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Organic Alchemy: Transforming Waste into Wealth on the Farm

June 26, 2024

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Organic Alchemy: Transforming Waste into Wealth on the Farm

The Unlikely Alliance That Turned Poop into Profit

Once upon a time, in the heart of central Massachusetts, there lived a fifth-generation dairy farmer named Randy Jordan. Like many of his kind, Randy was plagued by the ever-increasing burden of his electric bill. But he knew there had to be a way to turn his farm’s most abundant resource – manure – into something more than just a stinky problem.

Enter Bill Jorgenson, a seasoned energy consultant with a vision. Bill convinced Randy that the key to solving his electricity woes lay in the very substance he had long viewed as waste. “This guy genuinely did not know which end the manure came out of the cow,” Randy joked, recalling their initial meeting.

Together, Randy and Bill formed an unlikely alliance, joining forces with four other farmers to create AGreen Energy LLC. Their mission? To harness the power of that pungent bovine byproduct and transform it into clean, renewable energy.

The Manure Alchemy Begins

The team quickly learned that the secret to their success lay in adding a special ingredient to the manure – food waste. By combining these two seemingly disparate elements, they were able to increase the energy output and boost their income through tipping fees from manufacturers, retailers, and others eager to unload their own organic waste.

“It was an unlikely alliance between the farmer and the consultant,” Randy remembered, “but it was the start of something truly remarkable.”

As word of their manure-to-money alchemy spread, the project caught the eye of Vanguard Renewables, a startup that recognized the true potential of this technology. In 2014, Vanguard merged with AGreen Energy, providing the financial backing and expertise needed to take the operation to the next level.

Scaling Up the Poop-to-Power Revolution

With Vanguard’s support, the team was able to expand their efforts, partnering with Dominion Energy to capture manure methane from dairy farms across Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Georgia, and Nevada. Dominion, a utility giant with 75 million customers across 18 states, saw the opportunity to invest more than $200 million in these projects, cementing the future of this poop-to-power revolution.

“These partnerships with Smithfield Foods and with Vanguard Renewables are great examples of how we can create new sustainable business models around greenhouse gas reduction,” said Ryan Childress, Dominion’s director of gas business development.

And the benefits extend far beyond the bottom line. By processing the methane from farm waste and converting it into natural gas, these projects are helping to reduce the carbon footprint of companies like Dominion, which has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Childress estimates that the dairy farm projects alone will be equivalent to taking 650,000 cars off the road or planting 50 million trees – a huge carbon reduction bang for their investment.

The Secret Sauce: Combining Manure and Food Waste

The key to the success of these manure-to-energy projects lies in the addition of food waste. As The Washington Post article explains, the combination of manure and food waste “would increase the energy output and boost the income for farmers through tipping fees from manufacturers, retailers and others looking to unload food waste.”

In the Vanguard Renewables projects in New England, the team collects manure from the farms and blends it with food waste from a variety of sources, including Whole Foods, Gorton’s Seafood, Cape Cod Potato Chips, Cabot Creamery, and Wachusett Brewing Co. This organic alchemy creates a richer, more potent biogas that can be used to generate electricity or converted into renewable natural gas.

Overcoming the Challenges of Manure Alchemy

Of course, the path to success was not without its challenges. As Randy Jordan recalled, “It was challenging, and the money didn’t work” at first. Many of the earlier biodigester projects had been abandoned due to the complexity of managing these systems.

But the team at Vanguard Renewables was undeterred. They assembled a talented crew of biologists, chemists, environmental engineers, and construction experts to tackle the problem head-on. As The Washington Post article notes, “Vanguard has been able to hire 38 employees including biologists chemists environmental engineers construction staff and a development head.”

With this brain trust on their side, the Vanguard team was able to overcome the technical hurdles and fine-tune the process, making manure alchemy a viable and profitable endeavor for farmers like Randy.

Diversifying the Dairy Farm Economy

For farmers like Randy Jordan, the opportunity to transform their manure into a valuable resource has been a game-changer. As he explains, “The dairy economy is never great. I knew that to survive we needed to create different income streams. I was always taught to use the assets that you have available to you. The manure just seems to be one that was going unused. It just makes sense.”

By partnering with Vanguard Renewables, Randy has been able to diversify his income streams, generating savings of up to $100,000 annually through the sale of electricity, heat, and nutrient-rich fertilizer. And he’s not the only one benefiting – the team at Vanguard is working with a growing number of dairy farms across New England, helping them to tap into this untapped potential.

The Power of Poop: Turning Manure into Money

As the Thornapple Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) service knows all too well, farms are a treasure trove of resources just waiting to be unlocked. And for the team at Vanguard Renewables, the key to unlocking that wealth has been in the most unlikely of places – the humble cow patty.

By harnessing the power of manure and food waste, they’ve created a sustainable, profitable system that benefits farmers, the environment, and even the broader community. It’s a true testament to the power of organic alchemy, where the once-discarded becomes the cornerstone of a thriving, circular economy.

So the next time you see a herd of cows grazing in a field, remember that their contribution extends far beyond the dairy aisle. Thanks to the innovation and determination of pioneers like Randy Jordan and Bill Jorgenson, those bovine byproducts are being transformed into clean energy, nutrient-rich fertilizer, and even cold, hard cash. It’s a poop-to-power revolution that’s just getting started!

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