STARTUP PROFILE - CSS: Firm Pioneers Use for Farm & Environment Benefit
Posted on March 09, 2017 16:45 PM by sthara
While working on Wall Street, Dan Morash, who studied organic chemistry at Yale and is a Dartmouth M.B.A. graduate, spent a lot of time looking at the adaptive reuse of waste.
The global head of energy and infrastructure for CIT was responsible for evaluating the financial and risk characteristics of various waste technologies for his company. In his research, Morash realized that technology that captured value from food waste was practically nonexistent, despite the enormous amount of waste that was being produced. “As much as 40 percent of food production gets wasted. It’s just an astounding number,” Morash exasperatedly said during a recent interview.
It’s one of the reasons that Morash left a very good job on the East Coast in investment banking to pursue a technological process he came across that could help reduce the amount of food being wasted. In 2011, Morash joined his brother David in California and together took the necessary steps to start California Safe Soil (CSS), which is a fresh food recycler that aims to increase the productivity of farms at a low cost, while also helping to improve the environment. In 2012, they secured an agreement with Safeway Company, signed a research agreement with UC Davis and leased a facility in West Sacramento that is currently serving as their pilot plant — and they were in business.
What Makes CSS Unique?
Several companies divert food waste and process it for other uses. So why is California Safe Soil unique? As founder and managing member of the company, Morash developed a patent-pending composting process that collects culled organic waste on day one, processes it into fertilizer the next, and makes it available to be run through a farmer’s existing drip lines by the third day.
Once collected and deposited at the processing plant, converting the organic material into fertilizer takes only three hours utilizing a process called aerobic enzymatic digestion. The process actually emulates the human digestive system (biomimicry). Organisms that live in the soil consume the same nutrients humans do. By applying heat, mechanical action, and a cocktail of enzymes similar to those found in human digestion, the slurry of finely ground waste is eventually turned into amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars that sustain and support life in soil organisms just as these nutrients sustain life in humans.
The CSS composting process is remarkably efficient, recycling 100 percent of the waste taken in. About 90 percent of the processed product is turned into liquid fertilizer, otherwise known by the brand name Harvest to Harvest, or H2H. The other 10 percent is turned into solids that can be used as feed.
The process is also drought friendly. No water is added during the composting process. The product becomes a liquid because of the amount of water already contained in food. The CSS system simply utilizes the water that is in the food waste.
The efficient collection of food waste is a critical part of the technology. “CSS’s collection technique preserves the quality of waste. It’s the guts of what CSS does,” Morash said.
The process captures a lot of the value of the food that can no longer be sold to the public. In other words, it collects and processes food that is not fit for human consumption, but has not yet reached putrescence (has not rotted). Once food is putrescent, there is little that can be done with it. It’s not good for composting either. It typically ends up as daily cover in landfills, creating methane GHG emissions, among other environmental issues.
Morash explained that the firm’s collection containers have special insulated double walls and are placed in the back of the supermarkets. “It’s a great deal for them,” he said. “It improves store hygiene since the waste is picked up every other day.” He added, “And the containers are easier for the store employees to use because they are located inside the building and waste does not have to be taken outside to a dumpster.”
Once CSS starts operating on a commercial scale, supermarkets can use empty delivery trucks to backhaul the sealed food waste containers to their distribution centers. Since CSS’s plants have no emissions, no effluents, no solid waste, and no nuisance odors, the firm expects to easily obtain all necessary licenses and permits to co-locate their processing plants with the supermarket distribution centers. This will eliminate the cost of long-distance hauling of food waste. “That’s good from an economic perspective and an environmental footprint perspective,” said Morash.
The same technology can be applied to food processing facilities in agriculture, he said. Several processors have already asked CSS if they could build a processing plant in Salinas.
According to Morash, using H2H provides other environmental and financial benefits as well. H2H increases the amount of organic matter in the soil and feeds a diverse list of microbes, making the soil healthier. Researchers at UC Davis have said plants that grow in healthy soil are more resistant to salt incursion, disease and infestation.
Morash also says using H2H can cut nitrate fertilizer use by as much as 50 percent. “It’s not that plants need less nitrogen, it’s just that all the activity in the soil stimulates the nitrogen cycle in the soil,” Morash said. “The plant responds by growing more roots which allow it to take-up more water and more fertilizer, making them more efficient. As a result, less fertilizer runs off into streams and groundwater.”
The biggest effect has been seen on berries with yield improvements as high as 25-30 percent. (Morash said some studies shower higher increases, but he’s afraid to use them because he said most people won’t believe it.) He noted that most berries that have been grown in soil treated with H2H showed additional crowning, better production and produced longer into the season.
Why does H2H work so well with berries? “Berries are like the canary in a coal mine,” he said. “They respond significantly to either improved or diminished environmental conditions. When a berry plant is happy, it produces a lot. When it’s not, it doesn’t produce anything.”
Another reason Morash is upbeat about his product is because of some California legislation that has passed recently. Two new laws were signed by Governor Jerry Brown that will require a significant increase in the recycling of organic materials. AB 1826 affects large generators of organic waste and goes into effect in April of next year. AB 1594 will also have a big effect on the food waste market. As of January 1, 2020, recycled material known as alternative daily cover (ADC) is no longer going to be counted as a recycled product. (ADC is green waste that has been applied to a landfill to cover up the day’s trash.)
“There is a lot of material that people think is getting recycled as compost, but is instead getting applied as ADC,” he said. “So suddenly there will be an enormous quantity of organic material that has no place to go, once this law goes into effect.”
Governor Brown also recently signed three other bills into law (AB 876, AB 1045 and AB 1496) that will require food processing facilities and government entities to find better ways to account for and recycle organic material and reduce greenhouse gasses.
“Five Star Sustainably Grown” Certification
CSS is working with a company called SureHarvest on a “Five Star Sustainably Grown” Certification for produce. It’s modeled after the Lodi Rules label for wines. This certification program would be competitively priced with conventional produce and supported by the industry. Essentially the program would inform consumers that producers used a more sustainable process to grow that particular produce, whether they used H2H or not — although H2H users should see increased farm productivity, and score well in the “5 Star” ratings. The bottom line is produce items could receive this certification as long as they scored well on the sustainability metrics rating system that was put in place. As currently envisioned, “5 Star” ratings would include scoring in such sustainability categories as: healthy soils; recycled organics; efficient use of resources (such as water, fertilizer and energy); and food safety, using existing metrics as much as possible.
Morash says the idea is to have a website and information for consumers so they can get comfortable with how sustainably their food has been grown, and as a result, they will buy more of it. “Consumers want to see more information, not less,” he said. “They will also prefer sustainably grown food to conventional, as long as it does not cost more. Growers already use many sustainable growing practices, and would benefit by communicating that to consumers.”
The Future, the Thrive Accelerator Program and Western Growers
As the winner of the Sustainability award at the Forbes AgTech Summit in July, Morash is obviously sweet on the Thrive Accelerator effort. A significant portion of their business has come from growers associated with the accelerator program via word of mouth. “America is known for innovation and American agriculture has been a leader in innovation. There are a thousand ideas out there for every one good one and accelerators help separate out the good from bad.”
Morash thinks Western Growers plays an important role in getting information on new technologies out to members. “That’s part of Western Growers’ mission so it’s logical for them to get involved with us,” he added.
He’s also very appreciative of his mentor Lorri Koster who graciously volunteered to guide CSS through the process. Koster, the Chairman and CEO of Mann Packing Company, thought it was a good idea to bring new ideas to the Salinas Valley that would result in capital investments and jobs. “She’s been a supporter of building a plant in Salinas. The plant will create jobs and help support some of the sustainable agriculture initiatives we have been talking about. She’s been great to work with and we continue to look ahead to that project and working with some of the big packer shippers in the valley,” Morash said. Here’s a link to a video they produced for the program: https://vimeo.com/120824423.
Since winning the award, Morash has also been working with the Silicon Valley Group (SVG), WGs’ strategic partner to continue moving forward. “It was great to win the award,” he said, “but now we need to follow through and execute on the program. Western Growers is also very supportive. Using the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology to hold meetings is a great idea and is something that we are intent on following through on when we have the grand opening for a full-scale commercial plant in Salinas.”
Before moving ahead with a Salinas venture, Morash wants to first take care of a special partner. CSS and Save Mart Supermarkets have a long-term supply contract together. That is why CSS plans to build their first commercial scale plant in McClellan, CA, near Save Mart’s distribution center in Roseville. CSS plans to start construction at McClellan by year end. Morash says they need to take care of them first and once they do, that would then free CSS up to build the plant in Salinas. Morash commented: “Save Mart was early to see the sustainability advantages in what we proposed, and has always been a leader in the industry.”