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Published September 01, 2008, 12:00 AM

Making leonardite: Long-time additive made in Williston

WILLISTON, N.D. — North Dakota farmers from the early 1980s probably remember “leonardite” being marketed a soil amendment. It’s still being manufactured in the North Dakota and there are those who swear by it and others not convinced.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WILLISTON, N.D. — North Dakota farmers from the early 1980s probably remember “leonardite” being marketed a soil amendment. It’s still being manufactured in the North Dakota and there are those who swear by it and others not convinced.

Meet Cherie Harms, since April the president of the company called Leonardite Products L.L.C., of Williston, N.D.

Leonardite has been commercialized since the since the 1960s — first for agricultural applications and then as “drilling mud” for oil rigs. It is named for A.G. Leonard, a geologist at the University of North Dakota, who found uses for the substance.

Technically, Leonardite has been around for thousands to millions of years.

It is categorized as a partially oxidized form of lignite coal. It’s described as a “brown” form of lignite.

“The other day, I happened to be at the plant,” Harms says. “The wind was blowing and the dust was blowing golden-brown.”

Jay Goos, a North Dakota State University soil scientist, says manufacturers treat the leonardite with a “base” to dissolve it. These solutions are called humates. These might be more beneficial in sandier soils of the world, but not anywhere he can think of in North Dakota.

“The prairie soils of North Dakota already contain a lot of humus and it is similar to compounds in leonardite,” Goos says.

Starting out

Going back a bit, Leonardite Products formerly was owned by GeoResources Inc. which started processing the product in the 1960s. GeoResources in 1982 spent more than $2 million to build the processing plant at Williston. In 1984, the plant then produced it at a clip of 8 tons an hour.

The drilling mud was particularly suited for off-shore drilling, which became its primary commercial use for the product.

In the end, GeoResources got its leonardite from land leased from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, about three miles from the plant. The lignite vein is about 10 to 15 feet below the topsoil. In the spring of 2005, the plant had a fire. Just prior to the fire, the plant was producing some 50 to 75 tons a month.

About the same time as the fire, GeoResources merged with other companies and the combined company turned its focus in oil and gas exploration. Various mining interests, including the Leonardite plant at Williston, were sold to employees on Dec. 31, 2007.

Harms came in as investor and the company’s president of the company, which was renamed Leonardite Products L.L.C. Other principles include Rod Smith, Karl Merk and Mary Mahar.

The plant employs six people and is producing 500 tons a month, Harms says.

“We’re doing okay right now, but I think to meet all of the demand we need to do a minimum of 5 tons an hour.”

The process includes drying, crushing and screen-sizing. The product is available as a crushed ore, an 11-mesh (11 openings per linear inch) and 14-mesh product. The plant puts the products in one-ton sacks, or 50-pound bags.

It is not listed as a soil amendment with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture. Harms says she sells most of it for ag uses in California. The California Department of Food and Agriculture says an application is pending.

It isn’t easy to define what the product does.

‘Nature’s richest’

The company bills their Leonardite as “nature’s richest and most economical source of fully decomposed organic matter.” Harms is in the process of updating promotional materials, which historically have made numerous claims — that Leonardite makes soil nutrients and fertilizers more available to plants, that it helps soils “retain” fertilizer nutrients.

Goos says many of the label claims have not been tested here. Other old claims that it reduces fertilizer “burn” makes no sense to him. Ditto with the idea that it promotes soil microorganisms.

“Most of the trials in this area have not shown yield benefits from the use of Leonardite or humates,” Goos says.

On the other hand, Goos acknowledges there may be some benefit for iron or phosphorus availability in some crops. He says there is literature about it working in Spain to improve the action of iron fertilizers, another claim that hasn’t been tested here.

Goos says the material may be a good source of calcium or sulfur, but that there are probably cheaper sources.

Harms agrees the primary agricultural markets at this point are in places like California and Florida.

“I have talked to farmers who swear by it,” Harms says, although she acknowledges that the Upper Great Plains prairie area perhaps “does not need it as much” as other areas. She says fertilizer companies purchase the material and export it around the world, particularly for fruits and vegetables.

“Right now, I have more demand than (manufacturing) capacity,” she says.

She says about 20 percent of the product is used in drilling mud. Another 20 percent of it goes to foundries for molds in the manufacture of automotive engine parts. About 60 percent is for the agriculture market.

Harms says she’s going to make it a priority to get some new testing for the material.

“It’s expensive, but I don’t think it’s outrageous,” she says, of the tests.

This is Harms’ first foray into manufacturing. She’s had a varied career in business and marketing in North Dakota. Most recently she spent about four years as development director for the North Dakota Trade Office.

A 1974 graduate of Dickinson (N.D.) High School, she received a degree in speech and communication from North Dakota State University in 1979. She sold advertising and worked in numerous broadcast administration posts across in the 1980s and ’90s, served as development director for Mercy Medical Center of Williston and was president of a recording company.

“I have a lot to learn,” she acknowledges. “It’s an example of me jumping in with both feet, but the principles of leonardite sales and marketing are much the same as for broadcasting or the music.”