9/22/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., is pushing for increased use of manure biodigesters as part of a broader plan to increase milk production for New York’s fast-growing Greek yogurt industry.
Milk supply must grow an estimated 15 percent to keep up with two existing yogurt plants and two more now in the works.
Biodigesters, which convert manure to methane gas, are an energy-saving, environmentally friendly way of handling extra manure that results from larger herds, Schumer said.
“One of the main barriers family farmers face when expanding is the cost and difficulty of disposing of the increased manure,” he said. “That is why I am reviving a critical federal grant program that has proven instrumental in jump-starting the construction of biodigesters across the country.”
The machines create electricity for farms and excess energy is sold back to the grid. Biodigesters also eliminate manure odors, a common complaint of farm neighbors.
Odorless solids can be used to replace sawdust or sand as bedding for animals. Solids not used for bedding may be further processed and sold as fertilizer.
In addition to manure, digesters can also turn whey, a byproduct of yogurt production, into new renewable energy. This gives yogurt producers a way to benefit from what they now simply dispose of.
The federal 1603 grant program is called “Payments for Specified Renewable Energy Property in Lieu of Tax Credits.” It provides upfront cash that farmers can use to install biodigesters instead of tax credits. The program was scheduled to expire, but Schumer is trying to get it extended, which he said should happen before the year is over.
There are currently 20 biodigesters of varying sizes in New York state. The largest, at the 2,000-cow Synergy Dairy in Wyoming County, cost $7 million to install. The farm obtained a $2,372,406 grant under the federal 1603 grant program to help pay for construction.
The firm Ch4 Biogas, which makes digesters, has at least three projects under active consideration that the 1603 program would make possible. The first, in Lowville, Lewis County, is near Kraft Food’s cream cheese plant. The digester would convert the plant’s food waste and manure from up to 20 nearby dairies into renewable electricity and gas to heat the plant.
The second project in Linwood, Livingston County, would be fueled by waste at the Noblehurst Dairy. The third project is at a 3,000-cow dairy in Oneida County, which is approximately 30 miles away from Chobani yogurt.
However, not all farmers are sold on biodigesters.
Aaron Walker of Walker Farms LLC in Fort Ann, Washington County, said he’s had a number of problems with a digester that went into operation last Feb. 14. “It’s cost us labor,” he said. “We’ve spent weekends trying to make everything run right. It’s not as easy as everyone says.”
The system generates 285 kilowatts around the clock, but he said there have been infrastructure issues with selling power back to the grid. Also, his water has a high sulfur content and scrubbers that are supposed to remove it don’t do a good enough job, which clogs up the engine.
The apparatus cost $2 million to install.
“We’re still waiting for the energy tax grant money,” he said. “It’s a drawn-out process. We’re not super happy yet. Maybe we will be in the end.”
Walker, whose eastern New York farm has 1,050 milk cows, said that Vermont’s “Cow Power” program should be adopted in New York. Green Mountain Power company gives consumers the option of buying electricity produced by manure digesters.
For every kilowatt-hour requested by customers and provided by a Vermont farm, Green Mountain Power pays farmers for the energy at rates set by the state, plus the Cow Power charge of 4 cents for the generation’s environmental and renewable benefits.
Large buyers include Long Trail Brewing Co., Vermont Clothing Co., Middlebury College, Mary Meyer Inc., Stark Mountain Woodworking, Green Mountain College and Handy Toyota.
Schumer said that two other efforts are under way to help New York farms increase production.
Consolidated Animal Feeding Operations are places with 200 or more large animals that are concentrated into relatively small areas.
In August, New York state proposed plans to raise the CAFO threshold from 200 to 300, which would allow smaller farmers to add a significant number of new cows, without facing mandatory expenses normally triggered at 200 animals. Schumer said that 4,455 small dairy farms in New York could take advantage of this change.
However, CAFO rules are federal regulations, so expanding the state threshold might still require federal approval.
On another front, Schumer said the U.S. Department of Agriculture might soon approve Greek yogurt for school lunch programs, which would increase demand for milk even more.