Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Dairy methane cooperatives

New England dairy farms are high on the list of endangered species these days. Milk prices are plummeting while the cost of doing business continues to skyrocket. Meanwhile, monstrously large dairy operations (I can't call them farms) in the Midwest and California are able to produce milk at prices that it is almost impossible for small family dairy farms to compete with.

But New England farmers are a scrappy lot. Many are also responsible stewards of the land -- a tradition that has been passed along for more than a century in some cases. This combination has farmers in pursuit of ways to manage cow manure in ways that can contribute to their farm's bottom line.

To be able to accomplish that and help mitigate climate change at the same time has got to be a good idea.

A refreshing idea for barnyard odor

Methane digester may reenergize dairies, if only farmers can afford them

By Tara Ballenger
Boston Globe
July 6, 2009

W hen Deerfield farmer Peter Melnik heard about a machine that would make energy from cow manure, he was immediately intrigued.

Not only would using it make his dairy farm more environmentally friendly, the technology could bring in extra cash by converting methane, an odorous and potent greenhouse gas, into electricity that could be sold to the regional power grid.

The machine, called a methane digester, has been popular in Europe since the 1970s, but the idea is just catching on in the United States. Six farms in Vermont have digesters that produce electricity, and Melnik is hoping to be the first Massachusetts farmer to install the machinery.

But the crash of wholesale milk prices, to about half of what they were a year ago, may put this green innovation out of the reach of many independent New England farmers.

The machines come with a $1.7 million price tag, so Melnik has spent nearly two years devising a way to finance the investment. He has received some grant money and hopes to get more, but he will need a large loan, borrowing against a farm that is seeing its dairy revenue plummet.

Melnik joined with four other Massachusetts farmers who want to install digesters to apply for grants and share resources. Last month, they were awarded a $34,800 grant from the state Department of Agricultural Resources. It did not make much of a dent in the overall cost, however.

“It’s a long-term commitment, and [borrowing] a million dollars per farm is a lot,’’ Melnik said. His farm, Bar-Way, milks 250 cows; the other four are similar in size.

Most of the 135 digesters in the United States are used on dairy farms, but there are none in Massachusetts, in part, Melnik said, because technology and grants are geared to bigger farms that can foot the bill for the installation and operating costs of large-scale digesters.

Agriculture is not the only source of methane. Landfills, natural gas leaks, wetlands, and melting Arctic permafrost all add to the problem.

But if all farms worked to reduce methane emissions, it would have a significant impact on global warming, said Ruth Varner, research assistant professor at the Climate Change Research Center of the University of New Hampshire.

“Any way that we can reduce methane emissions is important,’’ Varner said.

Methane’s role in the atmosphere is not as well understood as that of carbon dioxide, she said, but scientists agree that methane traps heat at least 20 times more efficiently than carbon dioxide does. Though it stays in the atmosphere only 12 years, compared with 100 for carbon dioxide, it is still considered to have a long life.

In Vermont, six farms sell energy from their methane digesters to Central Vermont Public Service through Cow Power, a 13-year-old program that businesses and residents can opt into by paying 4 cents extra per kilowatt hour on their electricity bills. The 4 cents, plus the wholesale cost of the electricity, goes back to the farmers.

At Green Mountain Dairy in Sheldon, Vt., Bill Rowell has been turning manure into electricity for two years. The floor of the barns where his 1,500 Holsteins eat and sleep is mechanically scraped, and the manure is channeled into an underground tank, where heat and bacteria produce a gas that is used to turn an electrical generator.

After 21 days in the tank, the remaining manure is separated into solids and liquids, with the liquid flowing to a nearby lagoon and the solid manure dried and used for bedding for the barn or sold as compost.

The digester will pay for itself in about four more years, Rowell said. Meanwhile, finances are too tight to consider other green projects.

“Milk prices are half of what they were last year,’’ Rowell said. “If you have another project that’s a drag on the farm, you can’t really sustain it, and we’re having to recognize that.’’

In Swanton, Vt., Earl Fournier is getting help to reduce the methane emitted when cows burp, another major agricultural source of the gas. Yogurt company Stonyfield Farm is sponsoring a program that helps 15 farmers feed cows flax high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which, according to scientists working with Stonyfield, reduces the methane produced through belching. Fournier’s cows produced 18 percent less methane on the flax.

“I have children; I have grandchildren,’’ Fournier said. “Their future is important, and what we do is going to have a huge impact on their future.’’


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