Farmers adding biogas to their harvest

By | 2016-05-26

Farming has seen better days. Nowadays, many farmers are looking for new ways and opportunities to keep their business viable as they face problems such as market prices drops for what they produce. Therefore, there are more and more farmers adding biogas to their harvest. In addition to the obvious financial benefits of anaerobic digestion related to the production of renewable heat & power from biogas, the outstanding fertilizing potential of digestate allows farmers to cut their needs and costs for the chemical fertilizers and pesticides they have been using for many years. It is also encouraging to note that a lot of these initiatives are supported by public authorities.

Economic problems solved with anaerobic digestion

A good example is the one of Metcalfe Farms in Yorkshire, UK, which has been seriously affected by the decline in milk prices. Their situation is being shared by many farmers and close to 180 of them have decided to implement an on-site anaerobic digestion plant to ensure their financial stability through market prices fluctuations. The owner of Metcalfe Farms is now even arguing that “muck is worth more than milk”. Indeed, besides the heat & electricity potential of biogas, his cattle manure & slurries produce such a great quality digestate that he managed to cut in half its fertilizing costs as well as significantly reduce his need for pesticides, while obtaining more sustainable and better quality crops. As such, there has been evidence showing that digestate is a much better fertilizer than undigested cattle manure & slurry. Thus, it would really be a waste for farmers not to benefit from the obvious and broad potential of anaerobic digestion.

Another excellent example concerns the Euston Biogas plant, also located in the UK. The related farmers claim biogas “has created a viable market for its crop, while helping meet the UK’s renewable energy targets”. One obvious reason why the farmers modulated their crops to biogas is because wheat prices were no more viable for their business. In fact, producing a tonne of wheat would cost them £135 and they could only sell it to £100 per tonne on the market. This is why they got into the production of maize considering it costs them £28 per tonne to produce and can be sold at £30 per tonne to the anaerobic digestion plant, which then processes it to produce biogas and digestate. In the end, as long as their crops are managed with optimal rotations to keep the soil healthy, it is not surprising that they decided to harvest fuel-producing rather that food-producing crops, especially if this can also help meeting renewable energy targets.

Governmental incentives catalyzing the transition

As both previous examples are from the UK, both were eligible for the non-domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). This public support of green energy “helps businesses, public sector and non-profit organisations meet the cost of installing renewable heat technologies”. Through a period of 20 years to spread the payments, according to the heat output of the installed system, the RHI allows smaller businesses such as farms to be able to afford the transition to anaerobic digestion in order for them to benefit from its potential.

Over the Atlantic, the US also has similar governmental incentives which encourage & support ranchers, farmers, and small businesses to reduce their carbon footprint by implementing more sustainable technologies and green energies to their activities. In short, the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) “provides grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy systems and energy efficiency improvements, grants for energy audits, and grants for renewable energy planning and development to service providers who work with farmers and rural small businesses”.

Hence, anaerobic digestion has its place in any circular management and farmers are among the small-scale entities that definitely present huge potential for successful anaerobic digestion projects implementations. Whether it is from cattle manure & slurries or straight from crops, biogas is from now on another potential production farmers can consider harvesting in order to be more energy-sufficient, more sustainable, and more viable. And thanks to growing governmental support, we can expect this trend to remain strong in the years to come.

By Simon Lefebvre | 2016-05-26

Sources: May 2016 Farming Monthly National, Eastern Daily Press, UK Government, Euston Biogas Plant (image)