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Family dairy farm hopes to generate electricity from biogas


June 02, 2010
LUNENBURG, Vt. — The next generation's commitment to the family farm is allowing one Vermont farmer to diversify his dairy operation.

A large 42- by 84-foot separator building is already framed up and partially closed in on the 425-acre Auburn Star Farm on the Connecticut River side of Route 2. The structure represents what the Eaton family hopes will be the first phase of a two-phase plan to generate electricity in a methane gas (biogas) Combined Heating and Power (CHP) project to diversify the dairy farming operation. This is the family farm's response to the low money-losing per-hundredweight price of unpasteurized milk, explained 52-year-old Conan Eaton, who manages the day-to-day farm operations. His two adult children — herdsman Samantha Eaton Rousseau and 21-year-old Lucas — work on the family farm where several live in what could be called a family compound.

"This is a big project we're planning that has involved completing hours and hours of paperwork," Mr. Eaton explained. "It's only worthwhile because there is another generation already committed to working on the farm; it's all part of our family's long-term commitment."

Three days a week, his mother, Lorna Eaton, who was widowed on Nov. 1, 2009, when her husband (and his father) Chester died, takes care of her great-grandchildren — Samantha's two preschool children. Many afternoons they work together as a multi-generational team to feed and care for the calves.

Under phase one of the project, the separator that will be housed in the new barn will be used to separate plant fiber from the cow manure that is generated by some 430 or so Holstein cows and calves, of which about 210 are milkers.

The fiber will be dried and used as bedding to replace that that currently is used — now-costly sawdust or other wood-waste chips now sought by wood-pellet manufacturers.

Excess dry fiber would be sold for composting, Mr. Eaton said.

The Eaton family secured a low-cost $450,000 loan from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to pay for work now underway.

The new barn, with its concrete knee walls, was also designed to hold a digester.

If phase two of the project goes forward, liquid from the digester would be held in a brand-new 1,000-cubic-meter tank, manufactured in Canada, that would be heated to 102 degrees for 21 days to generate methane gas. The gas would be sent through an internal combustion engine to make electricity.

The specifics of an interconnection with the Central Vermont Public Service grid have not yet been hammered out, however, Mr. Eaton said.

The availability of the remainder of the funds required to complete the approximately $1.12 million renewable energy project at Auburn Star Farm was announced at a May 14 press conference, held at the Dynapower Corporation factory in South Burlington: a low-cost $500,000 loan from the Vermont Clean Energy Development Fund (CEDF) and a $50,000 grant under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) of 2009.

The Vermont Clean Energy Development Board announced the award of a total of 15 grants and low-interest loans for renewable power projects — solar, wind, biogas farm methane, and biomass energy — across the state of Vermont. Thirty-nine applications were submitted, but only 15 were selected to receive funds totaling over $3 million.

The grant and loan funds come from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 as well as from Entergy Vermont Yankee.

"The electricity generation part of the project is still not a done deal," Mr. Eaton explained, however. "Basically our farm qualifies for this $550,000 package, but there are still many details that must be worked out."

The earliest that everything could be in place to generate electricity would be April 2011, Mr. Eaton predicted.

Meanwhile life on the farm is busy. On Wednesday, Mr. Eaton, his son Lucas, and farm employee Don Plumley cut, chopped, and banked some 90 acres of "green" cropping hay. Samantha Rousseau delivered a long-legged calf early in the evening.

Over the weekend of May 15, Mr. Eaton, family members, neighbors and paid helper held a modern-day barn raising to put up the separator building. Forty-three prefabricated rafters were put in place in three hours.

Mr. Eaton's wife, Maureen, works in the Coumadin clinic at the Weeks Medical Center in Lancaster and also lends a hand caring for Samantha's two youngsters.

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