You can sell crap

Slurry exchanges : How crap can turn into money

There is steam in the field, the nose contracts. What is distributed here on the ground is slurry - or, as experts say: “fresh matter” or “farm manure”. In the opinion of farmers and process engineers, nothing is "disposed of" here, but rather "sensibly recycled". For everyone else, it's just crap. So-called slurry exchanges show that you can turn it into a business.

Manure ... what? Manure exchanges trade in manure, because some farmers have too much of it - and have to get rid of it. A farm is only allowed to keep many pigs or cattle if it has enough space to spread the relevant manure. This is prescribed by the fertilizer ordinance in order to protect soils from too much nitrate, for example. If the farmer does not have enough land, he must ensure that the manure is properly spread elsewhere. He needs a partner.

And some farms that make a living from agriculture can make good use of the natural fertilizer. So manure is traded. That sounds like a yard with large tanks and a huge stench - but in practice it looks very different. Bernd Stania sits in a one-man office in Vechta, Lower Saxony, with computer monitors on the desk and files on the shelves. The phone rings incessantly - farmers from the districts of Vechta and Cloppenburg are looking for buyers for their manure. Neither manure heaps nor transport vehicles can be seen.

“We only mediate. We bring together what belongs together, ”says Stania, he is the managing director of Naturdünger-Verwertungs GmbH. Its business is to organize trading partners and transportation. He's been doing the job since 1988: "It's not that easy now," explains the agricultural expert. The amount of manure has increased - but it is difficult to find buyers.

Carl-Hendrik May from the North Rhine-Westphalia nutrient exchange also speaks of a large network - made up of courtyards, intermediaries, laboratories and associations. And what do you have to leaf out for 100 liters of liquid manure?

“There is actually no fixed price,” says May. For example, the amount, the season (in spring you need fertilizer more urgently than in winter) and the quality, i.e. the nutrient and water content, play a role. “Ultimately, there is no single price for liquid manure. It is always formed regionally between supply and demand, ”May explains.

An interesting detail shows how much the ratios fluctuate: It is not even specified which side has to pay. Sometimes the farmer who has to hand over the manure pays, sometimes the farmer who urgently needs it for arable farming, says May.

"In principle, the company making the transfer has to bear all the costs," says Mays colleague from Lower Saxony, Stania. At least in his region, that is how it is. “If you keep driving, the host company may pay three or four euros - but that's rare.” If you want to learn something about economics, slurry exchanges are worth a look.

According to the economist Justus Haucap, the fact that sometimes the buyer and sometimes the provider pays is rare. "I think the most prominent example is the power exchange," explains the researcher from the University of Düsseldorf. There you can always see that companies with low power consumption pay to get rid of the electricity they produce from the grid.

This also happens in the waste management industry - some garbage can be recycled and is therefore worth something. Sometimes not, companies pay to dispose of them. One also speaks of “negative prices”, says Haucap.

Regardless of who pays whom in the end: A large part of the costs are always spent on transport. Because driving manure far across the country is time-consuming. Stretches of 150 kilometers are not uncommon, says May. Holland has a lot of livestock farming, in the north the Emsland and the Osnabrück region: "That is why there is a large west-east movement in nutrient flows, or a north-south divide." Truck, driver, fuel. And the trucks usually drive back empty, which is also not very economical.

The idea behind the slurry exchange therefore does not always work in practice. “Basically it works on a regional level, but it could work much better. The farmers want that too, ”explains engineer Saskia John, who used to do research on the subject at the University of Bremen. But there are also some hurdles: transport is expensive, the composition of nutrients often fluctuates, and the market is very seasonal. And when it comes to price, there is competition to mineral fertilizers. "That is the biggest economic obstacle so far."

John therefore looked at the question of how manure could be separated into water and nutrients. Then one could transport fertilizer in a solid form in a concentrated manner - and not have to drive so much water through the area. The transports are not only expensive, they also pollute the roads and the environment because more fuel is used and more carbon dioxide is emitted per kilogram of fertilizer, explains the engineer. Compressing manure in such a targeted manner is still difficult from an economic point of view, as she says. And the manure business is a difficult one anyway. (Elmar Stephan and Julia Kilian, dpa)

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