Milorganite celebrating 90th year of production

Milorganite celebrating 90th year of production

Turfgrass legend O.J. Noer played a major part in the fertilizer’s development.

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November 28, 2016

Milorganite is celebrating its 90th year of production and environmental stewardship. One of the nation’s largest recycling programs, Milorganite turns biosolids found in recycled wastewater into a useful fertilizer well known among turfgrass professionals and consumers nationally.

Production of Milorganite resulted from the City of Milwaukee’s dedication to cleaning its waterways. To this day, nutrients from the area’s wastewaters are reclaimed using large-scale, natural processes. The resulting nutrient-rich, recycled material is kiln dried into an environmentally safe fertilizer as an alternative to landfill disposal.

“Milorganite is a tangible, value-added byproduct of our commitment to the environment as it has been for nine decades,” said Jeff Spence, director of marketing for Milorganite. “We approach every aspect of our operation with environmental stewardship in mind to guide our decisions and actions.”

The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District, the government agency that produces and markets Milorganite, is already using alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas and digester methane in its Milorganite production facilities to achieve its goal of having 80 percent of its energy needs supplied from renewable resources by 2035. Milorganite is dried using excess heat from turbines, which are primarily fueled by landfill gas.

“We’re dedicated to lessening the impact of our operations on the environment, so we’re creating value where others may see only waste,” Spence said. “Our landfill gas initiative, launched in 2014, has reduced our dependence on both natural gas and electricity from the grid. Pre-treated landfill gas will continue to be used to generate the majority of our energy for the next 20 years.”

In the early 1900s, Milwaukee’s adoption of the newly developed biosolids sewerage treatment process (activated sludge) resulted in another problem: what to do with the remaining tons of dead microbes. Land-filling was expensive and wasted what was thought to be a potentially valuable resource of recycled nutrients.

In 1923, the sewerage district established a University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture fellowship directed by Oyvind Jull (O.J.) Noer to investigate uses for Milwaukee’s nutrient-rich biosolids. His groundbreaking research determined the product was superior in quality and one-third the cost of manures and single-nutrient chemical fertilizers commonly used at the time. It was the first pelletized, dust-free fertilizer that provided multiple nutrients in a single product.

After experiments demonstrated the product’s success as a fertilizer for field crops and vegetables, Noer turned to golf courses and found two distinct advantages of using the product on turf. First, there was no danger of it burning the turf even with overapplication. Second, it produced a dark-green, dense turf without causing excessive top growth. As word spread among golf course superintendents across the country, Noer knew the product — soon to be called Milorganite — was commercially viable.

The new fertilizer needed a marketable name so a contest advertised in a 1925 edition of National Fertilizer Magazine asked for entries. The first prize of $250 was awarded to fertilizer dealer Alexander M.  McIver & Son, Charleston, S.C., for their entry "Milorganite," derived from Milwaukee Organic Nitrogen.

Through his initial and subsequent decades of research, Noer was instrumental in the commercial success of Milorganite and the founding of the turfgrass industry. The most traveled man in turf, Noer achieved venerable stature within the turf industry for his willingness to share his vast knowledge of turfgrass. During his time with Milorganite, it’s estimated he visited more than 80 percent of the golf courses throughout the country.

In the mid-1930s, MMSD hired Noer to establish the nation’s first soils laboratory solely dedicated to turf grass research, pioneering much of the methodology still used in today’s labs.