A new approach to handling manure effluent

M&C Family Farm and GSR Solutions LLC are developing a new approach to handling manure effluent. Photo by Boston Neary
M&C Family Farm and GSR Solutions LLC are developing a new approach to handling manure effluent. Photo by Boston Neary

For many farms in Vermont, manure happens. It’s just a fact of life, and not always a particularly pleasant one. But a farm in Charlotte is exploring a new approach to handling manure effluent – the fluid that comes from manure on their farm via an anaerobic digester.

Manure is fed into the digester, explained M&C Family Farm owner Michael LaClair, yielding biogas to produce electricity. The effluent is a product of this process. Through the USDA Value Added Producer Grant Program, M&C Farm is working with technology partners to create a marketable product out of their farm’s manure effluent.

“The aim of this grant program is to provide farm, forestry and fishery businesses with capital to develop products out of a raw commodity in order to enhance producer profits,” explained USDA Public Affairs Specialist Pollaidh Major.

There are a couple of ways to deal with manure on a farm, including spreading it on crops. But manure can’t always be spread on crops— they don’t always need it, for one thing, and if it’s spread at the wrong moment, rain can carry off a stream of excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, explained Dr. Anju Krivov, president and CSTO of GSR Solutions LLC, a Burlington company that includes farm technology partnerships like this one among its technology projects. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus can make their way into Lake Champlain, leading to the infamous algae blooms that have become a familiar problem to many who live and play along the lake.

A nutrient management plan is required by the state, and manure effluent management is part of this, noted Krivov. The USDA grant is providing an opportunity to explore the feasibility of setting up a different way to handle manure effluent: turning it into a pelletized fertilizer. Being storable, such a product would provide farmers with more options and flexibility about when and how to use the manure from their farms.

“It can be storable so farmers can store it and apply it when it’s needed,” Krivov noted. “This gives flexibility to farmers to be able to apply at the time of their choosing.” A pelletized fertilizer would also be a product that farmers who have livestock would not have to purchase—they could just store their own fertilizer and use it as needed on their land.

LaClair noted that having the pelletized fertilizer available would be useful for the 1100 acres he farms—he could take soil samples in various fields, then spread the product as needed without overapplication of any particular nutrient in a field that did not need it.

This grant allows GSR and M&C Farm to study the feasibility of establishing this system on a working farm—a stage that’s expected to last a year to 18 months, noted Krivov. A successful outcome, she said, would be moving on the next stage of implementation. Other attempts at a product like this one have been made, but none have been commercialized yet, Krivov said. GSR’s solution here is unique in its cost-effectiveness. LaClair noted that it is difficult to be profitable as a dairy these days, and diversification is one way to stay sustainable in challenging conditions. He is also considering making his farm organic.

“M&C Family Farms uses a methane digester to turn farm waste—manure—into a valuable product, energy. With this grant, Rural Development is helping this entrepreneurial farm further its value addition process by turning the manure effluent from its digester into pelleted fertilizer creating yet another farm asset,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Ted Brady. “This project has the potential to give Vermont farmers the tools they need to both strengthen their businesses and have a positive impact on the state’s water quality.”