When Marie Audet travels around her native state of Vermont wearing her Blue Spruce Farm T-shirt, she is often greeted by grateful customers.
“People come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I buy Cow Power!’ and it’s really nice — I get to say, ‘Thank you so much!’” Audet says.
The Audets never intended to become celebrity farmers, but the appreciation for the energy their methane digester produces is welcome. Garnering attention wasn’t Blue Spruce Farm’s goal when it became the first dairy to join Vermont’s well-received Cow Power Program; the farm was making a business investment and practicing good stewardship by reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and offering a sustainable energy source to its neighbors.
In 2005, the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation developed the Cow Power program, giving customers the option of buying electricity generated from cow manure. There are 1,200 milking cows at Blue Spruce. Together, they produce 35,000 gallons of manure daily. Thanks to an anaerobic digester, all that manure is given new purpose when collected and placed in the biodigester. Inside the apparatus that resembles a concrete, covered, in-ground pool, excess heat from the generator keeps the manure at the same temperature as the inside of the cow’s stomach, allowing the digestion process to continue. In the 16-foot-deep digester, manure fills 14 feet, allowing 2 feet at the top for the methane gases to collect. That methane goes through generators that transfer the power into a utility grid that supplies power for 4,000 customers — among them independent businesses and homeowners.
Unlike other types of renewable energy, manure is consistent, producing power 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The farm receives payment for the electricity from a combination of a recently state-legislated Feed in Tariff program and Cow Power customers’ payments.
“People laughed at me, at the notion of asking people to pay a little extra for something they believe in,” said David Dunn, CV Public Services Cow Power project leader.
Any skeptics are quiet now. The demand for renewable energy is great.
For the Audets, investing in the digester was the right thing to do, environmentally and financially. After powering the electricity grids, the manure is separated into liquid and solids. An improved nutrient-rich, liquid fertilizer is applied to the Blue Spruce fields, helping to produce the crops that eventually end up back in the digester. The fluffy manure solids are used to make comfortable and clean bedding for the cows. The bedding produced on-site replaces a tractor trailer load of sawdust each week, costing $2,000 per load. The digested manure solids are sold locally, providing the Audets with an additional income stream profit on top of their savings.
“It’s helping five other farms to have affordable bedding for their cows,” Audet says of this additional benefit to the digester’s products. In fact, she feels an increased solidarity with other producers. “We have so much more in common than we have differences,” she says.
Together, the Audet family has maximized the benefits of the methane digester to provide for its neighbors, its cows and itself. Nothing is waste until it is wasted. At Blue Spruce, even water has multiple purposes. Water from the milk-cooling system is used to provide the cows with water. Wastewater is collected and reused to wash the barn floors. Excess heat from the generator is captured through a heat exchanger and provides hot water to the farm for the daily cleaning of the milking system, and for radiant floor heat in the winter.
In addition to all of their recycling practices, the Audets recently worked with the Vermont Land Trust to conserve 441 acres of farmland near their current facility. Their work transcends dairy farming, although Audet never loses sight of the joy in being a food producer.
“It’s a good feeling that you’re helping to feed people,” she says. “It’s an honorable job.”
It is no wonder that the Audets have achieved acclaim in the world of farming. Any celebrity status they have earned through their creative environmental protection is more than deserved.