This week Vivid Minds Vivid Futures interviews Ben Ryan of Cow Pow. Together with his wife, Selina, Ben has been providing uniquely heat treated, composted cow manure to gardeners across the New England since 2018. To date they have sold 130 tonnes of bagged Cow Pow!
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I was born in Armidale and when I was 4 years old my dad got a job managing a sheep and cattle property where I grew up. My work ethic came from Dad – he was a bit of a demon on the work front, so I was always looking for something to do to keep myself busy.
When I left school, I started as an apprentice carpenter. I enjoyed the work, but the pay was unreliable, so I thought I would try my hand at something new. I got a job as a wool presser in South West Queensland, quite the change, but I came straight home, did a shearing school and have been shearing now for six years.
Funnily enough, I met my beautiful wife Selina by chance in a shearing shed, so I am glad I made the career change! We are very busy people as, in addition to Cow Pow, Selina is the owner of Pulse Fitness in Uralla and I am a full-time shearer. It’s a good job I like to keep busy!
What does Cow Pow do?
Cow Pow is 100% naturally composted cow manure. We deliver to Armidale, Uralla, Walcha and surrounding areas in NSW. We are really proud of providing a product that adds microbes and nutrients to your soils; it helps your trees, shrubs, lawns, flowers and veggie gardens thrive. It also dramatically improves moisture retention of your soil, leading to sustained and continued soil health.
What led you to start Cow Pow?
I’m not a gardener – I just grow grass – but when Selina came along, she wanted roses and flowers. I grew up in agriculture; everyone was using chemicals and synthetic fertilisers. You get a good response to start, then you need more to sustain the same results. So, I read about the benefits of cow manure and I sourced some for us to try on our own garden and back yard.
Seeing the great results from our trials, we thought, ‘Why not share this natural product with others?’ Realising the potential for this saleable, natural compost, we thought it might be a good side business to help us pay for our wedding. Comically, it even got the nickname ‘Wedding Poo’ from a few of our customers who loved our story!
Together we bagged 75 tonnes by hand, with Selina holding the bags open while I bucketed the manure. It was a lot of hard work, but looking back, it was certainly worth it.
I’m guessing it’s not just cow manure shovelled into bags. What makes Cow Pow unique?
Cow Pow is naturally composted cow manure. There is nothing else added and no hidden chemicals or substances. It is sourced a couple of hours west of Armidale (NSW). We transfer it into large piles and compost it down.
A key feature is that Cow Pow is heat treated or pasteurised, meaning during the composting process it is kept at 60 degrees Celsius for a minimum of 60 days. This heat neutralises all weed pathogens in the raw product but maintains the microbes that improve your soil. Unlike sheep manure, this means no weeds! Cow Pow only grows what you plant, there are no hidden nasties.
Cow Pow has the three main elements that plants require to be healthy, strong, vibrant and yield in abundance: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Some of the commercially available composted manure out there is 50% manure and 50% sawdust. As the sawdust breaks down, it uses vital elements from the manure, decreasing the effectiveness of the compost. When a product is really cheap, you do have to ask yourself why that is the case.
What are some of the challenges of running your own business?
The business didn’t take off at first, but we just hung in there. Going through drought was really challenging and we were ready to give it up two or three times. But we kept analysing what was happening and worked our way through it.
To meet customer demands, we’ve also modified our product since we started. Smaller bags mean they are easier to transport around your garden. And we’ve introduced loose loads for those wanting a large quantity without the plastic waste.
What inspires you?
In my best runs as a shearer, I’m constantly thinking about my wife, Selina. When I come home, she always asks me how many sheep I’ve shorn. So, when I’m on the job, if I’m 10 sheep behind, I pick up the pace and tell myself what a big smile she’ll give me when I get home.
In terms of Cow Pow, I love the idea of providing people with an all-natural product that can improve soil health long term. This means more people becoming self-sustainable and providing for themselves. These small changes not only give us fresh food and a pretty garden but they help cut down on added chemicals and pesticides in our planet. It’s all about growing your own food, knowing exactly where it came from, and what’s in it.
What advice would you give a business just starting out?
You’ve got to be in it to win it. If you think something is going to work, just have a crack at it. Who thought putting poo in a bag would pay for a wedding?
Do your research. I engaged with the New England Gardeners page and chatted with Lou Forsythe. Lou was really influential in keeping me going throughout the drought.
You need to be open to being a bit versatile, especially at first. We only offered bags to start with, then we started offering loose trailer loads. Not just because people want larger quantities, but some people would rather avoid using bags. Our bags are biodegradable, but ideally, we would like to source a compostable bag. So being open to change is important.
I’d like to build the business up so I can employ a couple of workers two to three days a week. It’s a crap job, pardon the pun. They would need to have the same passion I have for soil health and retaining moisture in gardens.
In the past we supplied to local garden centres and nurseries, so this could be something we continue in the spring. I’m always having ideas about how to make variations of Cow Pow by experimenting with adding ingredients to make different blends, and by further screening to make a finer product. So watch this space for new Cow Pow lines.