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The value of being greener

Farmers find that energy efficiency pays off by saving money, protecting environment

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By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / August 22, 2011

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There was a time when farm life was impossible without a big, beefy truck. Carting bales of hay and hauling equipment took a burly gas-guzzler.

At Otter River Farm, David Smith’s utility vehicle uses no gas at all. Zipping around his dairy in Winchendon, home to Smith’s Country Cheese, on a zero-emissions golf cart, Smith is blazing a path for greener and cleaner times in agriculture.

“We rely on electricity to run everything: pumps to circulate water, oil to run the boilers,’’ said the plainspoken cheese maker, chatting on the porch of his country store. “We are heating a lot of milk and need hot water for sanitation. It’s a pretty energy-intensive enterprise.’’

Massachusetts dairy farmers like Smith have taken steps in recent years to change their energy consumption through more efficient and sustainable practices. They are cutting costs in the process, important in an industry that operates on thin margins.

The half-dozen changes Smith has made, including installing photovoltaic panels on the roof to convert solar energy into cheese power, has helped reduce his energy costs by 60 percent.

Without the solar panels, new efficient lighting, and an energy-conserving fan system in his refrigeration room, Smith would be paying $3,000 a month for electricity. Instead, his bill last month was $1,200.

Smith’s eureka moment came in the mail five years ago, when he received a sky-high electricity bill.

“It gets your attention when you have costs that double, and don’t just go up gradually,’’ he said. “I was like, ‘Whoa, something needs to be done.’ ’’

The 112 photovoltaic panels, installed above the building where curds are pressed into wheels, brined, and aged into creamy smoked gouda, havarti, and cheddar, generate 33 percent of his electricity and save $1,000 a month, he estimates.

It takes 110 pounds of milk to make one wheel of gouda, and that means a lot of energy. His 200 Holsteins have to be milked three times a day to keep them healthy. Smith rises at 3 a.m. and oversees the early-morning session.

A variable-speed vacuum pump installed in his milking parlor in March enables him to milk 60 cows an hour and to cut back considerably on fuel, saving $300 a month. The system streamlines the process by revving up when the cows are ready to be milked and slowing down when they are done.

An agricultural energy grant from the state and incentives from National Grid helped defray costs.

“Someone has to start the ball rolling; that’s why these incentives are out there, and hopefully we can become less reliant on oil, at least foreign oil,’’ said Smith, 65.

“Farmers are the hardest-working, most honest people you will ever meet,’’ said Gerald Palano, energy efficiency and renewable energy coordinator for the state Department of Agricultural Resources. “I really want to assist them.’’

Every week, Palano visits dairies, orchards, livestock farms, nurseries, and maple sugar farms to discuss green initiatives. Steps as simple as better lighting, or a major undertaking like wind power, come with financial incentives such as rebates, grants, or tax credits, from programs such as the Massachusetts Farm Energy Program.

“We need to make sure that agriculture remains an important part of our Commonwealth,’’ he said.

A long-term sustainable energy plan should be as important as “maintaining good soil and rotating crops’’ to farmers, Palano said. “I’d like to say dairy farms are very receptive and trying to improve.’’

Perhaps the most receptive is a consortium of five dairy farms in Central and Western Massachusetts that are turning cow manure into renewable energy.

AGreen LLC, a Boston-based group that manages the dairies’ efforts, is installing above-ground tanks to create a process call anaerobic digestion. The tank, similar to a giant composter, turns manure and food scraps into a gas that can be converted to fuel and sold, said Bill Jorgenson, managing partner for the corporation.

Jordan Dairy Farms in Rutland started producing power anaerobically about a month ago. They use 10 percent for their own needs and sell the rest back to the grid.

“Every one of our cows will make enough electricity to supply one Massachusetts home each year,’’ Jorgenson said. “It’s solving two problems: manure management and organic diversion.’’

The process also creates organic fertilizer that farmers can sell.

“We keep it in a closed circle, with the gas making the electricity while the rest gets used as fertilizer to once again grow local foods,’’ he said.

The more dairy farmers adapt green practices, the more likely they will survive, said Warren Shaw, a Dracut dairy farmer.

Shaw built a green-bottling facility two years ago on his 102-year-old farm. In a clean room, which is heated and cooled geothermally, a post-pasteurization cooling system uses well water to cool milk. That water is used a second time to heat incoming milk from the barn.

“It goes a long way to reducing our energy costs,’’ said Shaw, who made the changes to prepare his business for the next generation.

“We are a much healthier business than we were in 2008,’’ he said. “The older facility was just that - old. We couldn’t make any energy improvements, it dated back to 1900.’’

Every year, Palano said, six to 10 dairy farms improve their energy efficiency by 10 to 25 percent. And because of his outreach, that number is starting to increase.

“When you can use less to be more efficient, you can control cost factors and get food prices down,’’ he said.

By recouping thousands of dollars through his sustainable efforts, Smith has been able to concentrate on maintaining quality while keeping prices stable.

“Doing the numbers gives me a lot of satisfaction. It’s enabled us to stay in business, stay profitable, and be competitive,’’ he said. “If we don’t do it, our competitors will.’’

Checking out with a big chunk of gouda, customer Dawn Turski didn’t know much about Smith’s conservation efforts, despite a monitor above the register that calculates the amount of solar energy fueling the operation, moment by moment.

“I’m proud of them to take the initiative,’’ she said, “but we are here because it’s great cheese.’’

Going solar, and other changes

Among the measures Dave Smith took to reduce energy consumption on his dairy farm:

►Installed 112 photovoltaic panels on the roof of his cheese-making facility. Now 33 percent of his electricity comes from the sun. Net gain: $1,000 a month.

► Switched to a variable speed vacuum pump system in his milking parlor. Electrotechnology helps the milking process by revving up when the cows are ready to be milked and slowing down when they are done. Net gain: $300 a month.

► To keep milk and cheese at optimal temps, he added energy efficient motors to 30 fans in the cooling and aging rooms. A computerized system staggers their use. Net gain: $500 a month.

► A new refrigeration system cools milk more efficiently by running six hours less per day.

► Lighting throughout the facility, including Smith’s office and country store, has been replaced with energy-efficient bulbs. Net gain: $100 a month.

► On-demand hot water heating system, used to clean equipment, runs more efficiently.

► By switching from a pickup truck to a golf cart to travel between farm and cheese facility, Smith has cut his fossil fuel emissions.

► Smith’s side business, Black Gold Compost, combines cow manure with a fiber byproduct that would end up in a landfill. This is a growing revenue stream and part of the operation’s sustainable future.

KATHLEEN PIERCE