ELSANOR, Alabama — A small group of scientists from diverse backgrounds have gathered together in the tiny rural community of Elsanor to work on a common goal.
“We’re taking something that God has given us and are using it to create better soil,” said Frankie Darsey, facilities development manager for Chonex.
According to its website, chonex.ag, the company was founded “by a team of experienced entrepreneurs, farmers and scientists with the mission of helping farmers building a more sustainable food supply.”
Using larvae from the black soldier fly, Chonex is developing a process of recycling chicken manure into organic fertilizer.
Founded by Birmingham-based entrepreneur Michael Lynch and fifth generation farmer Harley Martin, the Chonex team has been working for more than two years to develop its process.
Darsey holds a bachelor’s degree from Kennesaw State University in Georgia and has experience as a farm manager working with farms in Georgia. He has also worked for the Baton Rouge Zoo.
He was serving as lead sales distribution manager at Pecan Point Farm and Creamery in Hurtsboro when he joined the Chonex team in May.
Darsey was joined by his fiancée, Chief Entomologist Lori Moshman, a New York native who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology, plant science and entomology from Cornell University and a master’s degree in entomology from Louisiana State University.
She ran a black soldier fly operation at White Oak Pastures, the largest organic farm in the Eastern U.S., feeding over 200,000 chickens.
In August, they were joined by Chris Hornsby. With a background in engineering and environmental studies, Hornsby spent four years working with University Farm at Sewanee: The University of the South developing a program utilizing the black soldier fly in waste management systems.
Together with local resident Cade Smith, they set up on property in Elsanor, located next to Cal-Maine, the largest egg producer in the United States, who agreed to supply all of the product for the project.
“We were fortunate enough to have them,” Darsey said. “They have been so nice to allow us to come in and get whatever we need and certainly without them this project would not have been possible.”
Darsey and Moshman set up an office in a modular building that was already on the property, then were able to set up a nursery operation using a shipping container supplied by Affordable Connex in Robertsdale.
In addition, they build a facility they refer to as the Chonex Tunnel, or “Chunnel”. Inside the facility are housed hundreds of larvae which are split into two groups call “Feeders” and “Breeders.”
Breeders are grown into adult flies which are then used to produce more larvae, which eventually become feeders, which are used to process the chicken waste received from Cal-Maine into an organic fertilizer.
“Chonex is the first U.S. nutrient recycling company that has received FDA approval to recycle poultry manure, through a biological process, into high-value products that can be sold back into the agriculture ecosystem,” according to the company’s website. “Chonex recycles poultry manure into an AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) approved certified organic livestock protein feed, and an OMRI-certified (Organic Materials Review Institute) organic fertilizer with anti-fungal properties and high micro-nutrient concentrations.
“This process will help the egg and poultry industry address the important challenge of building a more sustainable way to meet the world’s demand for egg and poultry.”
The process is relatively simple, Moshman said.
Breeders, which are grown in the Chonex tunnel are transferred to the nursery and are kept in a relatively warm (86 to 96-degree) environment under UV lights which are conducive to mating.
The female flies lay eggs into small cardboard containers, which are harvested daily and transferred into the tunnel system where they are separated where some are grown for breeders and some are used for feeders.
“It takes about two days until the flies are ready to mate, two days to produce eggs and two days for the eggs to hatch,” Moshman said. Overall, the entire lifespan of one fly is about one to two weeks.
In that time, one female will lay about 600 eggs.
In total the system consists of five breeding cages, each of which produce about 4 to 6 grams of eggs (one gram is equal to about 36,000 eggs).
“Right now, we are producing about 100 pounds of fertilizer a day,” Moshman said. “Our goal is to produce about a ton (2,000 pounds) a day.”
The process involves applying a specialized blend of bacteria, ammonia inhibitors, other specialized micro-organisms, and black soldier fly larvae to poultry waste which then consumes and recycles the manure into a high-value organic NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium) fertilizer with special anti-fungal, microbial properties and an approved protein feed for poultry and acquaculture.
With all of the facilities in place, the group is currently in the process of receiving certification from the International Fertilizer Development Center in hopes of producing a sustainable, viable product by the end of this year.
“We are really optimistic at this point that we are on our way to producing a viable product,” Darsey said. “It’s just a matter of time before we are ready to hit the market.”