Vermont farm raises a crop of energy and teaches us a lesson
The anaerobic digester at Goodrich Family Farm turns cow manure and food waste into carbon-negative, renewable natural gas
Brother-and-sister farmers Chase and Danielle Goodrich are committed to sustainability and land stewardship. Their dairy farm in Salisbury, Vt., practices no-till cover cropping and no-till corn planning to enhance soil health and protect the sensitive watershed area around the farm. Their 900 cows live in large, airy barns with comfortable bedding and high-quality feed. They also seek to be good neighbors and involved members of their community, as that community evolves away from farming.
The highlight of the sustainability efforts at Goodrich Family Farm is an anaerobic digester – a facility that converts cow manure and food waste into renewable natural gas and low carbon digestate fertilizer used by the farm. Adding to that, the Farm Poweredâ process features the first phosphorus removal system in Vermont – extracting the phosphorus from the digestate byproduct of the process to protect the Lake Champlain watershed, soil health, and the community.
It’s all part of the regenerative agriculture movement, with the ambitious goal of actually mitigating climate change. The Goodrich family’s journey also provides lessons for organizations seeking to combine sustainability with community acceptance and economic viability as well as for anyone seeking to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
Goodrich Farm’s latest achievement has been recognized with the 2021 Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability Award by the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. It is one of just three farms in the nation to win the award, which honors dairy farms, businesses, and partnerships whose practices improve the well-being of people, animals, and the planet.
Over a decade in the making
The original impulse behind the project dates back to 2009, when Chase and Danielle came home to work on the farm after attending college, taking up management of the herd their grandfather began in 1956.
“At the time, we saw two major challenges to our viability: The dairy business was getting more volatile, and the environmental impact of dairy farms was under greater scrutiny,” says Chase. “Hosting the anaerobic digester diversifies our income, improves our carbon footprint while protecting water quality, and makes us better neighbors, farmers, and animal owners.”
The Farm Powered anaerobic digester at Goodrich Farm, one of the largest in the nation, holds 1.32 million gallons of manure and organic waste. Besides processing manure from the 2,000-acre farm, it also accepts food waste from food and beverage manufacturers, Vermont businesses, and the local community, diverting it out of the waste stream to create high-value renewable energy. The project produces 180,000 Mcf of renewable natural gas annually, which is enough gas to heat about 5,000 homes. Along with carbon-negative renewable natural gas (RNG), the digester produces low-carbon fertilizer and animal bedding.
“It’s nice to be able to bed the cows as often as necessary,” says Danielle Goodrich, noting that the cows’ contentment translates into lower bacteria counts in their milk. “They love having fresh bedding. They’re happy. They’re comfortable.”
The journey toward the digester project was not without obstacles and delays, the Goodriches say. “We almost had to shape our business not around market conditions, but more geared towards the long picture of trying to get this project here,” adds Chase. “And sometimes those goals didn’t always line up, and we would kind of have to make a decision one way or the other. That was challenging.”
Unique, innovative partnership
Bringing the digester to Salisbury required putting together a team that crosses industry and geographic lines, looking outside ordinary channels for ways to create win-win opportunities.
For instance, a majority of the renewable natural gas produced at the Goodrich Farm anaerobic digester will be sent via pipeline to nearby Middlebury College, where it will offset fossil fuel thermal load at the college and enable Middlebury to get closer to its Energy2028 goals. As a side benefit, Middlebury students have opportunities for research and teaching at the farm.
Middlebury, Vanguard Renewables, and Vermont Gas Systems constitute the partnership that helped realize the Vermont anaerobic digester project alongside the Goodrich family. Vanguard Renewables owns and operates the anaerobic digester at the Salisbury farm. The farm also received support from the Agri-Mark Cabot Creamery Cooperative, an organization of 750 dairy farm families to which they belong.
“The Goodrich family is invested in the future. They have created a path of sustainability focused on innovation,” said Anson Tebbetts, Secretary for Vermont’s Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets, who provided a letter of endorsement in support of their application for the award.
“We were super excited to head down this path,” explains Chase Goodrich. “It checked off some of our major goals to keep the farm viable as we transition to the third generation, providing an income outside of the milk check as well as the environmental impacts.”
The farmers ultimately credit cooperation and persistence for getting the project done. “It brought a dairy farm family together with a prestigious educational institution with a with a public utility, and then an innovative group of entrepreneurs, and got them all together in the same room to come up with a with a great project with all these wonderful benefits,” Chase says.
Taking care of the community
“All through the process, Chase and his family knew it would create a positive path for their multi-generational family farm,” Tebbetts wrote. “But the project is also about their neighbors and the community including a major college institution.”
And in being good neighbors, advocating for a project that has helped to reduce the farm‘s carbon footprint as well as Vermont’s, Chase and Danielle have also done their part in taking better care of the Earth.
In facing daunting challenges such as the global climate crisis, the Goodrich Family Farm offers some useful starting points for action. Start locally, and look for opportunities to help solve your neighbors’ problems as well as your own. Reach out beyond your own industry or sector, and be open to outside-the-box connections and ideas. And lastly, keep your eyes on your long-term goal, even as you manage the issues of today.
Vanguard Renewables is thrilled for this recognition for the Goodrich family and for the Vanguard Renewables Farm Powered anaerobic digester on the farm. Even better, Chase and Danielle’s sustainability journey is highly replicable. Dairy farms can incorporate regenerative agricultural practices such as no-till farming and cover crops, and pursue hosting an anaerobic digester project to diversify revenue and sustain the farm for future generations.
For those of you without a dairy farm, I hope that you can all apply a little of their wisdom to benefit your own sustainability journey.
About the Author
Founder and Chief Corporate Development Officer, Vanguard Renewables
John Hanselman is the Founder and Chief Corporate Development Officer of Vanguard Renewables — the U.S. leader in farm-based organics to renewable energy. John has more than 30 years of experience leading mission-driven companies focused on disruptive, emerging technology and processes. He launched Vanguard Renewables in 2014 and has focused his work on developing a decarbonization pathway for the food and beverage industry by enabling the repurposing of unavoidable manufacturing and supply chain waste into renewable natural gas. John’s strength is bringing together partners in the decarbonization journey and Vanguard has strategic partnerships with Dairy Farmers of America, Dominion Energy, VGS, and ONE Gas among others. In 2020, Vanguard Renewables launched the Farm Powered Strategic Alliance alongside founding members Dairy Farmers of America, Unilever, and Starbucks, a pre-competitive movement to explore decarbonization strategies – recycling unavoidable food waste at farm-based anaerobic digesters and converting a portion of thermal load to renewable natural gas. Vanguard Renewables currently has six operating farm-based anaerobic digesters, seven under construction, and 10 in development across the U.S. The company plans to expand its program to 100 operating anaerobic digesters in the top 20 markets over the next five years.