Massachusetts Dairyman Combines Conservation and Renewable Energy for a Sustainable Future
Massachusetts dairy farmers don’t have the land base to expand into 1,000 or 2,000 cow herds, according to Peter Melnik, a fourth-generation dairyman from Deerfield. Instead, he believes diversity is the key to preserving his family’s 250-cow farm.
In search of that diversity, Melnik and four other dairies are embarking on a methane digester project with far-reaching implications for farmers, the environment and a sustainable future for the region. Organized as AGreen Energy, they will build five identical methane digesters to convert their cows’ manure and waste from food processors in the Boston area into electrical energy and fertilizer. “The way we’re trying to do it is the first in the country,” says Melnik.
AGreen Energy will manage day-to-day operation of the digesters, a key benefit according to Melnik, who points out that dairy farmers only have so many hours available in each day.
"The principal payback from the digesters is from the energy,” he says. “But we will get digested manure and compost to sell to vegetable farmers and local gardeners. We’re also applying for a value-added grant so we can use the excess heat from the digester for a greenhouse.”
“If we don’t capture the methane, it’s just going into the atmosphere. I see the digester as a mini-local bio-cycle – we feed the cows, they process the feed into milk and manure, we capture the manure and methane, and we use that energy to power the farm and grow more food in the greenhouse, where we use our own digested manure as the fertilizer,” he says.
Melnik and his partners have added a further twist that boosts their chances of success and improves the environment: their digesters will also accept organic waste from food manufacturers in the Boston area, incorporating it into the process stream.
“Food waste brings in more energy per pound than manure does, so this enables us to generate the same electricity from our 250-cow dairy as a 1,200 cow dairy that recycled only manure,” Melnik explains. “For a small farm, typically a digester can’t pay for itself. [Incorporating the food waste] is what’s making this project economically viable.”
Melnik praises Massachusetts' progressive energy laws along with the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) program which have made it possible for his family to preserve most of their farm from development and which are now helping to drive the digester project. “My father was a big proponent of the APR program – he and my grandfather kind of built this farm, and my father did his job by preserving it, and now it’s my job and my son’s to preserve it,” says Melnik.
"I think in 20 years methane digesters are going to be commonplace on livestock farms. I am a firm believer that you try as hard as you can to take care of what’s yours. My dream is that someday instead of driving my tractor up to the diesel pump, I will pull my electric tractor up to the digester to refuel.”
» Read more Farm and Food Voices