Preserving the Salmon and Washington Dairy Farms
When Dale Reiner, farming along Washington’s Skykomish River, reopened an old water channel, he never expected it would lead to a methane digester and a unique partnership of farmers, Indian tribes, and environmentalists.
Reiner was thinking about water – repairing flood damage and compliance with water regulations that could affect farming.
“We’ve always been very proactive,” he says. “We wanted to be as good or better than other groups in our area.”
The nearbyTulalip Tribes were also thinking about water, as their culture is built around salmon. The Pacific Northwest salmon are endangered, and the Tulalip were looking for ways to improve salmon habitats. The tribes liked Reiner’s water project, which restored habitat for rearing young salmon.
“We began to think we farmers have more in common with the tribe than with a Boeing or a Microsoft,” Reiner explains. “We started looking for a stream to work together on habitat restoration, and the tribe came up with the idea of a biodigester to consume waste from local dairy cows.”
The Skykomish River has a gravel base linked to the valley’s aquifer – if you keep the groundwater clean, you help keep the river clean. The challenge for local farmers is to manage soil fertility so it doesn’t damage water quality.
The digester offered a way to process manure from area dairies into methane gas that could be burned to generate electricity and into compost – keeping excess nutrients out of the watershed and turning them into valuable products.
“Qualco means ‘joining of two rivers’ in Tulalip. That’s symbolic because we’re joining two cultures,” Reiner explains. “We have a good relationship. It’s good for farmers, tribes and the environmental groups.”
Qualco’s digester, which began operating in December, 2008, can handle waste from 2,200 cows, pumped in by pipeline to avoid trucking manure – and as a bonus for the broader region, it can accept organic wastes from area food processors as part of its inputs.
Reiner says it is delivering benefits beyond all expectations.
“We’re taking waste eggs, fish waste, whey from a milk company, even out-of-date beverages from a grocery. We capture 90% of the energy in these inputs, and we’re looking for better ways to use the methane,” he says.
Everything not converted to methane is separated into nutrients and compost that local farmers, including organic producers, can reapply to their fields. Since the digester helps break down nitrogen into a form fully available to crops within the first year, farmers find it easier to balance applications with crop needs.
That gives dairymen latitude to choose their herd size based on profitability rather than water regulations. At the same time, relying on recycled nutrients means less demand for commercial fertilizer, saving them thousands of dollars.
“We’re taking stuff people don’t like and converting it into power and a cleaner environment and reduced demand for natural gas to make fertilizer,” says Reiner.
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