Cathie Anderson

McClellan Park startup converts food waste into fertilizer

Clean-technology startup California Safe Soil recently celebrated the start of commercial-scale production of what founder and CEO Dan Morash calls a fork-to-farm fertilizer, produced at McClellan Park with leftover food from grocery stores such as Nugget and SaveMart and public venues such as Golden 1 Center.

“We take food ... and we recycle it because there’s a lot of nutrient value in food, but it does become inedible at a certain stage of the process,” Morash said. “We have double-walled insulated totes and buggies that are very effective tools for collecting the food that’s become inedible. … On Day 1, it’s culled from the supermarket. On Day 2, we get it here and process it and convert it into fertilizer, and on Day 3, it’s at the farm growing the next crop.”

Farmers are testing out Safe Soil’s Harvest-to-Harvest fertilizer on only about 13,000 of more than 25 million acres of California farmland, Morash told me, but the product has been available only since 2013.

“You could have a grower who has 10,000 acres, and they’re doing 20-acre trials with us,” Morash said. “If they get a good result, they say, ‘That’s good. Let’s see if we can replicate that next year.’ I’m with them. I wouldn’t go from 20 acres to 10,000 acres until I have more experience with it, to see what happens. Does it happen the same way every year, or is it different? What kind of problems can crop up?”

Winters grower Craig McNamara, president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, has been using Harvest-to-Harvest on a portion of his land. He said he particularly likes the product because, not only does it help to improve soil health, but it also directly tackles the issue of food waste.

“Their product, Harvest-to-Harvest, really has enhanced our ability to deliver the nutrients and the micronutrients and the microbiotics that are so important in creating soil health,” said McNamara, whose 450-acre Sierra Orchards produces mostly organic walnuts and olive oil. “The other key factor with this product is it really is addressing the national and global issue of food waste. … We’re wasting 40 percent of our food from farm to table.”

California Safe Soil uses a proprietary mix of grinders, enzymes and digesters to produce its fertilizer, developing it in coordination with researchers at UC Davis.

“It’s biomimicry,” Morash said. “What happens when you have your lunch, you chew the food, swallow it, and it goes into your stomach. There are enzymes in your stomach that take proteins, fats and carbohydrates and break them down into fatty acids, amino acids and simple sugars, so you’re taking the long-chain molecules and breaking them down into the short-chain, building-block molecules. That’s what circulates through your bloodstream and nourishes your body. Our process is the same thing.”

Roughly 75 percent of food is liquid, Morash said, so that’s why Harvest-to-Harvest is a liquid as well. He and his team have spent the last few years showing farmers how they can sharply reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and thereby significantly reduce the level of nitrate runoff. That contaminant has been blamed for depleting oxygen levels in streams and groundwater and for feeding algae blooms.

Harvest-to-Harvest fosters soil health, Morash said, and when crops think times are good, they sprout more roots and suck up more of the fertilizer. Consequently, fewer nitrates are left to pollute waterways. California Safe Soil also is developing feed for hogs and chickens.

Morash, 60, worked in investment banking before he founded California Safe Soil with his brother, David Morash. He ran across the concept for Harvest-to-Harvest while reviewing other deals, and he thought development of the product would make a great second career. His children used to say his work was all about arguing about money, he said, but now they call and ask him for the latest news on grocers, venue operators and farmers that he has contracts with.

“We should be able to build one of these facilities in every major city in the country, but it all started right here in Sacramento,” Morash said. “Sacramento fashions itself as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, so we want to make it the Fork-to-Farm Capital, too. That’s our little idea.”

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee