members, so Hildebrand big beer distributors, Smithfield large protein producers, Stonyfield yogurt, I mean, we’ve got, we’ve just got a ton of folks and all kinds of the food that we all eat every day, it’s been wonderful to see and we’re adding new new members every month. So it’s been a great fun,


Karen Kantor  47:21

what happens with the packaging, assuming you’re not getting everything scraped out.


John Hanselman  47:27

So this was probably our greatest learning in the company, when we started the company. And this is, this is the unfortunate thing about about the difference between the European mindset that there is no such thing as waste, it’s all it’s all a resource. Europeans are completely down with that and do a phenomenal job of sorting. So our technology providers who were all Austrian, and German, were like, you know, you can just get clean food waste and put it in these tanks, it’ll be great. We kind of miss the fact that there is clean food waste that comes out of you know, if you’ve got wash water from Ben and Jerry’s, or that last batch of chubby heavy was off, and all that comes to us, that’s clean. And that’s easy to take. And but the vast majority of the food wastes in the US is in some type of packaging, plastic bag can or yogurt cup kind of thing. And so we’ve actually built, we had built our first and we’re now building a nationwide network of these mechanical D packaging systems. So it’s a series of centrifuges, and shredders and things like that can actually separate the materials. And it’s also humans, we actually have quite a few. At the end of the day, the best sorting equipment in the world is you and me. So we’ve got folks in line, we’ve got machines, and we’re separating those materials, recycling, the cardboard, the plastics, the metals, and then getting all that organic material out. But that was a huge step for us. And that was something that took us probably four years to really figure out that we had to do it and then a couple of years figuring out how we’re going to do it. And luckily, there has been some just wonderful manufacturers who have helped us with a lot of the, the AI parts of the sorting of the mechanical and the separation pieces.


Karen Kantor  49:17

So you became super loopers.


John Hanselman  49:19

We did because I think we’re gonna put that on a t shirt. There you go. I like that.


Karen Kantor  49:25

That’s free, you can keep that.


John Hanselman  49:27

I appreciate it immensely. But it’s it’s been a huge part of our learning, which is we had to lower the bar to make sure that anyone in America could get their food waste recycled over time. I think that people do more and more on separation, but but really, the onus was on us that we would accept all that food waste, get it out of the landfill. And we would be the guys who are doing the squeezing of the ogre cups, rather than the just throwing them away.


Sean McMahon  49:54

So what is your current footprint across the US and you know any plans to get bigger?


John Hanselman  49:59

We have the facilities under construction or operating in all New England, we’re in Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania. So it’s, and sorry, Virginia and Maryland, where it is. The goal is really to have this everywhere. We don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be everywhere. If you talk about what are the hurdles to get over, obviously, the United States does not have a federal energy policy, the reason that anaerobic digestion was so explosive in the EU, is they had a great federal energy policy in Germany at a uniform policy, uniform utility structure. You know, we deal with 50 different states and something like 600 different utilities. And you’ve got to do an education of each one of those, and, and potentially different regulatory process state by state, which is a total pain. But that’s just something that we’ve had to overcome. And certainly, we were kind of used to it from hard days and solar. So knowing that you just like, Okay, we’re gonna go figure out how to do this in Georgia, we’re going to figure out how to do this and in Texas, and we’re pretty sure it won’t be the same.


Sean McMahon  51:22

All right, I want to ask you to step back and kind of take a look at the whole industry and what the landscape looks like going forward. Do you have any bold predictions on not just where your company might be, but where this entire technology or this sector of business will be in, say, five years?


John Hanselman  51:37

I do I have bold predictions, I also have, I think, what’s a necessity, alright, so as much as a prediction, this is a kind of a shame on us thing. So something like 30% of all manufactured food goes as waste. If we could recycle that and repurpose it, we could take over more than 25% of the total natural gas footprint in the US. And I won’t get into the carbon metrics and accounting. But that basically takes the vast majority of the carbon impact out of natural gas. When folks say clean natural gas, we can actually make it legitimately clean natural gas. So to me that the the challenge of our industry is to educate folks that this is a reality that this is a possibility that, that in fact, you get all these crazy benefits that we really didn’t understand when we started the company. And so I think five years from now, I think you’re going to see food waste recycling, done at a much grander scale in the United States. And that’s just pure diversion from landfill, and incineration. What I think is gonna be really interesting is when America meets Europe, in its mindset. So in Europe, people would never even conceptualize of throwing away a half eaten piece of pizza. They have a composting section. I mean, if you go to Germany, right now, you look at a trash can, it actually has five different bins. And that food waste goes right into the food waste, and the plastics and the plastics and the metal in the metal. I think that’s the greatest challenge for us as a country, which is to really see all these things as resources, right? Why make it twice? Why mine it twice? Why burn it when you can reuse it? Can America get its head around the idea that this is resources, it’s not waste, it’s something that can be put to another use? And, and I think I hate to be trite and say that the children are our future. But it is it is really, those are the folks I think are gonna make the greatest impact on our industry. I think we’ll build an awful lot of digesters, I think other folks will build an awful lot of digesters, I think what’s going to be intriguing is, how full are they and and how, you know, how many more? Do we build in every marketplace? As we see that mindset? I think the court what’s what’s most exciting for us is that corporate America gets this, you know, I was that GreenBiz conference in Scottsdale, and virtually every major food and beverage and consumer goods company was there. And every single one of them wanted to know, you know, how do we do better? You know, how can we disrupt our historic practices and food waste recycling is a really easy one. So it’s, I think we’re gonna see a lot lot more of this.


Sean McMahon  54:40

Well, hey, John, listen, as a guy who grew up on the beach, and I’m now a city slicker. It’s been a pleasure to listen to you and Karen, talk about your farming background and the latest technology that you and your team have deployed. I’ve learned a lot, and I think our listeners will too. So thank you very much for your time.


John Hanselman  54:55

It’s my pleasure. And I really appreciate being able to spend the time talking about how Whenever and food waste


Sean McMahon  55:07

Well, that’s our show for today. We hope you enjoyed it. Be sure to like, follow or subscribe to this show on your favorite podcast platform. You could also follow us on Twitter, where our handle is at sustainability smart pod. And if you want sustainability news delivered to your inbox every day, click on the link in the show notes to subscribe to the SmartBrief on Sustainability newsletter. I’m Sean McMahon. And on behalf of Karen, Evan and Jaan, thank you for listening to our show.