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Friday, 07/18/2008 6:59:46 PM

Friday, July 18, 2008 6:59:46 PM

Post# of 300
Article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
http://www.ajc.com/search/content/business/stories/2008/07/03/chicken_manure_fertilizer.html

Market growing for Alpharetta firm's 'chicken litter' fertilizer


By DOUG NURSE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


It's a fertile world for Organic Growing Systems in Alpharetta.

The newly formed company is cashing in on the rising price of synthetic fertilizer by specializing in reconstituted "chicken litter," as it's delicately put.


Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
(ENLARGE)
Chris Nichols (right) and nephew Marc Nichols of Organic Growing Systems in Alpharetta are cashing in on the rising price of synthetic fertilizer by specializing in a natural alternative.

As the price of traditional, petroleum-based fertilizer skyrocketed 200 percent to 300 percent since 2005, more and more farmers and sod-growers are turning to natural alternatives, said Chris Nichols, the company CEO.

"Everyone is looking at us like we're the hot chick at the prom," said Marc Nichols, Chris' nephew and national sales manager. "Today we sold a third of what we did last year."

And the future looks even better.

In September, the company had 11 steady customers; now it has close to 200, including turf companies, farmers, cities and golf courses, as well as Piedmont Park.

"We placed an order with them last year, and we're placing a second order this year," said Chris Nelson, chief operating officer for Piedmont Park Conservancy. "That should send a message that we're happy with the product."

Chris Nichols said that in January 2007, diammonium phosphate cost $252 a ton. Now it's $1,050 a ton.

He can sell chicken manure fertilizer for $350 to $450 a ton.

Organic Growing Systems, a subsidiary of Advance Growing Systems, has one plant, a 30,000-square-foot facility in Monticello, Miss., that produces up to 30 tons of nitrogen-rich chicken fertilizer a day. But Chris Nichols is expanding the Mississippi plant to generate up to 200 tons of chicken litter fertilizer a day by this fall. He also is planning to build another, larger facility near Gainesville within two years and others in Texas and California within five years.

"We're trying to be first at the top," Marc Nichols said. "We're trying to be the national brand."

It was a curious trail that brought Chris Nichols, a financier, to the chicken manure industry. His brother (and Marc's father), Mark Nichols, a landscape and sod expert, was brought in to look at the dead lawn of an expansive home in west Cobb County in 2003. He consulted with another expert from Texas, who brought a load of fertilizer, told them to spread it before and after the replacement sod was laid, and water it like a regular lawn. Mark Nichols was skeptical. Usually, that much fertilizer and that little water will burn sod to a crisp.

Mark Nichols came back in a month and found a thriving lawn. He promptly called his finance guru brother and told him they had to get in on this. Chris Nichols did research and decided it was doable. In 2007, they secured financing and bought a plant in Mississippi from an 81-year-old man who knew the product but not the financing and marketing.

After about a year, Organic Growing Systems overhauled its sales force and business took off.

The beauty of chicken manure as a fertilizer is that it becomes soil, feeding beneficial microbes in the dirt, which continues to nourish the plant, said Chris Nichols. Over time, farmers need less and less of the fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizer feeds the plant but doesn't add anything to the soil, he said.

Virtually all of the chicken fertilizer is consumed by plants or rebuilding soil, said John Chapman, general manager of a 2,500-acre turf farm in Foley, Ala., and an Organic Growing Systems customer.

"There's nothing negative about the product," Chapman said. "This stuff flat works."

For poultry farmers, manure is a massive headache, something to get rid of, and they're happy to sell it for the cost of shipping. It's hauled in dump trucks to the plant, where it's semi-dried, sterilized, mixed with other stuff like ground feathers for protein, a little yucca for the odor, shells from shrimp and whatnot for binder, and then made into pellets by squeezing it like Play-doh through little holes.

The fact the product is environmentally friendly is a plus, but for most customers, cost and effectiveness are the driving factors, Marc Nichols said.

"It's not that they're green," he said. "They want it to be good for the plant, but it has to be good for the pocketbook."

Chapman said that using natural fertilizer pays for itself over the long haul.

"Used to, it wasn't cost effective for the first few years, but since synthetic fertilizer is going up, it's now an easier decision to make," Chapman said. "The more you do it, the less you use. That's not the case with most product. It's a long-term thing. Once you look at the big picture, it becomes even more cost-effective."

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