When brothers Kevin and Daryl Maas founded Farm Power, there wasn’t a lot of public awareness or support among Washington State dairy farmers for manure digesters. Although manure has been used for millennia as a fertilizer, proving that there was worthwhile value in cow droppings as an energy and bedding source was a sophisticated concept to develop among farmers, politicians and the Skagit County community. Luckily, this dynamic duo were prepared to fight for their cause and wound up triumphing a business model that helps keep dairy farmers increase their bottom line—and their green line too.
GG: What inspired you to start Farm Power?
KM: It was a combination of an interest in renewable interest and agriculture and wrapping that all together in with the community where I grew up. For a number of years, I’ve been hoping for an opportunity that would tie those all together, and Farm Power was it. We’re trying to support the dairy community and at the same time create renewable energy—while doing it in Skagit County, Washington.
GG: So we have to ask, in all seriousness, what’s so special about cow poo?
KM: Well, it’s an unrecognized resource. For thousands of years cow manure was used as a fertilizer. It’s only recently that we replaced it with commercial fertilizers, but people have already forgotten that purpose it held. The added advantage that there’s also energy locked in it is pretty cool. It’s an interesting discussion to talk to farmers—who view manure handling as kind of an issue for them—and then go to people with more of an urban perspective who see manure as something they just want to go away. That’s why we have waste water treatment plants that make our waste just disappear—or so we think. Farmers are typically less interested in manure just disappearing, especially when we can make energy out of it and kick some of that back to them.
GG: How far do you think we can take this concept of making energy out of waste products like manure or methane sourced from landfills? Do these resources have potential to be major players in the bio-fuels and bio-mass markets?
KM: It’s not a simple answer, but the reality is that if you took all the manure in the United States, and turned it into energy, you’d only make up a couple percent of our energy needs. So it’s never going to solve all our problems. There is a lot of manure out there, but we also need an enormous amount of energy. So it’s a viable component, but it’s not a silver bullet. I like to call it a silver bee-bee and then you go out and find other bee-bees to collectively power the country.
The thing that needs to work for more energy to be extracted from manure is the spread of models similar to Farm Power’s. Right now we’re working with two farms on our first project and the reason that we’re there at all is because neither of those mid-sized farms would be able to put in a digester on their own—it’s just too expensive. But if the organization to bring farmers together like this spreads or if the technology gets cheaper, it can happen on a broader scale.
You mentioned landfills. There’s definitely a lot of opportunity with landfills, but I think we have to ask ourselves how far into the future we want to keep using the very 20th century approach to waste—just piling it all up into landfills. Yes, we can get methane out of our landfills, but I’m hoping we find better ways to meet our energy and waste needs. If you look at the Europeans, they handle their municipal waste much more aggressively. They separate things out, digest some of it and compost the rest. It would be really cool if we could get there.
GG: On your website, it says that Farm Power believes in farming that is both economically profitable and sustainable. How does your business model help achieve this goal for them?
KM: One of the things we’re attempting to do is make a medium sized farm more viable by extracting extra value from manure and providing the farmers with value. We separate out the solids from the digested manure and that actually becomes the cow bedding. So in all, we’re saving the two farms we’re working with almost $10, 000 a month just on bedding costs. That’s on top of the energy created and fertilizer that comes out of the process. And that helps—it doesn’t make up for low milk prices or other bigger issues, but it’s a noticeable help.
The farms we work with are spending at least a couple of million dollars a year. And we might shave their costs by only one or two percent, but they operate on really think margins. For most of 2009, dairy farmers in Washington lost vast sums of money. So while we can’t give them more value than their milk does, we can help their margins a bit.
As far as sustainability goes, there’s quite a bit of talk about the impact of livestock on the climate and we’re trying to operate ahead of that—before regulations get put in place and force farmers to make changes. We would like to do this now, so that when the inevitable climate regulations come, the farmers can say, “Hey we’ve already got a digester. We’re processing our manure and reducing the methane emissions from it, we’ve got our own renewable bedding source and natural fertilizer.” By the way, the liquid is still a fertilizer that can be used by the farmers as well for their pastures. And it’s actually easier to work with and easier for the plants to benefit from this year as opposed to several years down the road.
GG: How important is the component of collaborative community action in terms of sustainability and profitability.
KM: It’s pretty vital. We spent the first year and a half that we were in business, going through the smaller community of Northwest Washington, just north of Seattle, making sure that everyone knew what we were doing and that we weren’t going to frighten anybody. We enacted the concept of no sudden moves, because the last thing that we wanted to happen with a project like this is that people would get surprised and start to feel the, “not in my backyard” syndrome. We wanted to reach out to people and explain what we were doing.
That worked well when we started and also when we needed to change some legislation. Former legislation recognized that there was manure and there was compost, but there was no category for manure that has gone through a digester. But because we had spent a lot of time talking to people and community leaders and politicians, when the time came for us to make the changes we needed to happen in order to continue our business, we had a lot of support.
If you’ve looked at the Farm Power blog, you’ve seen pictures of the ribbon cutting that we did a few months ago. That was the result of keeping our community relations strong and we had a couple hundred people out for the fun.
Kevin Maas is the co-founder of Farm Power, a collaborative organization that provides and runs manure digesters for mid-sized dairy farms in Northwest Washington State. Kevin is also a speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Seattle, Washington.
GoGreen 2010 Seattle is a full-day sustainability conference geared towards businesses seeking actionable steps to greening their operations. The conference takes place April 21, 2010 at the Olive8 at the Hyatt (LEED certified Silver). Early Bird tickets are on-sale now through April 1, 2010. Tickets are $175 each for single Early Bird Full Day Admission and $150 Early Bird Full Day Admission for Groups of 2 or more. More information can be found at: http://www.seattle.gogreenconference.net/registration/
For more information about Kevin Maas and Farm Power, please visit: http://www.farmpower.org
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