Full Circle Microbes: Transforming Hemp Waste Into Gold

Image courtesy of Full Circle Microbes
Kathryn Blume 28 Apr 2020

Ed. Note: This profile was written as part of a paid business partnership.

Charles Smith, co-founder of Full Circle Microbes, sees great opportunity in agricultural settings where organic waste is generated in the same place as a concomitant need for fertilizer or some other nutrient source. In fact, that’s exactly the space his business inhabits in the ecosystem of Vermont’s hemp cultivation community.

Smith, who majored in history – modified with economics – and minored in psychology at Dartmouth, spent several years working in New York City’s finance and tech industries before setting out to build and grow his own business. “I wanted to work on problems and challenges that are worthwhile,” says Smith, “and important to solve.”

This desire, coupled with a strong environmental sensibility, got Smith considering the magnitude of problems stemming from wasted organic matter. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 1/3 of food produced globally is wasted each year. 

“Current practice often puts organic matter in landfills or burn piles – which generates methane and CO2, contributing to climate change.”

“Current practice,” Smith says, “often puts organic matter in landfills or burn piles – which generates methane and CO2, contributing to climate change.” However, recycled effectively, organic matter “can be valuable fertilizer in an agricultural setting.”

So, Smith and his business partners Sam Ross and Dr. Victoria Holden decided to focus on the hemp industry, and started researching microorganisms which break down hemp stalks into usable nutrients when combined in their microbial inoculant.

Dr. Victoria Holden, Director of Microbiology

“The hemp stalk retains a lot of the nutrients that the plant absorbs over the course of its life – in fact, according to the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance, up to 80% of the absorbed nitrogen is retained in stalk,” says Smith.

“That’s a part of the plant that’s commonly disposed of. In fact,” he adds, “a study from North Dakota State University shows 77-87% of the hemp plant is unused or wasted.” The stalks, says Smith, “can be a great source of nutrients if you can access them. And this is where our technology comes in.”

Full Circle’s inoculant is specifically designed for hemp, which has a highly fibrous stalk containing a great deal of lignin, which shields nutrients from being accessed. “Our inoculant is specifically designed for that crop,” says Smith, “and makes a much higher percentage of nutrients available for absorption than other organics recycling techniques.”

Co-Founder Sam Ross

Smith is proud that their technology allows farmers to “keep their nutrients on the farm” and recycle what would be agricultural waste for the benefit of the next year’s crops.

“It’s particularly important,” says Smith, “because cannabis sucks up whatever you put on it,” and a farmer’s ability to recycle their own organic waste is “beneficial to their farm, their brand, and our planet.”

While their technology could potentially be applicable for a wide range of crops, “this is designed specifically for cannabis,” says Smith. “We think there’s a lot of benefit to single crop focus to ensure we’re giving farmers the best product for what they grow and helping them access nutrients that are otherwise wasted. Focusing on cannabis also creates a great opportunity for us to be able to incorporate environmentalism with practical business benefits into the foundation of a fast-growing industry.”

On the ground, the use of Full Circle Microbes’ microbes is a three-step process.

  1. Hemp stalks are run through a wood chipper, which increases surface area for microbes to engage with, making a more useful output.
  2. Farmers apply Full Circle’s inoculant to the pile of hemp stalk chips, and seal the pile under tarps for a microaerobic environment.
  3. After 2-4 weeks, the process is complete and the pile can be used as a top dressing for plants either in the field or in a greenhouse.

“It looks mulchy when it comes out,” says Smith, and “it’s very easy to apply.”

While the Full Circle team is talking to agricultural product distributors, they’re working primarily with Vermont farms like Wintermute in Ryegate. “We really feel like Vermont is a great place for us to focus initially, build foundation. It’s really important to us to develop relationships with growers,” says Smith. “so we understand their business, the constraints they’re dealing with, and how to work with them to be most effective and provide value.”

Wintermute COO Justin Decatur and Full Circle Microbes CEO Charles Smith in front of an inoculated pile of Wintermute’s 2019 harvest residuals.

Smith also wants to make sure their partners understand that their mission, as a company, is to transform organic waste that harms our planet into sustainable fertilizer that helps it. He notes that waste generated by cannabis in California is causing the state to miss its organics diversion goals, and that while Full Circle Microbes may be pitching a product, “we want to make very clear that while it has real financial benefits to growers – top and bottom line – environmentalism is key motivator for us.”

Full Circle Microbes is the After-Party Sponsor for the Vermont Cannabis and Hemp Convention, running September 26-27 at the Champlain Valley Expo.

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