by George Looby, DVM
In early May, the Cushman Farm in Franklin, CT played host to a rather unique get together of people from agriculture, industry and engineering regarding issues affecting agriculture. Traditionally there has been very little collaboration on research projects among the various schools and colleges that make up a university. Now it seems that there is movement towards the sharing of talent and resources which allow for far better resolutions of problems than might be the case if one section attempted to solve it alone. Not too long ago the idea of the School of Engineering and the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Recourses at the University of Connecticut working together on a project of mutual interest would have been almost laughable but now it has become a reality.
Not only are those two schools working together but the School of Business has come aboard as a private industry. The discussion centered on energy and water management, especially as it relates to farm operations. The discussion was moderated by John Elliot, dean of the School of Business. Panelists included Jim Smith of Cushman Farms; Jeff McCutcheon, UConn School of Engineering; Al Geib, professor of Environmental Engineering Research and Education; Rich Meinert, UConn extension educator, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; and Mike Curtis, director project development, Quantum Biopower. This organization, based in Wallingford, CT, has developed technology to process food waste into energy, compost and fertilizer.
The United States generates more food waste than any other country in the world and this waste is greatly underutilized as a source of reusable material. Animal waste — manure — is another material that is greatly underutilized and large operations such as Cushman Farm generate far more than they can effectively use as fertilizer.
One of the elements present in almost all organic waste material is phosphorus, an element essential for optimal plant growth. For decades farmers have applied phosphorus along with other essential elements to cropland to ensure that the crop being treated received an amount sufficient enough to maximize plant growth. Added to this was the phosphorus in the manure, which was spread on cropland. It seems that this element, unlike nitrogen and potassium, has the ability to be retained in the soil for a considerable period of time. One of the topics being investigated is to find an economical method of extracting phosphorus from manure and shipping it to areas of the country where it is needed. The level present is, of course, monitored by regular soil testing upon which all fertilization levels are based. Finding an economical, efficient way in which to extract phosphorus from existing stockpiles from large operations is one in which companies such as Quantum are focused. Dr. Curtis gave the group a summary of some of the projects that his company has up and running and some that they have on the drawing board.
Much emphasis has been placed on the use of solid waste as a source of power to provide electricity to meet the considerable needs of large farm operations. Manure is a source of heat. Heat in turn is a source of power which, properly directed, can be used to generate electricity. Many large operations have digesters which capture the methane gas which is produced in natures own way of breaking down manure into its several components, which when salvaged can be used in a number of different ways. Much of the solid material that remains in digesters can be used in a variety of ways. The coarser material can be used as animal bedding while the finer material is an excellent source of phosphorus. One innovative Connecticut dairy farm has developed a process utilizing processed waste to make flower pots.
Jeffrey McCutcheon has many research programs underway at UConn, most of them focusing on water conservation. Most of the water that is presently used on dairy farms is lost once it has been used and if a method could be developed to treat that water to render it useable for some purpose, the all-around savings would be considerable. Dr. McCutcheon has several projects underway that use the principal of osmotic pressure as one of the components in developing systems that may help in this conservation effort. Osmotic pressure is the force that allows fluid, usually water, with a given density to flow through a semi-permeable membrane to water with a lower density until the density on both sides is equal. Using modifications of this principal the UConn workers hope to develop mechanisms that will allow this to happen on a commercial scale.
One of the offshoots of this project is the need to find the material that will be the best membrane. Apart from the practical applications that will be used both in industry and agriculture there is a far more pressing need in many areas of the developing world where the availability of clean, safe drinking water is in short supply.
The Cushman Farm on which this event was held is a sixth-generation farm located in North Franklin, CT. The farm is a member of the Farmers Cow Cooperative, a group of six dairy farms located in northeastern Connecticut that bottles milk under their own label and is offered for sale throughout eastern Connecticut. The farm has approximately 1,700 acres under cultivation, either owned, rented or leased. Upwards of 900 cows are being milked in a 30-cow rotary parlor and they are shipping about one and a half tankers a day. To operate this facility there are 18 full time employees and four part timers. Jim Smith and his brother Donald share the responsibility for managing this multi-location farm, representing the next generation on the farm.