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Farm energy

10/18/05 12:00AM By Vern Grubinger

(HOST) The cost of energy is having a significant impact on farmers, but as commentator Vern Grubinger reports, many of them have developed innovative ways to deal with the situation.


(GRUBINGER) High fuel prices are hitting people hard in the pocketbook, and farmers are no exception. Producing and marketing agricultural products requires energy.

Even before the surge in prices, Vermont farms were into alternatives to fossil fuel, in the form of bio-diesel, manure digesters, wind power, solar power, and, not very alternative in Vermont, wood.

Wood heat is common in farm homes and sugarhouses, and its looking better than ever. There are also some modern wood-chip burners in sugaring operations, like Sweet Tree Farm in Dummer- ston, and greenhouses, like Miskells Tomatoes in Charlotte.

Energy from manure is getting a second look. Anaerobic digesters, where manure is held without oxygen to generate methane, was promoted on dairies several decades ago, for making electricity. Most older digesters have been abandoned because cleaning them out was difficult. Now, improved digester designs have come to Vermont.

At Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, the waste from hundreds of cows is digested and the resulting electricity sold to CVPS. Consumers support that partnership by signing up for cow power. At Whit- combs Dairy in Williston a new technology digests only the liquid portion of separated manure, speeding up the process.

Digesters are expensive and usually require help from the govern- ment to install. They also need a lot of cows, and a lot of manure, to produce enough energy to pay for the equipment. But at the Intervale Foundation in Burlington, a prototype digester is being used to explore low-cost methane generation for small dairy farms.

Wind power is obviously limited to specific sites, and the equip- ment can be expensive. At Merck Forest and Farm Center in Rupert, a small wind system makes sense because their farm is off the grid and their mission includes demonstration of alternative farm practices.

At Butterworks Farm in Westfield, a larger wind system is provi- ding about half the electricity used by their organic dairy farm and yogurt production facility.

Bio-diesel is made by mixing vegetable oil, alcohol and lye. Its pretty simple, but it has to be done carefully to assure safety and yield high quality fuel.

At Cate Farm in Plainfield, biodiesel is being made using fryolater oil from local restaurants. The fuel powers the farms tractors and it heats a handful of greenhouses.

Some farmers decided it's simpler to just burn the waste vegetable oil, without turning it into biodiesel. To do that, Old Athens Farm in Westminster installed waste-oil burners to heat their greenhouses.

At State Line Farm in Shaftsbury, the goal is to produce all of the ingredients needed to make on-farm biodiesel. With proper per- mits, a still was constructed to produce alcohol. They've grown a few tons of canola and mustard seed and built a small biodie- sel plant.

The next step is to install an efficient seed press on the farm to extract the home-grown vegetable oil.

With an Ear to the Ground, this is Vern Grubinger.

Vern Grubinger is the director of the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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