Cow Power, Turning Manure into Energy

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Cows. Vermont has a lot of them. In fact, at a certain point in Vermont’s history, cows outnumbered people! They are an integral part of our home state’s economy. What you may not know though is that they also play a very important role for Woodchuck and our ability to create high quality, innovative hard cider. Our bovine friends literally help power the Woodchuck Cidery in Middlebury, Vermont. How, you ask? No, we don’t have them walking in giant hamster wheels. Like our Cider Makers, Vermont farmers and power company folks are pushing innovation in our state. Call it “yankee ingenuity,” if you will. Vermonters have figured out a way to turn waste into energy, and Woodchuck Hard Cider is lucky enough to reap the benefits of it.

Just outside of our hometown of Middlebury, Vermont sits the community of Weybridge.  The town center is not much more than a small green with a monument.  The monument was erected in 1848.  It honors Silas Wright, the town’s most famous son.

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Across the street sits Monument Farms Dairy, in operation since 1930.  Peter James, Bob James, and Jon Rooney are third-generation owners, along with Millicent Rooney, a second-generation owner.  They have nearly 500 hundred cows and bottle around 5,000 gallons of milk each day.

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Jon Rooney and Bob James are third generation dairy farmers.

breakoutbox_3If you look at Vermont’s working landscape over the last 60 or so years, the number of dairy farms in operation has been in steady decline.  In fact, the number fell to under 1,000 in 2012.  Volatile dairy price swings and the cost of keeping farms running have driven many producers to sell off their herd and board up the barn.

Not Monument Farms though.  They are moving forward, and they are getting creative to keep their business sustainable.  Monument Farms Dairy is one of 12 farms in Vermont that take part in a program called “Cow Power”.  The program, which is run through the utility company Green Mountain Power, takes cow manure and turns it into power.  Here’s how it works:

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Woodchuck gets 25% of its power through this program.  Green Mountain Power estimates that it takes 335 cows to produce that power.  Monument Farms alone produces more power than that, and the 12 farms together are making a real positive impact on Vermont’s electric grid.

The story in all of this is about more than power though.  It’s a full circle way of thinking about renewable energy.  Every part of the process allows the next part to take place.

The collection of the manure stops carbon gas from otherwise entering the atmosphere.  The power produced benefits the community, and reduces the amount of out-of-state power the utility company needs to buy.  The left over liquid is separated out and used as fertilizer to grow food for the cows.  The left over dry material is used as bedding for the cows, who in turn do their business and the process begins again.  The bedding cost alone is saving the farm thousands of dollars a month.

For Bob James though, it’s not just a monetary or business decision that inspired him to invest in Cow Power.  He says being able to keep his son, a diesel engine mechanic who does maintenance on the generator, involved in the family business is huge.  Keeping the farm in good working order means the next generation can eventually take the reins.

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The Future. This calf was born on April 17, 2013.

Cow Power isn’t necessarily a savior for farms, but instead an investment that harmonizes with their existing business model.  It serves as a way to take the resources they already have, and realign them to work better together.

“Sustainability” is a buzzword of the moment.  Many businesses, Woodchuck included, are working to become “sustainable” and “green” and “eco-friendly”.  This is great, and Woodchuck is proud of its efforts.   But sustainability has to be viewed as a moving target.  It’s not something that is ever fully achieved.  Technologies change, science evolves, and what was once thought to be the new way, is suddenly obsolete.  The one constant in this is people.  People, businesses, and in this case, power companies that work together with shared goals in mind.  That model, of people working together, not only stands to improve planet earth but our local communities as well.  That is sustainability to us.

It’s the Vermont way, and it’s why the state is a national leader when it comes to innovative programs like Cow Power.  So cheers to the Vermont’s Cow Power Farms and Green Mountain Power… and cows…  can’t forget the cows.  Working together, we can make a difference not only in the health of the earth, but in the lives of our neighbors.