The road to renewable energy: Investing in an on-farm digester

Written by Emily Battmer

Nestled near the Lake Champlain Watershed in Fort Ann, N.Y., Walker Farms LLC recognizes the importance of practicing sustainability on the farm.

“Being in the watershed, we need to do anything we can do to be environmentally friendly,” says Larry Bailey, who operates the farm in partnership with his wife, brother-in-law and mother- and father-in-law.

Bailey knew he wanted to make the farm more eco-friendly, but the decision to build a digester on the 1,150-cow, 2,500-acre operation did not come easy. After four years of research and grant applications, the partners at Walker Farms finally began the process of building the digester, which started producing electricity in February 2012.

Now, Bailey says the continuous flow digester processes manure, sends it through a solids separator and directs the liquid to a lagoon. As the digester processes waste, it generates methane, which is captured and run through a generator to produce enough electricity to power the operation and build up energy credits, which helps the dairy cut energy costs.

“We do produce extra electricity beyond what we use, and that credit is beyond beneficial,” Bailey says.

In addition to the energy efficiency, one of the major benefits of the digester has been the ability to recycle solids for bedding — another sustainable farming practice that has helped reduce costs on the farm.

“We are separating our solids and using our solids for bedding for the animals, which has resulted in big savings on our bedding costs,” Bailey says. “It also provides us a little bit of extra income when we sell some of the extra solids to other farmers and nurseries.”

The digester project has been beneficial for Walker Farms, but its initial implementation was not without its roadblocks. Bailey says coordinating timelines with the digester company wasn’t always easy, and learning to deal with the machine’s quirks was also a challenge.

After two years of struggling, the family finally had to dig up and replace an ill-fitting pipe that was too small to efficiently pump waste from the reception pit to the digester, an unforeseen obstacle that Bailey calls the biggest challenge with the new machine.

“There’s been some challenges, but there have also been a lot of benefits,” Bailey says. “In the grand scheme of the project, with all our grants, this will pay for itself in about 40 months. On a $2 million project, it’s not a bad investment.”

Bailey says the digester could also provide the operation with future opportunities for sourcing outside waste. It is large enough that the family has the option to process waste from nearby grocery stores, restaurants, and food plants in the future, which could provide additional cost and environmental benefits.

Bailey says he would caution farmers to make sure they have a complete understanding of the digester, the digester company and how that company will work with the farmer before committing to a digester project, which can be a large undertaking.

Overall, he says with careful planning, a digester can be a good investment and a great way to reduce a dairy operation’s environmental footprint — but every producer is different and should decide whether it is the right choice for their operation.

“I think the digester is a great investment for somebody who has the time to do the research,” Bailey says. “I believe that farms that are well managed and have the employee power can make these work.”