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VIDEO: Company markets bison compost tea for plants

FARGO, N.D. -- A ranch in Leeds, N.D., is offering manure compost, straight from one of the nation's most iconic animals -- bison.Tom Duenow is president of Bison Compost LLP, which makes and markets bison manure compost. His partners are Shelley...

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Tom Duenow (right) president of Bison Compost LLP of Leeds, mans a booth at the Red River Valley Home and Garden Show at the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D., on Feb. 27, in Fargo, N.D. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

FARGO, N.D. - A ranch in Leeds, N.D., is offering manure compost, straight from one of the nation’s most iconic animals - bison.
Tom Duenow is president of Bison Compost LLP, which makes and markets bison manure compost. His partners are Shelley (Mathison) Holmes, originally from Fargo, N.D., and the Sexhus-Kakela Ranch in Leeds, N.D. Keith Kakela and Dennis Sexhus own the ranch. (Sexhus is a former CEO of the North American Bison Cooperative of New Rockford, N.D.)
Bison Compost started composting nearly three years ago under the Bison Compost LLP name, but is just getting into the “tea bag” market.
The company was showing off its wares with new marketing materials at the Red River Valley Home and Garden Show Feb 26 to 28 in Fargo. It was their first in a series of home and garden shows after appearing at multiple Pride of Dakota shows last fall.
Duenow lives in Elk River, Minn., west of Minneapolis. He worked with the McDonald’s restaurant system in transportation and warehousing for much of his career, and was general manager with a freezer company in his final five years. Duenow’s wife, Judy, grew up in Leeds, next to the Sexhus family.
Holmes, a Fargo native, is married to a medical doctor in Winston Salem, N.C. She was at a North Dakota Women’s Startup Weekend event and met a woman who was developing a bison compost tea product for home and patio gardeners under a different company name. Holmes’ partner eventually dropped out of the business, but Holmes continued with it and needed compost, so she found Bison Compost online, and the two joined efforts.
The compost tea aspect, with the bulk compost and the package compost, was a perfect fit, Duenow says.
Fit to a tea
The raw material for the product comes from the Sexhus-Kakela Ranch, which has a feedlot designed in conjunction with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. The feedlot averages about 2,500 animals, and the pens are about six times larger than a standard beef feedlot would be.
The animals create about 25 million pounds of manure per year. If they composted all of the manure, it would be reduced to about 10 million pounds of compost.
The ranch puts manure into windrows when it’s warm and dry, usually in late May. The windrows stay there and are turned for about four months before they’re ready to market.
“They create a lot of manure, actually too much to get out on the fields and spread,” Duenow says. “I suggested to Dennis a few years ago that maybe he should consider composting: an added value product.”
To advance the business, the company purchased a Vermeer compost turner, a bagging machine and a screener for the purpose. The company calls its bulk product Buffalo Earth. The company created another product called No. 2 Brew Compost Tea.
Dried, screened
Nobody else Duenow knows is packaging the tea product like Bison Compost. The product is dried and screened to tea consistency and put in a tea bag.
“We put a tag on that bag,” Duenow says. “You grab the tea bag by the tag and put it in your watering can the night before you feed your plants. The next day, you have all of the nutrient value of compost in your watering can. You can feed and water your plants at the same time,” he says. “It’s a natural alternative to Miracle Grow. And we think it’s healthier.”
The company gets bagging work done by 4th Corporation, a company that provides residential services for intellectually disabled people based in New Rockford. Workers fill the compost bags in a supervised work environment. “Those folks love what they’re doing and they keep us busy, keeping them full of inventory,” Duenow says. “They don’t like it when they run out of inventory, and they love their jobs.”
The odorless tea product is “geared toward the domestic user, in the homes and their patios,” he says. “It’s a smaller portion and it’s very easy to use,” Duenow says. “They don’t have to mess with the product or touch the product. Thus, the bag and the tag.”
Testing indicates the tea is the same in the water form as it is in the compost form, Duenow says. “We had it tested at a lab in Maine at 24-, 36- and 48-hours. You have to use the nutrient in the water in the first 24 hours or the nutrient in the water does dissipate.”
The “brew” product delivers 0.5 percent “water-insoluble” or “slow-release” nitrogen, diluted in water. It also delivers 0.4 percent available phosphate and 0.5 percent of potassium.
Mystique value
Dave Franzen, a North Dakota State University Extension Service soils specialist, says he can’t comment on the plant food or horticultural value of either the tea or the compost products without seeing any third party research.
Duenow says the research on the product was done at a private laboratory in New England. He says technically, there is not a whole lot of difference between bison and beef manure compost. “We like to think there is a mystique about the bison compost,” he says, adding there aren’t many people offering beef manure compost on the market.
The company in May 2015 was awarded a $135,100 one-year grant from the Agricultural Products Utilization Commission, through the North Dakota Department of Commerce. The grant goes toward marketing costs, including attending trade shows to promote their product. They’ll apply for another APUC grant sometime in the near future.
Part of the marketing plan is developing relationships at shows.
As Duenow was working the home show in Fargo, partner Holmes was working at a home and garden show in Charlotte, N.C., where 55,000 people attend across two separate weekends. “We’re hoping that’s going to start developing wholesale and distribution networks on the East Coast,” Duenow says. They’ll be at a nursery and garden in March in Minot and at a show April 15 to 17 in Bismarck.
They’ve talked with a distributor who markets compost in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine and Vermont. “He markets compost, and he thinks this - the tea part - is a real added value,” he says.
Yards, ounces
People can buy it in Leeds, for $40 per yard. A pickup bed typically holds about a yard and a half, for about $60. A 36-pound box sells for $25, plus postage. A six-pound, one-gallon container goes for $15, plus shipping. A pouch of five tea bags sells for $20. Each tea bag holding 1.5 ounces. One tea bag is designed for a 1-gallon container.
Duenow says Gravel Products Inc. of Minot, N.D., took about 1 million pounds of their product last fall. They’re working with company owners to develop soil blends to be marketed to the public this spring.
The ranch is about 100 miles from Grand Forks and from Minot. “Because Gravel Products is handling our products in Minot, they do hauling a little further than we probably could afford,” Duenow says.

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