Opinion: Help, don’t blame farmers (or their cows)
This week’s writer is Paul Ralston is a Middlebury entrepreneur and a former member of the Vermont Legislature. His business, the Vermont Coffee Company, purchases 100 percent of its electricity from Vermont Cow Power farms.
What will it take to solve Vermont’s water quality problems? We don’t know.
The problem of water quality is one issue in which there’s consensus among Vermonters. Unlike the perennial hot topics of education funding and healthcare, no one disputes that Vermont’s waters need cleaning up.
Two Vermont state senators recently proposed dramatically different approaches to this problem. One program places new fees on every parcel of Vermont real estate. The other calls for statewide conversion to organic dairy production. Rather than searching for new taxes and fees to fund a cleanup — particularly regressive ones that make Vermont even less affordable — let’s instead focus on expanding current, effective programs and on exploring yet-to-be-discovered solutions.
The call for a large-scale shift to organic dairy practices is a bold idea, though realistically it faces immutable economic challenges. Switching from conventional to organic dairy practices is compelling based on the higher price of organic vs. conventional milk. In theory, farmers would need fewer cows to create the same profit with less nutrients being applied to cropland. While there are some real advantages, the manure from an organic farm is no different than manure from a conventional farm in terms of the impact it has on water quality.
There are technological solutions for manure management that some of Vermont’s larger dairies have used successfully for more than a decade. A methane digester transforms manure into rich fertilizer for next season’s crops, compost for your garden, bedding for the cows, and methane gas that gets converted into electricity. This abundantly renewable energy source, which is sold locally as Cow Power, also provides dairy farmers with an additional revenue source. There are aesthetic benefits as well that both Vermont residents and visitors will appreciate — farms are more sanitary, attract fewer pests, and are less pungent.
Current manure management technology is economically viable only for big farms, and even they find it financially challenging to install the advanced technologies that can separate phosphorus from digester solids. Smaller farms can’t afford the capital investment to install a methane digester and generator, nor do they have access to one. We need public as well as private investment in the systems and technologies to allow manure to be partially processed on the farm and the “goods” transported to regional digestion facilities where they can be further separated and converted into electricity and, in the future, renewable natural gas. These regional facilities could also process the large amount of food waste that will be completely diverted, by legislative mandate, from Vermont landfills by 2020.
Unlike investment in solar and wind projects, methane-to-electricity infrastructure receives no favorable tax benefits. While the U.S. Congress and the Vermont Legislature discuss public policy around renewable energy and water cleanup, Vermont’s farmers and Green Mountain Power customers who pay a voluntary premium shoulder all the costs of bringing Cow Power online. In my mind, Cow Power is the natural power of Vermont, and it also leads to improved water quality.
We love the idea of more organic farming, if it makes sense economically. The issue at hand is how to improve the water quality in our lakes and streams and how to prevent continued pollution. What can we do right now to build on existing programs? For one, let’s push for renewable energy tax credits — whether the source is sun, wind, water or manure. Second, let’s ensure that all Vermont farmers have access to resources such as methane digesters by directing a portion of the cleanup funds to accelerate adoption of proven methods of manure management and to incent experimentation of new processes.
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