Mussel Mud

In May of 1989, Ron Sampson, proprietor of PEI Mussel Mud and Natural Fertilizer Co (PEIMM), reviewed the sales results of "mussel mud". In its first year of operation, the business had dredged over 3,500 tons of mussel mud from a local river and 22 farmers had placed orders for autumn delivery. Ron's dream of establishing his own small business seemed one step closer to reality. As he reviewed the events that led to his success, he wondered what should be his priorities for the upcoming year.

History of Mussel Mud on Prince Edward Island

Mussel mud was the term popularised as early as 1806 on Prince Edward Island (PEI) to describe the accumulation of oyster, mussel, quahog and clam shells that mixed with sand and other materials and gathered in 'beds" along the Island rivers and bays. In order to replenish soil fertility, the gathering and spreading of mussel mud by PEI farmers became popular in 1860 and continued as one of the most popular methods of fertilising island farmland until around 1940.


This case was prepared by Professor Tim Carroll of the University of Prince Edward Island for the Atlantic Entrepreneurial Institute as a basis for classroom discussion, and is not meant to illustrate either effective or ineffective management.

Copyright 1992, the Atlantic Entrepreneurial Institute. Reproduction of this case is allowed without permission for educational purposes, but all such reproduction must acknowledge the copyright. This permission does not include publication.


The advent of fertilisers and dolomitic limestone imported from the mainland gradually replaced "mudding" in the same way that the use of manure and other composts was replaced. The new fertilisers and limestone were more scientific in terms of formulations and predictability of their results. The primary value of mussel mud was to increase the pH score (reduce acidity). The same result was accomplished with dolomite limestone which did not require the annual backbreaking ritual of harvesting mussel mud. Although less labour intensive, limestone had to be applied at least every two to three years. Mussel mud reportedly lasted twenty years. Exhibit I contains historical excerpts that cover the facts and folklore of mussel mud use on PEI.

PEI Mussel Mud and Natural Fertilizer Co

In 1986, Ron Sampson became aware of mussel mud and its history on PEI through discussions with farmers. As a technician with the PEI Department of Agriculture, in the Quality Control Division of the Dairy Section, Ron came into regular contact with farmers.

He started to see the commercial prospects for mussel mud when the Department of Agriculture began promoting the concept of sustainable agriculture1. Some of the foundations of sustainable agriculture, such as soil conservation and enhancement, and reduced purchases of off-island imports, were consistent with the features of mussel mud.

1 Sustainable agriculture is the term used to describe a new initiative by the PEI Department of Agriculture that promotes, among other things, non-traditional approaches to agriculture including the concept of ecologically balanced agriculture.

Ron Sampson, from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, became fascinated with the phenomenon of mussel mud. Many of the older farmers were quick to point out the virtues of mussel mud (Exhibit 1). Since Ron had technical training in agriculture and a desire to operate his own business, he decided to pursue the idea of harvesting and selling mussel mud.

Ron Sampson learned that the use of mussel mud on PEI ceased because there was no efficient, non-labour intensive way of harvesting, distributing and spreading it. Many farmers either knew firsthand of its benefits or had heard about its benefits. The reason for the widespread use of fertilisers and limestone was because of availability and convenience, rather than a strongly held belief that fertilisers and limestone were superior products.

It was apparent that in order to revive the use of mussel mud on PEI, a new cost effective way for harvesting and distributing it was necessary. Ron Sampson began discussing the harvesting and distribution problem with Don Allen, the president of Allen Farm Equipment Ltd, a local metal fabrication business. Don Allen was well known for his mechanical ingenuity, having built a successful business of manufacturing and selling potato harvesting and handling equipment on PEI. The key to his success was his ability to modify designs to fit the unique conditions of the island. Ron's discussions with Don Allen led to discussions with John Wellner, President of Maritime Dredging Ltd. Both entrepreneurs provided encouragement and advice to Ron Sampson. They concluded that a combination of suction dredging and modifications to existing farm machinery was the answer to the harvesting and distribution problem.

In June of 1988, Ron Sampson applied to the PEI Department of Industry for assistance in testing the solution to the harvesting and distribution problems. Applying for funding assistance was the first business operation of PEI Mussel Mud and Natural Fertilizer Company. The application included a proposal to dredge the mussel mud and to spread it on land by adapting a conventional manure spreader. The Department granted $11,500 in funding to test the idea. This covered about 80% of the capital and operating costs of establishing one dredging site on East River, just outside Charlottetown, PEI. It did not cover trucking or spreading costs.

In November 1988, with the participation of Maritime Dredging Ltd and Allen Farm Equipment, modem technology was applied to the age-old process of harvesting mussel mud. This technique, with minor modification, was an unqualified success, both from the point of view of harvesting and environmental neutrality. In fact, dredging the beds made the river more hospitable for aquaculture ventures such as cultured mussels.

This success was the beginning of commercial operation of PEI Mussel Mud and Natural Fertilizer Company While retaining his position with the Department of Agriculture, Ron Sampson worked part-time signing up farmers to try mussel mud and making delivery arrangements. Ron Sampson did not see any advantage at this point to incorporating the business. In fact, the business was financed with Ron's $25,000 personal line of credit.

Ron Sampson did not have firm figures on costs, however, he estimated that harvesting, delivering, and spreading a load of mussel mud cost approximately $220 per acre or $16 per tonne. This did not include selling costs or management fees. Ron believed that these costs were at least $1 per tonne.

In 1989, Ron Sampson sold mussel mud to approximately 24 farmers, covering a total of 219 acres. Each producer purchased 5 to 15 acres of mussel mud at $260 per acre.

On behalf of these initial clients, Ron Sampson attempted to get assistance for each producer through the Department of Agriculture. He was successful in getting assistance for most producers for approximately half of the $260. Three producers who signed up late, after assistance was granted, paid the full cost of $260 per acre.

Method of Operation

The process of harvesting mussel mud began with "mapping" a selected river to determine suitable dredging location(s) in terms of depth, breadth and content. These three factors varied greatly from river to river and from location to location along each river.

A suction dredge was used to bring the mussel mud up onto the river bank in much the same way as a vacuum cleaner. The mussel mud and water were pumped into a temporary lagoon on the river bank. The mud settled to the bottom of the lagoon and the water was drained off the top and back into the river. The mud was then loaded, 13.6 tonnes at a time (a 1 acre application), onto trucks and delivered to farms. The trucking cost averaged $60 per load. A hydraulic manure spreader was adapted to spread the mussel mud on the land.

The provincial Department of Environment was invited to assess the process. They concluded that it did not pose any hazard to the environment and, in fact, contributed to a better environment by providing for a freer flowing river. The Cultured Mussel Growers concurred with this finding. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans indicated that Ron Sampson might be eligible for a $2 per ton payment for dredging the river.

Marketing of Mussel Mud

When it became apparent that a feasible process for harvesting and distribution had been developed, Ron Sampson began approaching farmers to determine their interest. Many of the farmers were aware of the "folklore" surrounding mussel mud and, in particular, its ability to replace limestone for raising the pH value of the soil. Although no scientific information was available, many farmers were aware of the micronutrient value of mussel mud and its superior ability to mix with the soil and become a part of the soil. Limestone, on the other hand, runs off the land and therefore has to be applied every three years or so at the rate of 1 to 3 tons per acre. Limestone, delivered and spread on the land, costs approximately $100 per acre. Limestone cultivation was eligible for a subsidy of approximately $30 per acre.

Many of the more progressive farmers, mainly dairy farmers, were intrigued with mussel mud. No one was prepared to stop purchasing limestone completely in favour of mussel mud, but 24 signed up to try it on 2 to 3 acres, on an experimental basis. These were essentially test plots which would be monitored with soil tests over a period of three years.

This arrangement suited the capacity of Ron's operation in the first year. It also allowed him to start collecting valuable soil and tissue information which could be used to verify or disprove the "folklore" surrounding mussel mud. The results of these experiments would not be available for at least 2 years, since a crop would be harvested the year following the mussel mud application.

Since PEI farmers received a subsidy called the Limestone Incentive, Ron inquired about getting a subsidy for mussel mud. Ideally, he would have wanted the Limestone Incentive to apply to mussel mud, but the lack of scientific verification of results made this impossible until soil and tissue tests were completed. There were two programs offered by the Department of Agriculture which were designed to encourage innovative crop production practices. Ron applied for, and obtained, a one-time subsidy for 21 of the 24 farmers under the research and development components of the Atlantic Livestock Feed Initiative (ALFI) and the Sustainable Agriculture Program.

Organization Issues

The past year was a great success from Ron's point of view. He had developed a viable harvesting and distribution method. Financially, he was able to cover costs with his personal line of credit and he had a few thousand dollars left over. Although maintaining a full-time job and working evenings, weekends and holidays on this venture was stressful, he and his family had survived quite well. He considered working at the venture full time, but decided it was not yet capable of supporting his family, and he liked his job with the Department of Agriculture. His job with the Department was flexible, primarily because it involved visiting farmers on an appointment basis.

Ron Sampson had investigated incorporating the business, but had been advised that it was not to his financial benefit at this time. By leasing everything, he had not accumulated any long term debt in launching his venture. Maritime Dredging Ltd had indicated that Ron did not need to invest in equipment because they were prepared to operate as many sites as he wanted.

Ron wondered about future staffing requirements for PEIMM. The farmers who had ordered mussel mud were largely in the Charlottetown area near the East River dredging site. Ron knew that if he was to serve other farmers in the eastern and western parts of PEI, then it was necessary to establish dredging locations in these areas. Although he knew there were many potential sites with abundant mussel mud, he also knew that some sites were probably better than others. However, the mapping process used to identify the best sites required a lot of Ron Sampson's time. And, if he expanded his island market, then he would have to visit farmers, attend farm seminars and make presentations in these areas. The farmers who were using mussel mud represented potential for increased orders, but this required follow-up.

Ron also believed he should promote interest in mussel mud among local agriculture scientists to encourage research. One way of accomplishing this was to hire someone to provide the scientists with timely and properly collected lab material from the farm sites. All of these development efforts, if undertaken, would require time.

Ron Sampson's mussel mud venture had received news coverage and this led to inquiries from as far away as British Columbia. All of these questions concerned patents. Up to this point, Ron had not considered applying for a patent on the process, although he was proceeding with registering the mussel mud name with federal authorities. He had been advised that getting a patent involved retaining a patent lawyer. To Ron, the cost of the process was nearly impossible to predict, although he had been quoted a price of approximately two thousand dollars to get the process started. However, Ron Sampson was not convinced that a patent was necessary to protect the future of his business.

Marketing Issues

Ron Sampson was considering future market expansion opportunities in the farm sector and in the home garden market. He estimated, using Statistics Canada figures, that the total fertiliser/soil enhancement market in the four Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI, and Newfoundland and Labrador) was approximately 150,000 tonnes. He estimated that PEI represented more than 30% of this total and the home garden market represented 15% of total fertiliser consumption.

Ron's initial sales were primarily to Island dairy farmers who cultivated land for the production of forages and cereals. He planned to develop interest among potato producers, the island's largest crop producing sector (approximately 60,000 acres). The southern part of New Brunswick and the Annapolis Valley region of Nova Scotia had similar crop sector profiles, although the mix of crops varied in each area.

Ron had discussed the potential for mussel mud with a few local retailers. They confirmed his belief that there was an increasing interest among consumers for "natural" fertilisers. They also pointed out that these fertilisers were as yet undefined. Conventional fertilisers were rated according to their nitrogen, potash, potassium content (N-P-K). For example, the most popular fertilisers for home gardeners were 6-6-6 and 6-1212. Most consumers were not aware of the technical meaning of these values. They relied on the retailer for recommendations on what they should buy.

Ron was aware that, in the last year, an entrepreneur had successfully marketed sheep manure to home gardeners through independent retailers. He also noted that the fertiliser value of sheep manure was 1-1-1, but this did not seem to be a concern among consumers who were seeking "natural" fertilisers. Ron would have no rating on mussel mud until tests were completed.

Home gardeners also purchased dolomitic limestone, but unlike farmers who bought bulk loads, their purchases were in 20 kg packages. Twenty kilograms of lime cost approximately $10 while 20 kg of conventional fertiliser cost approximately $20. This was also the price of sheep manure.

Ron Sampson knew that if he were to sell mussel mud in retail packages, then he would have to find an economical way to dry the mud. As an experiment, he spread approximately 300 tonnes of mussel mud on an abandoned piece of pavement. He and his entrepreneur friends decided to allow the fertiliser to dry naturally, crush it with heavy equipment and then store it for future use. Ron Sampson was interested in discovering the amount of weight loss caused by drying in order to be prepared to enter the retail market.

The only promotional materials developed by Ron supported his presentation to farmers and other interested parties. They included a ten minute video which showed the harvesting and distribution system, and a pamphlet produced on plain paper (Exhibit 2).

Conclusion

Ron Sampson hoped to continue the success of his mussel mud venture. He was aware of the potential for various forms of government assistance which could help him conduct studies, undertake marketing activities (including hiring personnel), and even purchase capital equipment. He was particularly interested in the marketing personnel program which provided assistance of 75%, 50% and 25% of salary cost on a declining basis over 3 years. Assistance for studies and infrastructure ranged from 25% to 50%.

There were many issues to be decided and Ron Sampson wondered how he should proceed with setting his priorities for the following year's business.


Exhibit 1

History of Mussel Mud on Prince Edward Island

The name "mussel mud" is an island provincialism, the material being obtained from the submarine accumulation of oyster beds, and consisting mainly of oyster shells. But every lowly tribe of the deep has brought its tribute of the store-house of manurial wealth. Oysters, mussels, quahogs, clams, the showy valved petracola and the ebony littorina, the delicate cuminia and the great rugged spired urosalpinx, corraline and starfish, sponge and protozoa lived on and were entombed in its mass, while a thousand harvests of algae added their varied foliage to swell its riches.

In some areas, these shell beds were only 2 or 3 feet deep. More often, they extended downward at least 8 to 10 feet, and in some locations, such as St Peter's Bay, they reached an amazing depth of better than thirty feet. It is impossible to estimate with very great accuracy the total volume of this mud, but there were certainly many millions of tons available for harvesting.

Mussel mud, they said, could "only be taken up in the summer," and they acknowledged the difficulty of manoeuvring a boat or scow to the mussel beds at high water, loading it by hand at low water, and then floating it to the landing place by the next tide.

It was about this time, the early 1860's, that some inventive person, apparently an islander, struck upon the idea of digging mud in winter with the aid of a mechanism operated on the surface of the ice. The identity of the person, or persons, responsible for this discovery is not known. What is clear is that the method was very quickly adopted by island farmers. This was the all-important conceptual and technical breakthrough which was needed to launch the era of extensive mud-digging on Prince Edward Island.

The fact that men would rise so early, travel so far, and work so hard to get mud for their land is the best indicator of its effectiveness. Once the digging began it took a very bad storm, or a prolonged thaw to keep most farmers away from the job, and everyone I spoke with agreed that mussel mud worked wonders with the land.

Athol Roberts of Crossroads was only one of many who emphasized that the crop produced by mussel mud was so superior that in a field you could always tell exactly where the mudding had stopped; and Lome Wiggington claimed there was "a good difference in the height of the hay where you put the mud and where you didn't put it." This boundary, known as the "mud-line," was visible in a field for as long as 20 years or more. The long-term effect of shell-mud was perhaps its most important feature. Year after year, the shells continued to disintegrate, releasing a continual supply of needed lime into the acidic Island soil. Old-timers like Eldon Drummond and Lewis O'Conner claim that there is mudded land in their home areas which even today does not require much lime. Though mud has not been dug in any quantity for 40 years, there are many fields where old shells can still be found, and countless persons, not being aware of the mud-digging practice, have been deeply puzzled in strolling through some back field to discover oyster shells so far from the shore.

Lome Wiggington suggested one additional reason for the discontinuance of digging. "It was a pretty hard job," he said. "The young fellas didn't like the work."

A detailed, biological identification of the contents of mussel mud has been provided by Island naturalist, Francis Bain, who contributed an article on the subject to the Prince Edward Island Agriculturalist on March 11, 1886.

Source: Excerpts from an article "The Mud Diggers" by Professor David Weale, PhD, University of Prince Edward Island, Island Magazine, Fall, 1987, 9 pages.

Exhibit 2

Benefits of Mussel Mud

To the Farmer

From the farmer's standpoint, he would benefit in the following ways:

  1. Reduce his use of NPK (nitrogen, potash, potassium)
  2. Eliminate, for at least 20 years, the application of limestone.
  3. Add many micro-nutrients to his soil.
  4. Improve the organic matter of the soil and increase its stability. Organic matter will improve the structure of the soil, increase its water carrying capabilities, and reduce the soil tendency to erode.

To the Fisherperson

It is well established in the shell fishery that run off from our farms, especially in the last 25 years, has been silting in many of the traditional fishing areas and decreasing water flow and its quality.

A modified suction dredge has been developed to efficiently remove this silt, and the Queens County Shellfish Association Limited have given approval and encouragement, specifically for dredging at the mouth of the Johnson's River to commence in the immediate future.

To the Province

The province is spending about $500,000 per year to assist farmers to lime their land on a regular 3 to 4 year basis. Every area mudded will eliminate the assistance each fanner win receive for many years (20 to 40 estimated).