Glades commissioners back biomass harvesting pilot project

Biomass to be converted into nutritious ‘soil amendment’ for farms, ranches

Posted 10/2/20

Glades County commissioners were all in Monday, Sept. 28, on a resolution to support a pilot project

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Glades commissioners back biomass harvesting pilot project

Biomass to be converted into nutritious ‘soil amendment’ for farms, ranches


MOORE HAVEN — Glades County commissioners were all in Monday, Sept. 28, on a resolution to support a pilot project that will convert invasive plants from Lake Okeechobee into fertilizer that can be applied to pasture and croplands. It is set to begin in December.

At the same time, the project to be done by a company called AguaCulture LLC will be helping to clear Lake O’s currently clogged tributaries and canals, thus aiding in reopening the Lake Okeechobee Waterway. Parts of the federally maintained connector joining the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Myers and with the Atlantic Ocean at Fort Pierce, now are closed to navigation because of floating pallets of biomass called tussocks that, while decaying, deposit more nutrient-laden muck on the lake bottom and choke out beneficial, native plants that clean the water.

County Commissioner Donna Storter Long read some background on the project into the record, and said the company, through a representative she’d recently just heard from again, was seeking the commissioners’ support. She noted there was “more information about it than in our agenda packet (available), including a slide show.”

Long introduced her contact, Mike Elfenbein of Port Charlotte, to the board. “I’m just a guy in the insurance industry,” he started, “but I’ve been a constant conservationist for the last 20 years, working on all sorts of projects, from habitat improvement on public land to advocating for sportsman’s issues and conservation issues across the state.”

He told the board he’d been in constant conference calls and meetings with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials over the past few months about this project, along with AguaCulture executives.

Elfenbein explained that they’d sought the others’ expertise in helping to plan this project because it is not exactly his forte. He brought with him AguaCulture’s owner, Nick Szabo, to speak on behalf of the project, and said: “Our intention is to start this project in Glades County. We have reached out to one of your local cow-and-calf operators and asked them to be a part of this program, and they have.” He said they were asking for the board’s support.

“Essentially what we are going to do is limit the need to spray chemicals in the lake to kill vegetation and continue to compound the nutrient problem in the lake. But we’ve done it a step more than just collecting vegetation mechanically from the lake. Nick’s company has a patented process in which we can turn those hyacinths into a liquid fertilizer. In speaking with the Department of Agriculture, we can’t legally call it a liquid fertilizer, so we have to call it a soil amendment. Regardless of what you call it, still serves the same purpose. What you do is take the nutrients from the lake, put it on the land, allow the land to use the nutrients to grow — um, an exception is going to be hay — but it works just as well for sweet corn and sugarcane.”

The pilot project will be a small scale, Elfenbein promised, and “the intent is to be able to use your resolution not only to provide some sort of insulation from those environmental groups that are claiming to want to help but really don’t, but also to be able to use them as a way to garner support from the legislature this spring to request an appropriation of funding to support this project going forward.”

Then he brought Szabo to the podium. “The reason we call it AguaCulture is because what we’re talking about is the ‘culture’ of handling water, right? The ‘culture’ of spraying, the ‘culture’ of leaving muck in the lakes, the ‘culture’ of not really considering what happens down the line with weeds and water, etc.”

He began to present a slide show at that point, to explain “our mission, our road, our solution, land utilization, how our system works, the product, our valuable final products and then we’ll get into some questions.” He began a detailed presentation explaining how they plan to attack “the big picture.

“So we’re committed to becoming a ‘watershed-connect culture’ and restoring it to its rightful place in the economy, and this is substantiated through our ability to envision the big picture and pinpoint the inefficiencies within our industry and provide solutions, which ultimately contributes to our mandate ... so I’m a solutions guy, I love solving problems. Grew up on a farm; Dad used to bring home old machines, and I’d fix ’em”

He spent his youth on a hog farm in Ontario and came down to the United States when the U.S. went to war with Iraq and he said, “‘I’m going to become an American,’ so here I am.”

His company has developed a patented process for harvesting and converting biomass into the soil amendment products for farmers and ranchers.

AguaCulture hauled a lot of sludge and worked with a lot of big companies managing their sludge, he said. In 1975, researchers found that hyacinths could clean up water, and the City of San Diego used water hyacinths to clean up sewage with much success.

Szabo said that the way the state is conducting aquatic weed management today is to use toxic chemicals later shown to have increased algal blooms.

In 2016 there were quite a few hyacinths on Lake Okeechobee, the state contractors came in and sprayed it; right afterward, the lake had major algae blooms.

As plants decay back into the water they suck up the algae. He said, “Our solution — harvest unconsolidated sludge; process to liquid form; pump to shore; then apply product as a soil amendment to government property; then it is sold as hay.”

What happens to all the nutrients? “We are going to cut it and bale it; we’ll find nitrogen and potassium; and we developed a very simple way to take the nutrients, sludge, weeds and repurpose it.”

The bales are wrapped in white plastic to hold nutrients in place; and the product applicator — with a hose pulled behind a standard tractor — applying a light sprinkle.

“We’ve pumped up to 5 miles from large dairy operations to the farm fields ... and we will use the canals leading from the lake to get the product back to hay fields.”

There followed a good hour’s worth of discussion of Szabo’s and Elfenbein’s points, with commissioners and various citizens in the audience contributing and peppering the pair with questions.

It ended with Long making a motion to approve the resolution, which Vice Chairman Weston Pryor seconded, and all commissioners in favor.