Power Driven

The first farm in the CVPS Cow Power program, at Blue Spruce Farm owned by Eugene and Marie Audet, has always operated with sustainability in mind

by Mark Pendergrast

blue_spruce_lead_CONTRIBUTEDAt Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport, Eugene and Marie Audet continue a family tradition started in 1958 when Eugene’s parents, Norman and Mary-Rose Audet, bought a few acres and began milking 35 cows. Today, their three sons, along with other family members, run the operation, which has grown to 2,400 animals requiring 25 full-time employees.

Driving past the 3,000-acre Blue Spruce Farm on Vermont 22A in rural Bridport, one won’t catch a whiff of the traditional manure perfume that often overwhelms the olfactory system near dairy farms. That’s true even though there are 1,200 milking cows and an equal number of calves and heifers at Blue Spruce. The reason can be found in what amounts to a 600,000-gallon bovine septic tank buried on the farm.

There the manure is digested, as is feed in a cow’s stomach, at 101 degrees Fahrenheit for 21 days. The anaerobic decomposition produces methane gas, which then fuels an engine to turn a generator that produces enough electricity to power about 300 homes.

When the waste exits the digester, it has little odor. The liquid is separated and used as an improved fertilizer on the farm’s cropland. The solid, which resembles peat moss, is used as bedding for the cows. One might think that this by-product is just a nice side benefit, but it was the main reason the Audet family decided to invest $1.5 million in the biodigester.

They had used sawdust for bedding, but as wood pellets became popular for heating, the price of sawdust soared to $2,000 per trailer-load — one week’s supply for the farm. The new bedding represents a cost saving of over $100,000 a year, and they use only half of the fiber by-product, selling the rest to other farms.

At first Eugene Audet, 50, the herdsman of the family, was skeptical about the plan, insisting he would not put excrement under his cows. But in 2003, the family visited three farms in Wisconsin that used the GHD digester they were considering. When Eugene saw the contented cows on the bedding, he was convinced.

Dave Dunn of Central Vermont Public Service Corp. (CVPS) accompanied them on that trip. He was hatching the idea for the utility’s Cow Power program, in which residential and business customers voluntarily pay an extra four cents per kilowatt-hour for the renewable energy and environmental attributes produced by the biodigesters. Blue Spruce was the first farm in the program, going online in January 2005.

Now there are seven farms in the CVPS program, another coming on line in November, and four others in the planning stage. Green Mountain Power has worked with a farm in Westminster, and some smaller experimental biogenerators are in development. Methane generation has become even more enticing through the state’s new “feed-in tariff” legislation to pay more for renewable energy.

The Audets’ pioneering effort with Cow Power is simply an extension of what they were already doing: working as efficiently as possible. In 1958 Norman and Mary-Rose Audet bought a few acres in Bridport and milked 35 cows. Within six years, they had produced a future work force: Eugene, Ernie, Earl, Emmy, and Elaine, known as the five E’s.

The farm grew as fast as the family. Today the three brothers and other family members run the operation. Although their jobs overlap, Eugene focuses on the cows; Ernie, on the crops and harvesting equipment for hay and silage; and Earl, a general handyman, on maintenance and construction. Their father, Norman, 81, still brush-hogs and keeps the grounds immaculate.

Taking care of the 2,400 animals is a huge undertaking, requiring 25 full-time employees. The dairy industry is notoriously difficult, with milk prices fluctuating wildly in a volatile boom-bust cycle, and today’s prices are about the same as in 1980, despite escalating costs for everything else.

Eugene’s wife, Marie, who grew up speaking French on the Lussier family farm in Middlebury, is the bookkeeper and spokesperson for the farm. “We have a noble job,” she says, “feeding people with a product that has nine essential minerals and vitamins.” Blue Spruce milk goes directly to the Cabot Cheese factory in Middlebury.

Six years ago, neither Marie nor anyone else on the farm would have taken the time to talk to reporters. But with entry into the Cow Power program, they concluded that they had an obligation to educate the public. “It’s our nature as dairy farmers to think sustainably, to recycle, to care for the environment,” Marie says.

She conducts tours to show people how their food is “produced in a way that is good for the planet and the animals.” In the last few years, she has shown the farm to some 8,000 people, including Chinese teenagers, Japanese feed salesmen, Hawaiian tourists, environmental journalists, and schoolchildren.

“We were completely unprepared for the unprecedented interest generated by being a pioneer Cow Power farm,” Marie says. Blue Spruce has been covered on CBS Evening News, German and U.S. public radio, USA Today, and The Boston Globe, and it will soon be featured in a Discovery Channel documentary to be aired around the world.

“We didn’t set out to be celebrity farmers,” Marie says, “but we do have an important message, and most of the population is too far removed from the food they eat.”

During a tour, it became clear why one writer called it a “Heifer Hilton.” Although the cows don’t go out to pasture any more — too many of them, and their hooves would destroy the grass roots in the valley clay — they live very well indeed: They tread on rubber mats that are hosed down frequently, eat a carefully balanced mix prepared by a professional animal nutritionist, and live in temperature-controlled surroundings. Their udders are pampered, their milk production monitored by computer, and their manure scraped every 20 minutes.

Unlike other forms of renewable energy such as wind or solar, cow manure is reliable, produced 24/7, so the electricity it makes is considered “base-load.” The Audets also capture the excess heat from their generator and, through a heat exchanger, use it to heat water for the farm, clean the milk system, and supply radiant floor heat in the winter.

“Because we just can’t stand to throw anything away,” Marie says, “the used oil from the generator runs a waste oil furnace that heats our equipment repair shop.” In addition, the milking system cools the milk before it goes into the storage tanks. The warm water produced as a result is given to the pampered cows, who prefer it that way. The farm also installed variable-speed milking vacuum-pump controls that help reduce farm energy costs.

Each cow gets to take a “vacation” from lactation when she is bred annually, but getting her pregnant by artificial insemination is a challenge. “There’s a 12-hour window every three weeks to get the sperm to the egg,” Eugene explains, going into graphic detail about the operation before rushing out. “I gotta go check my parlor!”

Yet another experiment on the farm may provide even more renewable energy. Algeponics, a company started by Gail Busch, aims to grow Chlorella, a special form of oil-containing algae, in order to extract the oil and ultimately produce bio-diesel. With partial funding from state and federal grants and CVPS, she and Mark Hoffman, her project manager, have set up a small white greenhouse near the biodigester where they are using the liquid effluent, rich in nutrients, as a growing medium for the algae.

Busch is confident that she will be able to find an inexpensive, non-chemical method of extracting the oil, in which case the Audets can use the biodiesel for their farm equipment. “We’re always trying to close the loop,” says Marie.

The next generation is already coming aboard. Eugene and Marie’s son, Nathan, 27, takes over the herd work when his parents take a rare vacation. Earl’s son Tyler, 21, is a mechanic on the farm, and his younger brother, Troy, is studying animal husbandry in college. Bailey Deforge, 16, interned with her aunt Marie in the office this past summer.

Everyone involved with Blue Spruce and the Cow Power program seems to appreciate what they are doing. Roberta MacDonald, who markets Cabot Cheese, praises the Audets for “showing off what they’ve done to be sustainable and environmentally conscious. They have all farmers’ interests at heart.”

Companies that buy Cow Power electricity love supporting a program that also helps their businesses. Green Mountain Beverage (makers of Woodchuck Hard Cider) in Middlebury signed on recently. The Vermont Clothing Company in St. Albans not only pays the electrical premium but sells a Cow Power T-shirt (featuring a cow with a Superman cape) packaged in an informative, funny milk carton.

The Audets are expanding their facilities this year, building a third barn to house replacement heifers and their dry cows, whose manure will also be added to the system. They plan to increase their digester space by 50 percent and to replace the current generator with a Spanish-made Guascor engine, which is specifically designed for methane and will run more efficiently with fewer maintenance problems.

The Audets belong to Dairy Farmers Working Together, a New England coalition working toward a system to match milk supply with demand so the wild price fluctuations and lost profits no longer happen. They are hammering out a dairy price stabilization plan that is gaining national momentum.

“No, we never thought of going out of business,” Marie Audet says. “It’s not in our blood.” •