Innovators to gather for farming 'summit'
By Susan Smallheer
Herald Staff | December 05,2005
MONTPELIER — Farmers and innovators all over Vermont will gather Thursday to hear about the latest technology for the farm, including high-tech suggestions for how to handle animal manure.
Dubbed "The Manure Summit," the "Agriculture and the Environment Conference" will focus on how to manage manure in an environmentally safe way and how to generate money and extra nutrients out of it with new technology.
"It really is about alternatives to handling manure and nutrient management," said David Lane, deputy secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, himself a dairy farmer, who will moderate the panel on nutrient management. Lane said the high cost of electricity is a major issue for farmers as well.
The day features several panel discussions with contributions from 31 speakers. The keynote speaker will be Richard Waybright of the famed Mason-Dixon Farm of Gettysburg, Pa., which has been called a "living laboratory" for its innovations in handling manure to milking cows with robots.
The Mason-Dixon Farm straddles the Maryland-Pennsylvania state line, and boasts 2,400 milking cows, according to Daniel Hecht, executive director of the Vermont Environmental Consortium, the co-sponsor of the day-long forum, which also includes talks on small wind power, biomass projects and solar energy as well.
The Waybright family's Mason-Dixon Farm is so renowned for its innovation and productivity, Hecht said, that Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted on visiting the farm during a visit to the United States. The farm, he said, has not bought electricity since 1978.
Hecht said the passage of Act 77 during the 2005 Legislature stressed farm sustainability, another major theme of the conference. The forum was aimed at solutions for Vermont farmers by suggesting new technologies, that in turn will make the farms more profitable and sustainable, he said.
"What Act 77 does — what it hopes to accomplish — is a new way of thinking, changing perspectives on how we think of all our programs, the myriad of programs we have to support Vermont agriculture," said Lane, the deputy secretary.
"We want to change the perspective from agriculture as a way of life and from the landscape perspective, to it being an economic driver," he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are 6,500 farms in Vermont, of those 1,200 are working dairy farms. About 3,200 farms get about more than half their income from the farm operation, Lane said.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, the author of Act 77, said he sponsored the bill to pull together the various sections of Vermont law that deal with agriculture, and to focus attention on the economics of Vermont agriculture.
Smith, a longtime dairy farmer himself, sold his herd last month in large part because his daughters were not interested in continuing the family dairy tradition. The family is now considering another path in agriculture, he said, raising beef cows.
In a perfect world, Act 77 wouldn't be necessary, according to Steven Kerr, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture and a longtime executive with the Holstein Association in Brattleboro.
Kerr said Act 77 didn't really create any new laws, but "pulled them together" to help give the agriculture economy more of a focus.
Kerr said one of the most fascinating and innovative ways to handle manure will be explained by Lorenzo Whitcomb of Williston, whose family farm operates within nose distance of the main shopping areas of Williston.
The Whitcomb farm is using an innovative system working with sail rope, Velcro and gravity — the trickle-down theory — to maximize the nutrients in manure, Kerr said.
The conference goes beyond "Cow Power," Central Vermont Public Service's successful manure-to-electricity project at an Addison County farm.
Dunne said CVPS was working with several other large farms to generate electricity from manure, including a Pawlet farm that will be part of a pilot project that would use the manure from its cows, as well as excess crops such as corn silage.
Still better suited for large dairy operations, Dunne said technology will evolve over time making methane digesters more affordable to smaller farms.
While Thursday's conference, which is slated for the Sheraton Conference Center, is heavily weighted toward handling manure and what is called nutrient management, there will also be presentations on different, emerging products, Lane said.
"We want to help solve some of these problems and also offer economic opportunities," he said.
Lane and Kerr both said that the state was in preliminary talks with a West Coast farm operation that is interested in building large greenhouses in Vermont, to take advantage of Vermont's agriculture reputation.
To make it economical, they said, they are looking at ways to pair the greenhouse with a large dairy farm, whose manure methane operation could heat the greenhouses and generate electricity to provide light and heat.
For information about the conference, contact the Vermont Environmental Consortium, at Norwich University, 485-2213.
Contact Susan Smallheer at firstname.lastname@example.org.