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Growing Power
How the city makes millions crowdsourcing one of the world’s most reliable fertilizers.

At the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, there’s just not enough appreciation for what the little people – the common woman and man – have contributed to the manufacturing of Milorganite, the popular fertilizer the city has distilled from sewage since 1926. “We produced 75 thousand tons at the height of production in the 1970s,” says Jeff Spence, sales and marketing director at MMSD, “and it had a lot to do with the industries in town: Red Star Yeast, the breweries. People forget that component. They think it’s all attributable to households.”

Still, our solid waste remains a dependable resource that flows on even as yeast-heavy industries ebb. With sink waste and other “gray water” included, household effluence makes up roughly 40 percent of the raw product used to make Milorganite, which raked in a profit of $4.1 million in 2012, all money used to fund the district. And that’s nothing to sniff at.

Production of the fertilizer has risen and fallen over the decades and hit a low of 27,693 tons in 2007, prompting MMSD’s board to consider bowing out of the business entirely. But after sales rebounded and production climbed to 50,000 tons of the brown, nutrient-rich pellets in 2012, the future of one of the metro area’s signature products was assured. These days, no other city runs a similar operation – most sell to outside fertilizer companies or agricultural interests, not to retail outlets.

A variety of industries favor Milwaukee’s product because even when it’s overapplied, it doesn’t damage vegetation, unlike other nitrogen-based fertilizers. “It’s hard to screw it up,” says Tim Wagner, superintendent at the Brown Deer Park Golf Course. “You can’t burn the greens with it.”

Whatever’s contained in Milorganite, distributors in the U.S. and Canada export the euphemistically named product to countries in Europe, South America and the Asian Pacific Rim.  Milorganite, if you were wondering, stands for “Milwaukee organic nitrogen.” And what is organic nitrogen? Well, we’ll leave that to the imagination. But it ain’t pretty. 

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