Saturday, October 10, 2009


On a beautiful Monday morning, September 28th, we held our ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Farm Power Rexville digester. Guests started showing up half an hour early, and soon we had three rows of cars alongside the project driveway and more folks parked on the road! But it was too nice of a day to worry about parking problems and people gradually drifted across the broad gravel area west of the digester towards the Rexville Grocery catering (including local apples and scones made with blueberries grown within site of the project). Some guests mentioned already having heard our story on KUOW radio while driving up.

The festivities began when Governor Chris Gregoire arrived. First we thanked our investors and other financial partners: Shorebank Pacific took top billing as our lender, and we were honored to have Puget Sound Energy CEO Steve Reynolds (with me and one of our investors at right) come to speak about his company's focus on sustainable energy resources and its Green Power program. Not only is PSE buying our power on a bank-friendly ten-year contract, but it has also helped get the word out about our project with press releases and the community-focused blogging of public-relations guru Andy Wappler; they even allowed us to use some of the photos they took at the ribbon-cutting (except for the first one, all the pictures on this blog post are courtesy of PSE).

Next we thanked our manure-related partners: Andgar Corporation completed our digester on time and on budget, lending their expertise accumulated on five previous projects to make sure everything worked right. The two dairy farms just north and south of the project, run by the VanderKooy and Kuipers families, received special appreciation for their absolutely indispensable role. Then everyone from the program up to that point lined up to cut a ribbon in front of the mechanical building overhead door.

Cutting the ribbon are Kevin Maas (Farm Power), Steve Reynolds (PSE), Garritt Kuipers (Beaver Marsh Farms), Daryl Maas (Farm Power), Jae Easterbrooks (Shorebank), Bryan Van Loo (Andgar), Jason VanderKooy (Harmony Dairy), Gerrit Kuipers (Beaver Marsh Farms), and Eric Vander Kooy (Harmony Dairy).

With the project now "open", we invited the governor up to speak to the crowd. She told us that she is a big fan of anaerobic digesters and has now visited three of them. She also continued the day's dairy theme by emphasizing the contribution of embattled farmers to the state. The Capital Press posted a video with part of her speech (and some words from dairyman Eric VanderKooy as well!). We were honored that Governor Gregoire made time to visit our event, and our community could see clear evidence that her priorities include clean energy and agriculture.

A final few words came from that great friend of Skagit County agriculture, state Senator Mary Margaret Haugen. Then we brought up Steve Reynolds and Governor Gregoire again to help us start the generator; we were standing on the stage outside the building, but with a push of the mouse button on my old iBook our 750kW Guascor roared to life and the program concluded.

Many guests stayed around for the better part of an hour, looking over the site and catching up. The Skagit County agricultural community was out in force, and other elected officials made time to visit: Representatives Barbara Bailey and Norma Smith from our 10th Legislative District, Skagit County Commissioners Sharon Dillon and Ron Wesen, 40th District Representative Dave Quall, House Energy Committee Chair John McCoy of the 38th District, and Mayor Ramon Hayes of La Conner. We thank everyone who came to celebrate with us!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Farm Power Lynden

Our Congressman--Rick Larsen of Washington's 2nd District--put out a press release about our USDA grant, but otherwise the publicity has been limited. We'll see whether that continues after today's announcement of stimulus-funded state energy grants and loans; Farm Power Lynden was one of several anaerobic digester projects funded. The state energy program emphasized job creation, so our partnership with Van Wingerden Inc.'s new greenhouse project helped us compete--we are thrilled to be among those chosen to pump sustainable investment into Washington's economy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Calling the bottom

After the worst six months in the history of the American dairy business, we may be able to call the bottom on milk prices. Farmers are paid per hundred pounds (cwt) of milk--about eleven and a half gallons. Prices this year are lower than they've been in decades. The top two lines on the chart above show prices during 2007 and 2008, which were pretty good. Farmers generally broke even during 2005 (the middle line around $14/cwt), but 2006 was horrible and this year has been even worse. Even now, a typical dairy farmer loses several dollars per hundredweight--at least $0.15/gallon--while store prices only gradually inch downwards.

The current price situation results from farmers setting milk-production records just when recession-hit consumers started spending less in the dairy section. Since the United States has no system for balancing out these sorts of shifts in supply and demand, the dairy industry has been spending its own money to "retire" milking herds--paying farmers to beef their cows. This helped a bit, but the only real hope is economic recovery and higher demand for dairy products.

European farmers have not been as subtle about their economic pain. French agriculture protests are not new, but the picture above shows ethnic-Dutch Belgian farmers spraying almost a million gallons of milk on their fields rather than deliver it at a steep loss. Even European Union subsidies have not been able to cushion the crisis in the dairy industry. People are thinking hard about more sustainable models for milk; we can only hope that they are now adopted and work.