Seeding the Future of Our Food

HERD ABOUT IT?
by Ana Grarian

Ana has been away attending an Agriculture Law and Policy conference at the Vermont Law School.

Pollinate & Cultivate: Seeding the Future of Our Food

a student-organized conference designed to

inspire creative solutions to the many challenges facing our current food systems.

Ana wishes that more students had been required to attend the panels as part of their course work, as it hosted an impressive roster of speakers including Lynn Henning the 2010 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Chris Petersen former president of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, Jack Lazor owner of Butterworks Farm, an organic Jersey dairy in VT., and a host of other folks interested in farming sustainably, the ethical treatment of farm laborers, and the environment.

A Friday afternoon presentation was on the production of electricity from the anaerobic digestion of manure, to produce methane gas. Electricity can be produced and used on the farm and the excess sent into the grid, or the biogas (scrubbed or unscrubbed) could be transferred to a central generating site as is proposed for central New York State. Methane can also be burned on the farm to provide heat in smaller operations, or to simply flare off the methane.

Bill Rowell, a VT CAFO owner who has partnered with Cow Power, spoke about his decision to choose a methane digester, his experiences with it and his view that large farms such as his is essential to the production of food for a growing world. Methane digesters, in his opinion, take care of the pollution and odor problems of large operations, removes noxious gasses such as hydrogen sulfide and provide byproducts to sell such as electric power, and dried manure solids for bedding or composting.

Bill joked that with the reduced odor of the effluent being spread, he has learned that his neighbors have five fingers, not just one, when they wave to him. This is apparently an industry joke. (Ana wonders why one would continue down the road of industrial farmers when your practice turns your rural neighbors legitimately hostile?)

The cost of Bill’s digester project was over $2 million dollars with less than half paid for through government grants and programs paid for by our taxes. Though originally told that his investment (not including the subsidies) would be paid off in 4 1/2 years. Bill feels that figure is more likely to be 7 years and they will be happy if it pays off in 10 years. Built in 2007, they already have to replace the engine due to the corrosive properties of the biogas.

The final speaker was Jack Lazor. Jack and Anne Lazor own Butterworks Farm an organic farm in VT, with a great interest in sustainable products. Jack spoke eloquently about his own manure management program. In VT manure may not be spread on fields from ——- due to problems with run off. Jack investigated keeping cows on a bedding pack.

On many farmes bedding packs are used for youngstock. Additional bedding is added through the winter and by spring there is several feet of tightly compressed, interwoven manure and bedding to remove and spread on the fields. (Ana knows from experience this can be hard work when done by pitchfork and wheelbarrow). Bedding milk cows in this manner has been avoided because the more liquid manure of a grain fed cow can be difficult to manage succesfully.

Jack keeps his herd of Jersey cows in a hoop house with new bedding provided daily, and also feeds hay in moveable hayracks on the pack. Come May Jack spends about two weeks busting up the manure pack and spreading it on his fields, incorporating it into the soil. Jack has inreased the organic matter in his soil by 7-9%, and produces grain without fertilizer inputs.

Jack is all about carbon. Life on earth is based on carbon. Returning carbon and other nutrients to the soil, benefits the soil and makes it more fertile, reducing the need for fertilizers.

Systems which use digesters pull the solids out for reuse as bedding and as a product to sell. This means that the soil on these operations are starved for roughage. The soil becomes compacted and does not hold water as well, nor does it absorb as well the nutrients in the concentrated liquids which comes off the digester.

It should be noted that a bedding system does not use high volume water inputs to move or liquefy manure, saving another important resource – clean water.

“When you look around at 30 years of giving more than you took,
you look around and the earth is giving back to you, that is rewarding.”
Jack Lazor