Monday, August 17, 2009


If you look closely, you can see a faint yellow flame above our flare--that's biogas being burned off! We started adding fresh manure to the digester a week ago, and the bacteria have responded. Since our generator won't be cleared to deliver electricity until next week, we have to flare the biogas. This is already progress, though, since we're using manure that would otherwise be emitting methane in a lagoon; combusting that methane leaves much-less-potent carbon dioxide. Almost two and a half years after we first decided to test the carbon-offset business, we're finally starting to do our part.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Local cheese

I love cheddar cheese. I eat it on sandwiches, crackers, and tacos. In recent years, Americans have been finding ways to consume more and more cheese; some analysts attribute much of this trend to gourmet pizza.

One might begin to be concerned for the health of America's arteries. However, American cheese consumption runs well behind many European countries, often countries with better average health. The data in the chart above is from 2003, but it shows the typical American--eating 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of cheese annually--coming in well behind the typical German, Greek, or Italian. Love of cheese clearly crosses palate boundaries. Other data shows that Europeans also drink more milk and enjoy more butter than Americans too, yet suffer from less heart disease.

European food culture seems to have evolved over the centuries into cheese consumption patterns more sustainable than ours. As a result, some celebrate the rise of American artisan cheese makers. Skagit County is home to two small dairy creameries--Samish Bay and Golden Glen, located within a few miles of each other. But most cheese in the region comes from creameries run by Tillamook Cheese and Darigold, and this cheese is practically being given away. Wholesale prices remain stuck at just over one dollar a pound; dairy farmers would be happy to see a stronger cheese culture emerge a little more quickly in the United States.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


The past two years have been tough for the ethanol industry. The blue portion of the graph above (from Iowa State University) shows typical operating profits for ethanol production; when these profits drop below the black line, a typical ethanol plant starts to have trouble paying back its investors and creditors. The purple part of the graph represents the cost of corn; in 2008, rising corn prices squeezed ethanol producers, but it took the ensuing price collapse to drive leader Verasun and others into bankruptcy. No plants were built in Washington state, but two Oregon producers filed Chapter 11.

Ethanol has been good for corn farmers but bad for just about everyone else. Ethanol-driven high corn prices filtered through to drive up the cost of other agricultural products last year, raising input costs for dairy farmers and clobbering them just as milk demand started to fall. Ethanol production consumed huge amounts of energy (mainly natural gas) in an age-old process where a third of the corn's weight just ends up as carbon dioxide byproduct. Taxpayers provided five billion dollars in subsidies to drive the cost of ethanol low enough to compete with gasoline, but those same taxpayers weren't excited to find this new fuel didn't contain as much energy per gallon.

But until other alternatives actually emerge, corn ethanol is what we have; privately-held and community-owned companies are innovating to avoid the fate of their publicly-traded peers. Surviving leader POET has started up an anaerobic digester at a South Dakota plant to eventually replace natural gas usage, while other plants burn different forms of biomass for process heat. POET is also emerging as the most credible producer of cellulosic ethanol (not made from food products), quietly passing dozens of more-hyped companies working in that space. The industry is still a bit dazed, but all is not lost.