Aug 09, 2012 Jason Emerson Uncategorized
Twin Birch Dairy Farm in Skaneateles has been a model New York state farm with state-of-the-art technology and a high priority on environmental stewardship for more than a decade. Recently, owner Dirk Young added a new benchmark for his business by adding a methane-powered generator, thereby making Twin Birch a totally self-sustaining farm from corn to cow to manure to electricity.
This latest achievement — one of only two in the Syracuse region — will be celebrated later this month by state officials and organizations who helped make it possible through agricultural grants.
“We do this because [environmental stewardship] is in our mission statement and because we want to be good neighbors,” said Young, a third-generation farmer on Benson Road in Skaneateles. “We are the ultimate recycler — we harvest the corn, produce the milk, produce biogas from the manure, sell the excess meat and put the manure back on the fields to grow next year’s crop.”
Twin Birch, which was started in 1960 by Dirk’s father Kenneth Young Sr., began with 120 cows and 500 acres of land. Today it owns 1,500 acres of land and 1,300 cows, and is a multi-million-dollar business that supports 25 local families employed there and puts $20 million back into the local economy.
Twin Birch also has been celebrated and awarded numerous times for its environmental stewardship, high quality milk and pioneering of new agricultural technology for over a decade. In 2002, Twin Birch was named the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation Farm of the Year. In 2004, Young built an anaerobic digester — a facility to collect, break down, sterilize and reuse cow manure — one of only 17 in the United States.
Most recently, Twin Birch shared accolades with students at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry whom they assisted in a national sustainability design competition sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency. The project, about anaerobic digestion of cow manure, was named an award winner in June and netted the ESF program $90,000 in grants to take the design to real-world application.
When asked why he puts so much emphasis and money on environmental stewardship, Young says matter-of-factly, “I believe everybody lives downstream.”
The new Twin Birch methane-powered generator does not, in fact, save the farm any money, but Young believes it is good business, good policy, and, most importantly, helps him be a good neighbor.
Put simply, the new technology generates electricity from the methane emanating from the manure, it reduces waste, and it significantly reduces the manure odor coming from the farm.
More specifically, there are numerous steps to the energy process, but it all starts in one place — manure.
“We are just constantly recycling what Mother Nature gives us,” said Twin Birch Business Manager Steve McGlynn. About one-third of dairy farming focuses on what you do with the manure, he said. And for a farm with 1,300 cows, that is a lot of manure.
Twin Birch has state-of-the-art barns that keep the cows comfortable with fans, sprinklers, automated walls and shades — even automated back scratchers — and an automated manure collection system. The collector, a V-shaped metal bar, constantly moves up and down the barn moving manure to the collection pipes. From there it is pumped to the air-tight anaerobic digester, an immense underground vat that heats up the manure to 100 degrees for 21 days while it churns and separates the compounds in the waste.
The liquid compound is piped out and used as fertilizer on the farm fields. The solids — undigested pieces of mostly corn and hay — is purified and comes out looking like sawdust that is used as sterile bedding for the cows. This entire process, which is also chemically complex, kills pathogens in the waste and nearly eliminates the smell of the manure both in the barns and in the fertilizer it creates.
“Twin Birch was first farm in Skaneateles Lake Watershed (and one of first in the surrounding region if not the first) to take the plunge and invest in a manure digester,” said Mark E. Burger, executive director of the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District and program manager for the Skaneateles Lake Watershed Agricultural Program. “The anaerobic digester helps agriculture because the farm addressed many issues that impact water quality/environment and can create difficult neighbor relations. And, the anaerobic digester on the farm has successfully demonstrated another Best Management Practice that can help to address compliance with environmental regulations and issues in the community.”
But for the new electric generator at Twin Birch, the most important byproduct of the anaerobic digestion is the methane. The methane rises to the top of the vat and is pumped over to the biogas generator, where it is then converted to electricity and any excess is cleanly burned.
The system, built by American Biogas Company of Syracuse, generates 125 kilowatts of electricity per hour, or enough to power 170 homes for a day. This produces enough energy to power all the barns, houses and satellite facilities at Twin Birch. Technically though, the power generated does not go to Twin Birch but goes into the local National Grid power grid, and Twin Birch then receives credits for what it generated.
The new biogas system typically costs more than $1 million to create, but Twin Birch spent between $500,000 and $750,000 because many of the components were already in place and thanks to the help of two grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
“One of the most impressive components [of the Twin Birch digester] was that the farm committed a lot of their own resources, financial and otherwise, to get this digester up and running. This system was not without heartache, difficulty or complications, but Twin Birch had the foresight to see it through,” Burger said. “One of the best points is that the farm has always been very open to host tours and participate in research so that other agricultural producers in the industry, as well as community members, could see what and how they are doing anaerobic digestion and how other farms can use that technology to advance their position in the industry.”
On Tuesday, Aug. 21, NYSERDA will hold a ceremony at Twin Birch Farm to celebrate and recognize its achievement in utilizing biogas technology. Multiple state officials have been invited to attend, including Congresswoman Ann Marie Buerkle.
“We’re very pleased we took on this project and to have worked with a local company like American Biogas,” McGlynn said. “This has been a real success story. This works.”
Jason Emerson is editor of the Skaneateles Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.