Nestled in a narrow valley along Route 44 and the Blackberry River in East Canaan, Conn., is an active dairy farm community with progressive operations up and down this rural highway.
In the middle of this busy community is Freund’s Farm, a 300-cow dairy with robots, a farm market and the longest-running manure digester in the country.
But it’s the farm’s CowPots — flowerpots made from manure — that they are best known for. It’s not only given the farm another source of income, but it also has enabled younger members of the family to find their place on the farm.
Turning manure to pots
Matt Freund, the second-generation owner of Freund’s Farm, is credited with coming up with the idea for the CowPots. But as Amanda Freund, the third generation of the family and Matt’s eldest daughter explains, it was a confluence of things that enabled the idea to get off the ground in the first place.
In the 1990s, the farm got involved in the local Canaan Valley Agricultural Cooperative, whose main goal was better farm manure management. The cooperative’s engagement and activity opened it up to grants from the state and USDA, Amanda says, and it was a member of the state’s ag department who suggested the farm look into making flowerpots from manure.
“Well, it resonated with my dad largely because, I think, of our farm market and our garden center," Amanda says. “My dad had the experience each spring of having to rototill the garden only to find biodegradable peat pots that were not breaking down, so he wanted to find a way to come up with these pots.”
Around the same time, a paper manufacturer from Canada went out of business and needed to get rid of its supplies. Amanda says her father contacted the company and bought its equipment after he decided that the flowerpots would be made by molding pulp, a process used to make egg cartons, end caps and clamshell containers.
But instead of using cellulose from the trees — an essential part of the pulp-molding process as this provides the fibers that keep the materials together — manure would be the fiber source.
The farm’s manure digester, which Amanda says is the longest running methane digester in the U.S., was installed in the late 1990s with the original goal of being able to separate the solids from the liquid to dragline manure onto the 500 acres they farm.
A separate composter next to the manure digester was also installed, so a ready source of manure was available for the project to go forward.
With those pieces in place, the next step was getting the process finalized. The very first CowPot, Amanda says, was molded using a kitchen pot. The initial ingredients included glue and beeswax to keep the mold together.
Her father then came up with a pot-molding process that she says made him think more creatively about how to handle the raw manure. Instead of gluing the materials together, they created split ends on the fibers, and the molding process would make those split ends tangle together.
“So it’s the fibers of the cow manure that’s actually what is allowing it to have structural integrity,” Amanda says.
The initial, largely manual process involved putting molds in rehydrated manure — after the manure was composted — and then using a vacuum pump, an old vacuum pump the farm used in the milking facility, to suck out the liquid.
Today, the process is highly automated using a robotic machine that Matt, with the help of a retired Pfizer employee, created. Molds are dipped in rehydrated manure to create the pots. They are then heated in a large industrial oven to get all the moisture out, which Amanda says is crucial because it is the only definitive way to ensure all pathogens are killed.
After being dried, the pots are wrapped for storage or delivery. All this is done in a building right next to the farm’s freestall barn. The storage facility, originally built as a manure storage facility and right down the farm lane, can hold a full season of inventory.
“My dad’s essential priority is that we are a reliable manufacturer,” Amanda says. “He does not want any of our customers to ever not be able to access the product that they want.”
The farm has sold millions of CowPots over the years. A 2006 appearance on the show “Dirty Jobs,” which Amanda says the farm applied to be on, was huge for marketing as it exposed them to a national audience.
They make 14 different sizes, ranging from 3-inch starter squares to large round pots that are 17 inches in diameter. Their sales season is mostly seasonal — from December through April as this is when people typically start transplants and annuals for their gardens.
Shipping costs are a struggle. As the farm doesn’t push shipping volume year-round — sometimes they get large special orders that get shipped throughout the year — it prevents them from getting better shipping rates from the likes of the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx or UPS, she explains. So, building relationships with local distributors, including ones in Ohio, Wisconsin and Oregon, has been key.
“These are locations where they can take in multiple pallets of product, so that when they’re shipping, it’s a whole lot cheaper to do so,” she says. “So that’s gold for us.”
Balancing 3 businesses
CowPots is one of three businesses the farm runs: the dairy itself, CowPots and Freund’s Farm Market.
The setup has allowed Amanda and two of her siblings, Isaac and Rachel, to work on the farm full time. Isaac and Amanda are involved in the dairy along with an uncle, Ben, while Amanda and her father oversee CowPots. Rachel is involved in the farm market with her mother, Theresa.
Another sister, Emily, works on another farm.
While the businesses are run separately, there are a lot of synergies. The market, for example, has been essential for the CowPots business to grow.
“The farm market is what pushed the CowPots business forward because we had access to the market's greenhouses and could trial varying recipes, pot sizes, growing and watering procedures,” Amanda says. “We have a lot more legitimacy when we talk with prospective CowPots customers about how to grow in our pots, because we have that firsthand experience in my mom's greenhouse. We also have the opportunity to capture all the photo content for our marketing materials and social media from the plants she's growing and maintaining for her business, using CowPots.”
But synergies were also needed between the dairy and the CowPots. She says the recipe her father created enables a constant flow of manure and, most importantly, does not dictate to the dairy what should be fed to the cows.
The fact that the solids used for the CowPots are the same solids used for bedding, Amanda says, allows them to create a more consistent, high-quality product.
"We're bringing to market a viable alternative that's renewable; our cows are making it every single day. It's recycled, because before it was even made into a CowPot it generated energy," she says. “And it's biodegradable."
Having three businesses is also good for managing risk. “It reached a point where we actually made more on the manure than our milk,” she says.
Amanda left the family business when she was younger to travel and see the world. She served in Zambia for the Peace Corps and traveled to other places around the world. But it took being far away, and weekly phone calls with her dad, to realize that farming was still in her blood, and it’s where she wanted to be.
At 37, she’s focused on growing the CowPots business well into the future.
“I don’t know if the dairy could support all of the members of the family that are here,” Amanda says. “I get to feed cows in the morning, and then put on my CowPots hat on really focus on helping build the business, which I prefer.”
Advice for other farms interested in pursuing secondary income streams? Stay persistent.
“We have been turned down and turned away many, many times,” she says. “But that's what happens when you're in direct sales. So, you brush it off, don't let it bruise your ego too badly, and you go back the next year and the next year until you find the right person, in the right place to decide to give you a try.
“Occasionally you get lucky, but most of the business and sales we have captured over the past 15 years have been hard-earned and required so much persistence. For the first few years, our product was considered gimmicky. A poo pot might get a chuckle, but wasn't really taken seriously. We were ahead of the curve when it came to promoting an alternative to single-use plastic.”