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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Traveling Technology Helps Small Farms Reduce Methane Emissions From Manure

Cows on the Orr family's dairy farm, in Orwell, are pictured in this 2015 file photo. Anson Tebbetts, Vermont's agriculture secretary, spoke to VPR recently about Vermont's dairy industry and about challenges faced by the state's farmers.
Kathleen Masterson
VPR file
Manure accounts for 10 percent of U.S. methane emissions. Burlington company NativeEnergy has won a federal grant to bring technology from farm to farm to reduce emissions.

A Burlington-based company working on climate change solutions has won a federal grant to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Vermont farms. 

NativeEnergy is trying an innovative approach using technology that will travel from farm to farm to tackle methane emissions from manure.

You may have heard jokes about cow farts, but manure accounts for 10 percent of U.S. methane emissions.  Methane is a potent greenhouse gas which — by weight — causes far more warming effects than carbon dioxide.

On dairy farms, most manure is funneled into large lagoon pits outdoors, where it releases off methane. But if the liquids and solids are instead separated and the solids are dried, the emissions can be greatly reduced. 

The Natural Resources Conservation Service has awarded a $1.2 million grant to NativeEnergy to develop a project that will create and operate a mobile separator that can travel from farm to farm.   

"Most of the farms in Vermont are too small to be able to afford an on-site technology," says Tom Stoppard, the cofounder and Vice President of NativeEnergy.

Stoppard says most of the grant money will actually go toward building reception pits at participating dairies. Then the traveling separator will stop at each farm once a week to process the manure. 

"So really the goal of this project from our perspective is to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions by pulling the solids out of the manure and then let them be handled in such a way so ultimately they break down aerobically and do not produce the methane," says Stoppard.

The solid matter can then be safely used as bedding for the cows, which saves the farmers the cost of buying sawdust or other bedding materials. Also, about one-third of the dry material from the farms will be composted and sold as bagged soil.

In addition to reducing methane emissions, Stoppard says the separation process also removes about 20 percent of the phosphorus from the liquid. This helps improve water quality downstream — which is particularly import in Franklin County.

The new Environmental Protection Agency goals for Lake Champlain call for an 83 percent reduction in phosphorous coming from farms in the Missisquoi basin, says Vicky Drew, who heads the Vermont office of the NRCS.

"That's very significant and will be quite challenging over the next 20 years to achieve, so we need an all-in approach," says Drew. "And while it doesn't sound like it's much, that 20 percent will help us get a long way towards reaching that 83 percent overall reduction."

Many of the farms are part of Ben and Jerry's "Caring Dairy" program, and the ice cream company is contributing significant dollars toward the project as part of its effort to reduce its climate footprint.  Additional contributions from Ben and Jerry's, Native Energy, St. Albans Cooperative Creamery and Vermont Organics Reclamation effectively double the project's budget.   

Stoppard says the project will select anywhere from eight to 14 farms in the St Albans area to participate. He expects the project to be up and running by the end of 2017 or early 2018. 

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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