Rowdy Yeatts, co-owner of High Plains Biochar, holds a sample of the soil-enhancing product he manufactures at his facility in Laramie.
A series featuring up-and-coming innovations born or growing up in Wyoming
Members of the Wyoming Business Council staff hear it all the time as we travel the state: We have so many great ideas and companies flying under the radar right here in Wyoming. I wish more people knew what was going on.
The Great Ideas series is our effort to tell those stories that make Wyoming proud.
If you know of an original, innovative business picking up steam in your neck of the woods, get in touch with Baylie Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With a wood grinder and a bit of heat, Rowdy Yeatts can turn garbage into agricultural gold.
“My company, High Plains Biochar, takes wood waste that’s otherwise headed for landfills – anything from urban tree waste to beetle-killed trees – and turns it into a nutrient-rich soil additive that improves the health of plants and boosts their drought tolerance,” he said. “We’re really turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure.”
Biochar is, essentially, partially burned wood, Yeatts explained; a type of charcoal. Farmers have been using a similar strategy for hundreds of years by burning their farmlands.
“You’ve seen how fast plants grow back lush and green after a forest fire? Biochar creates a similar environment without the fire,” he said. “We’re really re-learning how ancient farmers used scorched soil.”
Today, he grinds wood waste into chips and cooks it at high temperatures without oxygen, which turns the wood into a crumbly, black, extremely porous, carbon-rich material that acts like a sponge to retain water and nutrients in soil, he explained. Mixing the soil with two to 10 percent biochar generally reaps the best benefit.
Yeatts started his company in Chadron, Neb., and moved it, along with his family, to Laramie in 2017 to be closer to biomass materials and the booming front-range market.
He currently “cooks” the wood chips in a furnace on his property and sells biochar in a variety of volumes. A 1-quart bag is great for a flower pot or two, and his 2-cubic-yard bags can cover 1,000 square feet with a 10-percent mix. His customers hail from across the region and range from backyard flower growers to large-scale farmers.
To demonstrate and test his product, Yeatts’ property in Laramie is sprinkled with his own lush, green test gardens in nearly every corner. He partners with local gardening and youth groups to tend and harvest the gardens for donation.
In addition to providing better access, Yeatts discovered a whole new potential market for his product when he moved the company to Laramie.
“There’s not as much farming going on in Wyoming as there is in Nebraska, and I want to focus on what we have,” he said. “We’ve got cows. I wondered: what if biochar could also add value to the beef-growing industry?”
To answer that question, he continued working with the University of Nebraska’s Department of Animal Science to study the impact of using biochar as a feeding supplement for livestock. It’s the first and only such study to date in the United States.
“We’ve found that when cattle consume even small amounts of biochar – about half-a-cup a day – they gain weight faster and they emit about 15 percent less methane, which is a major contributor to climate change,” he said.
Right now, Yeatts is awaiting approval from the United States Department of Agriculture and the Federal Department of Agriculture in order to fully market his biochar as a nutritional supplement to livestock. When that approval comes through, his business will really start booming, he said.
“And just in case anyone wonders if it’s safe for the animals, I put a sprinkle of biochar in my own breakfast smoothies every morning, and I’m doing just fine,” he said with a laugh.
Besides the business opportunity – he has a business background – Yeatts is proud of the environmental impact his company is making, and the even bigger impact it could make in the future.
“We’re reducing landfill volume, sequestering carbon in soil, improving the health and drought-tolerance of plants, reducing methane from cattle, and I even use the heat generated from the process to heat my home and workshop,” he said.
The company’s current and potential environmental impact is garnering attention from national climate researchers and advocates. A team from the American Association for the Advancement of Science visited for several days recently and made a video about biochar and its impact on global warming.
“Right now, this company is just me, but I hope to grow exponentially and supply this product to livestock producers throughout the region,” he said.
Yeatts has worked with Wyoming Business Council partner Manufacturing Works on producing marketing materials and is currently working with the High Plains Mentor Network to find a business mentor.