Here at the VBSA we’re always excited to meet new companies finding ways to use biotechnology to meet customer needs and solve big picture problems with a Vermont flair. We recently met Full Circle Microbes, a biotech start-up that develops microbial inoculants for turning agriculture waste into useful fertilizer.
Founder and CEO Charles Smith recognized a basic irony in modern agriculture: after all the effort to grow a crop, organic material from cultivated plants is discarded as waste if it isn’t part of the harvest. For some growers, like those in the burgeoning hemp industry, up to 95% of cultivated biomass is discarded, contributing to the agriculture sector’s 24% annual global contribution to atmospheric carbon.
As a young company, Full Circle Microbes is focusing their first inoculant product on cannabis, in part because of those high waste rates, but also because hemp cultivation itself is a young and blossoming industry. “We see ourselves as positioned to build environmentalism into the foundation of the hemp industry,” explains Smith. He saw hemp growers as natural allies with his environmental priorities because many are personally and professionally invested in an environmental ethic already.
Demonstrating that the Full Circle Microbes process and philosophy works for cannabis waste is a logical start because cannabis waste is especially difficult to breakdown. The stalks, which are often part of the waste stream, are high in tough-to-breakdown lignin. Yet locked in these same stalks is 80% of the nitrogen absorbed by the hemp plant, nitrogen that growers must provide one way or another.
Traditional thermophilic composting can take over a year to decompose hemp stalks in a process that is long and requires routine maintenance. Full Circle Microbes can turn this former waste into fertilizer in a matter of weeks with a process that is simple and largely hands-off. They recommend chipping the waste biomass, then inoculating with their optimized mix of microbes, then letting it sit for a few weeks. After that, the recycled material can be tilled back into the growing fields.
While Full Circle Microbes wants to provide a product to growers that increases their yield, reduces their carbon footprint, and is easy to apply, their underlying mission is to challenge the mentality of linear thinking that has dominated industrial agricultural practices. Smith summarizes that thought process as “buy, consume, discard”, and points out that it tends to generate piles of waste which, as defined by this linear logic, can’t be used. The Full Circle Microbes approach fundamentally questions the “waste” category by creating a circular relationship where resources are extracted from discarded biomass and reintroduced at the beginning of the growing cycle. Smith describes their circular concept as using modern technology to return to and improve traditional agricultural practices.
The VBSA will be hosting Full Circle Microbes at our first online networking event of 2021 on Thursday, March 18th. They’re looking forward to a discussion on how biotechnology can impact re-thinking the role of organic waste.
If your company is interested in a feature with the VBSA newsletter or speaking at one of our regular networking events, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always interested in sharing the exciting work that is happening in biotechnology around Vermont!