The USDA Wednesday renewed an agreement to help dairy farmers implement and explore options for waste-to-energy projects, energy conservation and efficiency improvements on their farms.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack joined Tom Gallagher, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy CEO and Doug Young, a New York dairy farmer, to announce the renewal of the agreement, which was first introduced in 2009.
The renewal focuses on agricultural energy efficiency programs and tools, such as anaerobic digesters – systems that capture methane and produce energy for use on the farm and sale onto the electric grid.
"In this particular area, I think there is an enormous opportunity for American agriculture, not just to lead itself through this process but I think it also is sending a message to the rest of the country. That is, we what to be in greater control of our energy future," Vilsack said during a press call. "We've obviously reduced our reliance on foreign oil significantly in the last four years and we want to continue that trend."
Since first signing the agreement, USDA said it has made nearly 180 awards that helped finance the development, construction, and biogas production of anaerobic digester systems with USDA Rural Development programs. Those programs include the Rural Energy for America Program, Bioenergy Program for Advanced Biofuels, Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, Value Added Producer Grants, amongst others.
Additionally, during this period, USDA awarded approximately 140 REAP loans and grants to help dairy farmers develop other types of renewable energy and energy efficiency systems at their operations.
Though there is no specific budget for the agreement, Vilsack said it is a promise to keep working with dairies on sustainability – something that may ultimately lead to more jobs, economic growth and more dairy products for consumers.
"Doubling renewable energy is not just simply about creating renewable energy, it's about the jobs connected to it," Vilsack noted. "When you sell a digester, somebody's got to build it, somebody's got to install it. Every once in a while somebody's got to repair it. Those are job opportunities, and obviously the energy that's being produced is going to help the bottom line. That's the process, and that's really why we're interested in all of this."
Central New York dairy farmer Doug Young said he was looking forward to building his own anaerobic digester in hopes of "converting manure from a liability to an asset." He noted that he's been investigating the process for nearly 20 years.
Gallagher added that Young's situation is not uncommon. As any technology evolves, early adopters bear the brunt of cost and learning curve. But, the technology is now at a point where it can be implemented effectively, he said.
"As more and more producers embrace this technology or other energy efficiency opportunities, farmers are going to do what farmers always do – they're going to take a look at what their neighbors are doing and if they see their neighbor doing something successful, they are going to replicate it and try to improve on it."