Finding common ground
September 23, 2009 by James Careless
Historically, dairy farmers and members of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington’s Tualco Valley have been at loggerheads. The farmers are pushing ahead with herd growth, thus increasing the risk of manure run-off into the Snohomish River. This run-off could seriously hurt the river’s ability to support salmon, an important resource for the Tulalip Tribes. Add local environmentalists, who are trying to preserve the Snohomish and the stage has been set for confrontation.
Historically, dairy farmers and members of the Tulalip Tribes in Washington’s Tualco Valley have been at loggerheads. The farmers are pushing ahead with herd growth, thus increasing the risk of manure run-off into the Snohomish River.
|Methane gas is captured from the biodigester and used to run a generator that produces energy that is fed into the main grid. Submitted photos
This run-off could seriously hurt the river’s ability to support salmon, an important resource for the Tulalip Tribes. Add local environmentalists, who are trying to preserve the Snohomish and the stage has been set for confrontation.
So why are these groups now working together, when they used to be fighting? One word: Biogas.
In a creative solution to the potential problem, local farmers belonging to the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, Native Americans from the Tulalip Tribe and a representative from the Northwest Chinook Recovery environmental group have banded together to form Qualco Energy. Qualco is a nonprofit group that runs a biogas electricity generator in the area. Currently, Qualco’s biodigester is handling manure from 1,100 local cows, with capacity for double that, and 450 kilowatt/hours of electricity is being generated by Qualco regularly since it began generating in December 2008. That’s enough to power 300 homes.
“Qualco Energy shows what can be done when people come together to solve problems to everyone’s benefit,” says Dale Reiner, Qualco’s president. “It is truly a win-win for everyone affected – including the fish.”
|Methane gas is piped through to run the generator.
|The heart of Qualco Energy's biodigester is a large concrete digester tank large enough to process waste from 2,200 cows at one time.
|The biodigester is currently receiving manure from one local dairy while another has constructed pipelines to the facility.
When he’s not running Qualco, Reiner is managing his dairy herd on his 300-acre farm. It’s been in the family for three generations, with frontage on the Snohomish River.
“Eight years ago, my brother and I had finished doing some waterfront restoration on our property, to help the local salmon population,” he tells Manure Manager. “The fact that the Tulalip Tribes were doing the same kind of work got us to thinking: What if we could find a way to work together to restore the salmon, and deal with the potential run-off problem at the same time?”
Reiner kicked the idea around with local dairy farmers. They liked it, and he decided to approach the Tulalip Tribes. “We had to keep our meetings pretty hush-hush,” Reiner says. “In those days, neither side trusted each other.”
As people talked with each other, the distrust eased. Eventually the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, Tulalip Tribes, and Northwest Chinook Recovery agreed to establish a biodigester in the area.
The suggested site was the former prison dairy known as the Monroe Honor Farm. Operated by the State of Washington from 1929 until 2001, the 277 acre farm is located close to local dairy farms, yet far enough away from subdivisions and other forms of housing that running a bio-gas facility wouldn’t disturb anyone.
Working together, the three member groups of Qualco Energy received $250,000 from the 2003 Agriculture Appropriations bill to fund a feasibility study into the biogas facility. Once it was completed and their concept had been approved, Qualco had the basis to seek funding from the federal Biomass Research and Development program. As a result, a USDA grant amounting to $500,000 was received and used along with more than $2.9 million in acquired loans to fund the biogas project. Lobbying at the state level persuaded the legislature to give the farm to the Qualco Energy group. From that point, work on the biodigester began until it started operation late last year.
“It took a lot of hard work on everybody’s part to get to this point, but we did it,” says Reiner.
The heart of Qualco Energy’s biodigester is a large concrete digester tank. Located at the Monroe Honor Farm, the concrete covered tank is 198-feet long, 80-feet wide, and 17-feet deep. It has enough capacity to process waste from 2,200 cows at a time. The tank is equipped with heaters to ensure that the fluidized manure inside stays warm enough to support anaerobic bacteria; meaning that the temperature has to be maintained at 99 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit at all times. “It took us a while to get up to that temperature when we started the operation in winter,” Reiner says. “Sometimes you’ve got to expend some energy to create some.”
The anaerobic bacteria within the manure grow within this environment, digesting the most toxic elements of the manure, releasing methane gas as a byproduct. This methane gas is captured from the tank, and then used to run a generator that produces electricity that is fed into the main grid. Meanwhile, the remaining processed manure is nearly odor-free. It has become nutrient-rich compost that is perfect for gardens and farms (as is the grey water left from the process).
“This is truly advanced recycling,” Reiner says. “What used to be left in the fields to decompose – with a potential to overload the local water table with excess nutrients – is now creating clean electricity and natural fertilizer that lacks the pungent manure smell that people complain about. Meanwhile, the river is protected from the possibility of receiving excess dairy nutrients. This helps protect not just salmon, but the entire eco-system.”
Currently, Qualco Energy’s biodigester is operating at half capacity, with manure only coming from the nearby Werkhoven Dairy Farm. “Two farms have built pipelines to our site,” says Reiner. “The first, owned by Werkhoven Dairy, is in operation. The second hasn’t started production yet.”
Why haven’t other farmers started hauling manure to Qualco, at the very least? “It is a problem of economics,” says Dale Reiner. “They want to use our facility, but they are having trouble affording to. Milk prices are down, while fuel prices are up. Combined, they make it expensive to haul manure to our site.”
Even when the biodigester gets up to full capacity, other units will have to be built to make a real dent on local manure production. This will likely require more government assistance. However, given how completely biodigestion can reduce manure run-off, such funding should be politically popular with farmers, natives and environmentalists. Dale Reiner is adamant that biodigestion is a much smarter way for dairy farms to handle manure, in contrast to other environmental methods. “All dairy farms are required to operate under a nutrient management plan designed with the help of the local conservation district approved by the State Department of Agriculture with oversight by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to assure that no contamination currently results from the farm’s waste disposal practices,” he explains. “The benefit of the biogas digester system that we have installed, is that it allows the dairy farmer to increase his herd size based on a business management and financial plan rather than a plan based on the number of cows per available acre. This is accomplished by creating a system that allows excess nutrients not required by the dairy farmer for his farm fertilization to be transported to other farm or garden sources outside his local area; thereby, in affect increasing the size of his nutrient disposal area.”
Speaking in broader terms, Reiner cites biodigestion as a technological solution that can reconcile the needs of farmers, natives and environmentalists. “Qualco Energy is about more than dealing with manure constructively, although it is a big step in that direction,” he says. “It is about bringing together conflicting interests in a positive way that really makes a difference. This is why the members of our company – the Sno/Sky Agricultural Alliance, the Tulalip Tribes and Northwest Chinook Recovery – are so committed to this solution, and willing to keep at it until we have realized our collective dream. We all want farming to succeed here, because otherwise the land might end up being overtaken by condos. We all want the salmon to thrive, and we want to tackle the energy shortage in a clean, green manner.”
“Biogas and biodigestion does all of these things,” he concludes. “Everyone truly does win with this approach.”
Qualco Energy can be found on the web at www.qualcoenergy.com.
Print this page