Rich Pirog: We really have some unique opportunities in a state like Iowa. You can learn certain things from a book, and research is very very important, but so is learning from each other and building the kind of networks that would be able to help farmers, processers and entrepeneur in creative and meaningful ways. I think it is always important to remember that everybody deserves a chance to be herd and respected. Sometimes the end result is going to look different than what you had originally intended. But if you really want change to occur you have to be able to balance your own vision with those of others and try to find that collective vision. Because if you’re only going to participate if it looks exactly the way you want, chances are you won’t be successful. But if your able to find enough people that can share a common vision, you’re more likely to see the kind of network skills and then the state level changes that can make Iowa, can make whatever state you’re in a better place to live and a better place to raise your family.
John Peterson: I think if you just look at the whole concept of the anaerobic digester, it’s a project that defines sustainability. I mean we grow the corn, that we feed the cattle, that produce the quote unquote “waste product” that produces a methane that we burn in the engines to generate electricity. And the product then that comes out of the digester, the effluent, has pretty much the same fertilizer values that we put in but we extracted the methane. So we extracted the probably most noxious greenhouse gas that there is and we burn it instead we turn that fertilizer into the ground and produce more feed.so it’s a nice cycle.
John McGrath: We’ve been in operation for going on 3 years now but I never tire of being excited about what we’re doing here. You’re seeing these big thousand horse motors being run off cow manure is pretty amazing no matter how many times you see it. I think that’s one of the reasons the Iowa power fund was willing to support us with some of our construction endeavors was because they felt and we felt like that we could learn enough here that some of this technology might be transferable to other locations within the state and hopefully within the country. You know this is base low generation that’s generating on days like we’ve had this week where there’s temperatures been extremely hot and wind turbines aren’t turning. We think there’s a lot of things going on with either the livestock installations, if they can be located near some waste streams coming out of some industrial process, if that can be married up together and produce at least a fair amount of power in small communities I think it can be helpful.
James Moore: Welcome to the dream green series with cohosts Stuart Tanner and James Moore on solar powered KRUU-FM, Iowan’s creating a greener tomorrow, today. A journey of discovery across the state featuring innovators, cutting edge projects, and communities leading the way to an energy independent and sustainable future. Visit our website at greeniowa.org
JM: This is James Moore with Stuart Tanner, part of the Dream Green Series. We’re continuing here on solar power KRUU-FM from Fairfield, Iowa. Today we have with us on the line Rich Pirog who is, well, has been associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. We had a great discussion with Fred Kirschenmann in the series, a great visit up to Leopold, the Hort Farm. Great things going on, Rich has accepted a position now at Michigan State University. He is senior associate director of the center for sustainable food systems at MSU to lead the new centers efforts in associate economic aspects of food systems. We want to talk about this and a lot of other stuff. That also gets into production, marketing, economic development and so forth. We’ll hear how he’s doing with that position. It’s kind of exciting as a kick off but for two decades he was there at the Leopold Center doing the great work. Really looking at these relationships between farm and food, and we’ll hear all about that. We’re really excited I should say that he led the centers development of the Iowa Local Food and Farm Plan, which we’ll learn about. Mandated by the Iowa legislator and that really is part of our focus today. We’re talking all the way from policy to food here. Very nice to have you today
RP: Really glad to be here
Stuart Tanner: Well, we were just talking throughout the series about action to create sustainability and renewable energy and so on. On various levels; obviously there is the individual that can do things for energy efficiency, there’s the city state level, and then there’s the legislator and policy. Perhaps you can just tell us about your involvement with the policy side if the equation
RP: Well Stuart, in my years at the Leopold center at Iowa State, the centers focus has always been around research and outreach and education. And in developing research and education that would inform policy. Now we could not directly lobby for certain bills but many times research, a good example might be research about the economic impacts of the more localized food system, the environmental impacts of different production practices on the farm. Those kinds of research can help inform policy. And over the years as we develop a number of networks in Iowa around local and regional food systems, certainly including some of the great work that’s happening in Fairfield area like hometown Harvest and other groups. We had the opportunity to influence state food policy when the legislator last year mandated that the Leopold Center working with many partners across the state develop a food and farm plan with funding and policy recommendations to help build Iowa’s food economy. So that would also include local and regional foods, the nature that Iowa farmers could provide in market. Now I left the Leopold Center at the beginning of May and I have since learned that indeed some of our recommendations have become law and that the governor did sign within legislation a Food and Farm Plan law that includes creation of a council and provided even in these tough economic times some funding to get some work started at the state level. Policy work always takes time, it incremental, but I’m certainly encouraged that part of our recommendations have become law had that the work of so many organizations and individuals around the state was valued and honored in the process
ST: Could you tell us about the main features of the Food and Farm Plan. What are some of the numbers and what is it trying to achieve, really?
RP: Well, the plan itself had approximately 35 recommendations looking at all different aspects of farming from production, to processing, to distribution, to food safety, to marketing. The plans recommendations where set to put into motion things that may take some resourced to provide, some of which the legislator did respond and helped provide funding for a state wide local food coordinator. I think other important pieces around education and technical assistance. Some changes of existing laws; say for example the small meat processing facilities, those that are currently providing some of our differentiated niche meat sources like organic, or pasture raise, what have you; we need opportunities so they can be more competitive. Now as we look at local food systems in Iowa and across the Midwest we have a number of challenges. We wanted to make sure that small and midsize farmers would have the ware-with all and incentives to be able to produce and market more local foods. So that means their needs to be loan programs, technical assistance programs; their needs to be grant opportunities. There needs to be more coordinated efforts by state agencies, and universities and colleges to supply all that technical assistance and education. Those recommendations really created a sort of framework of how we can develop that kind of food system in Iowa. And we’ve again, some of the recommendations were easy things to do that didn’t require any funding like getting together a local food farmer on the state food safety task force. This is something that really in this case the department of inspection and appeals could do easily. Other recommendations require legislation as in the case of appropriating some money. Other recommendations will require other types of state, or federal, or foundation support in order to make happen. For example a set of case studies that would help Iowa lenders realize the kind of businesses that are very much worth financing around local organic and other foods.
ST: Well of course that a very important part of the equation, to release credit, and perhaps to demonstrate the viability of the smaller scale operations and the existence of markets and so on. I suppose that’s a perfect example of where the kind of work the Leopold Center does in terms of the feasibility of these operations and the economic feasibility is very important. Is there a general, sort of larger strategy in this that the agricultural sector has become dominated by a small number of crops? Sort of very large scale systematic operation. The control of the land or ownership is often from big companies and outside the state. Is there a kind of attempt here to go forwards as it where to allow viability on a middle and smaller scale actually in a way that perhaps used to exist before.
RP: Well, if you look at the data, cooperation’s don’t own the majority of the land in Iowa. It’s still mostly in private ownership, but what you do have is a situation where commodity programs… There are few incentives to diversify, and to be able to move from say, just producing corn and soybeans to looking at other opportunities. A good case and point would just be the fact that, although it is growing, there are very few fruits and vegetables produced in Iowa. Last census I believe it was something around 14 to 15 thousand acres for farmers that are in commodity programs. Their even are some penalties for farmers say taking that corn and soybeans and try to grow fruits and vegetables they can lose say for example part of their corn base. So we need innovative policy programs that would help reward farmers or provide incentives for them to take these risks and work in these other areas. When we talk about fruits and vegetables, it’s not only being penalized for perhaps growing on your crop base but there are the issues around crop insurance. There are good products available for commodity crops as far as the risk mitigation with insurance. We need to see those same kinds of products available for fruit and vegetable growers so that they can help mitigate their risk. As we know even with our hoop house or green house structures we have out their there are a lot of risks associated with growing food. Iowa’s climate is variable, we can have some really damaging wind and rain and hail. All of these things are really critical to help farmers have a platform to stand on as they try to explore these other options. Well, state and federal policy come into play as well as the local support.
JM: Well, we are speaking with Rich Pirog. He is now the associate director of the Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State University. [He] had been at the Leopold Center for two decades, joining there on staff in 1990 as an education coordinator then marketing and food systems initiative leader for the past so many years. Associate director for sustainable agriculture. I know you’ve done a lot of great work in this area, Rich. I guess we could just have you talk for a moment about the Value Change Partnerships Project perhaps. Also, I guess you came to some claim, really, highlighting the distance food travels; the food system pathways. Do you want to talk about both those?
RP: Sure, I’ll start with the later one. Back at the start of the previous decade, around 2000, we did a little bit of research trying to answer a question that a lot of folks were asking about as they were looking at local food systems and that is, “how far is food traveling, how local is our food, how global is our food?” We did a set of two or three very small studies using a set of sort of a more rigorous framework to estimate and calculate distance. We looked at the average distance that fruit and vegetables were traveling to reach what are called “terminal markets,” locations were fruits and vegetables are sold at wholesale market. In this case up in Chicago and St. Luis and other points in the Midwest. We did a few studies; we came up with, basically, what we found that for fruits and vegetables was coming to the Midwest by truck from around the country was that the average distance was about 1500 miles. Now, there have been a few other small studies like this. But I think that the term “food miles,” how far food travels from its origins to get to where it is purchased and ultimately consumed. I think that really struck a chord with not only food system leaders and local food advocates around the country but the general public. I mean it was a term that they could understand and resonate with. Everybody travels, everybody can understand that 1500 miles say verses 50 miles is a big difference. Over a period of about six or seven years even though these where small studies that were really just university based studies we received frequent requests by both the media and other non-profit organizations to ask information about those studies. Unfortunately what happened was they became so popular, as did the other limited studies that were out there that they became part of the vernacular. People were saying with confidence that the average food was traveling 1500 miles globally. And even one case I remember somebody was saying that according to the Leopold Center the average food molecules travels 1500 miles. We only did our work on fruits and vegetables but the point again is that I think came out of all this is that we do have a very global food system and food is traveling very long distances, increasingly so over time. It became part of that message I think as we talked about local food systems and the issue being near versus distant. Being within a community or within a state rather than being half way around the world. As people became more interested in local food it became part of the story that was being told.
JM: Well great, and you were also going to comment on the Value Change Partnerships Project.
RP: The Value Change Partnerships Project was really a way to better coordinate technical assistance across organizations in the state around the various alternative markets that exist in grass-fed livestock and niche pork and we had a group of fruits and vegetables in Iowa that is really alternative crop in many instances because there is so little of it that is actually cultivated. We had a group in local and regional foods that included hometown harvest and still do. That group continues to go strong and the Leopold Center and an extension of other partners play a role. The whole premise with all of these groups were to get folks together that had a common interest in helping farmers, helping processors, helping build markets and getting them to learn from each other in ways they can do this innovatively and being able to share that information more quickly and broadly. In a way what had been created through all of these different working groups that we had, and we had about seven of them. Small beef processing was another, food access and health was another, the latter of which is still going strong today is to create this sort of network of learning around the state when it came to local food, organic and food access issues and issues around food safety and distribution. So when certain groups would learn some things they could rapidly share that with groups in other parts of the state and other organizations. A regional food systems group for example started with we built that group very slowly and when I left the Leopold Center in May I believe their where about 16 groups covering about 85 of the 99 counties. Those groups came together on a regular basis and I believe they still will in the future around challenges and opportunities in local food. We really have some unique opportunities in a state like Iowa. You can learn certain things from a book, and research is very, very important, but so is learning from each other. Our groups where a combination of both research and learning from each other and building the kind of networks that would be able to help farmers, processers and entrepreneurs in creative and meaningful ways.
ST: Well, I wanted to ask you exactly what you see as the principle benefits, the benefits of the Farm and Food program and how that would help in regards to the food mile situation as well.
RP: Let start with some things that may be not so obvious but they maybe really important. And that is when the any state passes legislation around local food, however small or large and impactful that legislation is, it’s a very symbolic thing. It shows federal agencies, it shows foundations, it shows investors that the state is willing to make some type of investment and is serious about looking at local and regional food as part of the state’s economy and livelihood. By taxing a few of the recommendations the Food and Farm Plan. I think there a signal being said that I would hope would lead to Iowa being more of a magnet for some of those resources and programs that ultimately if they’re done in a coordinated fashion would help farmers and food entrepreneurs and processors alike succeed. So, from the symbolic and the statement level I think that’s very important. Part of what was had by the hiring of a food coordinator was to better coordinate those activities that are happening around the state, not oversee or control them but help make sure that flow of information is happening. So farmers are learning about new business opportunities and ways to organize and ways to distribute. So it actually builds on the work we’ve done on the Value Change Partnerships and all of the different organizations, whether they be the RC and E’s, the extinction, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Farmers Union. Many other organizations around the state that are interested in local foods have played a significant role in making that. In at least getting to the point where we can start building some state level policies around local foods. This started way before value change partnerships, a great work that Drake University did to get the first state food policy council for Iowa. I think it was the second one in the nation. Drake University and other partners, Neal Hamilton, who’s a professor at Drake University; he was one of the leaders in that. So this work has had a lot of foundation building over the years. I was very pleased, and it was very hard to leave Iowa but seeing that something was passed by the legislator, it was very meaningful to me, personally, and hopeful all of the organizations in the state of Iowa community will see it as an opportunity, not as a final victory but to build upon and create more infrastructure around local and regional foods, organic foods in the state so that we see even more wealth, creation, and prosperity in rural communities as well as in our urban communities.
ST: Presumably that would reduce food miles because obviously if you’re sourcing food locally and regionally that’s going to reduce how far food is traveling. Which obviously is good for reducing CO2 emissions and potentially meaning that the food is fresher as well, so that there can be a nutritional advantage. What would you describe then as, what could you see going forward? Vision of how it could be in terms of local food and regional food prevision.
RP: I’m going to say something that might be a bit controversial in the sense that local food and regional food are, a part of the story of explaining them has been food miles but I really think that we should put food miles in a proper perspective in a sense that that is only a small piece of the story. I think very important to remember, particularly for a more rural parts of the state that may not have even a city of maybe even 10 or 20,000 people within, say 100 or 200 square miles. Local and regional foods is also very much about relationships. It’s about the distance between those that are growing the food, not just in millage but in the information that’s being shared. Perhaps some of our more rural areas of Iowa were supporting farmers markets but there are maybe opportunities to tell that food story and sell those products regionally as well. Good examples might be the Musketene melon that very fascinating story in Muskatene County, the Bluff Hills of Iowa, which there are some of the richest soils in the world. Each of these Iowan eco regions also could help develop a food story around the both ecology of place and people that has developed over the years with Native American settlement, European settlement, current increase in our Latino and other populations. Diversity is a very good thing, being able to share not only our traditions in the way of say how we do things but in the way we prepare and offer our foods out. Theirs some really great opportunities in the field of future for Iowa as it becomes more culturally diverse.
JM: I wanted to ask you, going to a different subject here. The work that you put into the local food and farm plan, leading this paper, this approach that was mandated by the legislator would be talking about it is now being implemented. More than 1,000 people involved outlining different ways to do all this work. Obviously you seem to have a gift for cross pollinating that is you seem to get people on board. It seems more and more people are waking up to the possibilities that are out there. And a lot of them just want to know “what do we do, how do we get involved.” Would you have any recommendations in that regard?
RP: It’s very important to create the kinds of spaces when you have that dialogue where people feel that their thoughts can be herd. I think it is very important that, when people are interested in something, they want to contribute, they want to do something. Part of the role that the Leopold Center served and certainly that I tried to serve as we did that work with more of a food and farm plan was more of a sergeant leader. It was more of, “how can we better bring together the grass roots and the grass tops in the kind of have the conversations that need to happen to change state policy.” Over a year ago when we had our first initial meeting and we were able to bring, I believe it was about 60different organizations together and at least make some baby steps towards what are the important local food system issues together. When people have a chance to experience something together, whether it’s across organization, across counties, across cultures, there’s more of an opportunity to build that trust and deepen that relationship so that you can do things together, you can make changes. I think this is really important for people who are interested in this work, they need to really be powerful listeners and understand not only the issue from their perspective but from all of those who have a steak in those communities, whether they agree with them or not. And to build a lot of safe dialogue places where you can have that dialogue and people can find those things they can move forward with, and do it in a way where they feel more power versus disempower. The fact that legislator did pass something is very encouraging, I mean they asked for a food and farm plan and we did our best with working with all our partners to provide that to them and they responded by seeing that something that did indeed get passed that followed the spirit of several of the recommendations. So that is the way things happen, things do , many times, happen slowly, but we need to see it as not a final victory, we need to see it as “Yes, this is good, now what can we do next.” Hopefully it will be an opportunity for organizations across the state and all the great things happening in the Fairfield area to continue to build up.
ST: Well, achieving changes in the law and bringing about new legislation, obviously that is a grand enterprise, and really, anyone engaged in that and achieving those things for the good deserves tremendous congratulations as far as we are concerned. We recognize there is a lot of time and a lot of detailed work that goes into that. That really is talking the talk that leads to walking the walk that is something we just want to give your attention to. As a result we have developed this relationship with legislation with the food and Farm Plan. Recommendations being taken aboard. So that is fantastic and I just wanted to ask you what your pearls of wisdom were for others who are engaged with this on the local level, and state wide, and so on in terms of achieving changes in policy and moving things forward.
RP: It is always important to remember that, everybody wants to make a difference, and empowering people to feel that they are making a difference in their work and their actions can snowball. The more people that energy and are able to feel that energy and work collectively they realize that silo’s is just pretty much old school and we need to be able to find ways to come together to solve what are some very serious problems and challenges. Iowa nationally, globally, whether they be environmental or the way we bring our food to our table, issues of food security and access are all so critical. I think it is always important to remember that everybody deserves a chance to be herd and respected, sometimes the end result is going to look different than what you had originally intended, but if you really want change to occur, you have to be able to balance your own vision with those of others and try to find that collective vision. Because if you’re only going to participate if it looks exactly the way you want, chances are, you won’t be successful. But if your able to find enough people that can share a common vision, you’re more likely to see the kind of networks built, and then the state level changes that can make Iowa, can make any place you’re in a better place to live and a better place to raise your family.
JM: Final question, you’ve started at a new center there, a Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Michigan State, how does it look with that?
RP: The actual name of the center is still in evolution, but our name may actually become the Center for Regional Food Systems. One of the reasons that I came to Michigan is that, they did work hard to recruit me here, was the opportunity to build additional networks and bring some of the great things that are happening here in Michigan together collectively. So that would be more of a collective impact in our food system. Michigan is different that Iowa in that there is much more cultural diversity. We have cities were we have many challenging urban issues like Detroit and Flint. With those issues we are seeing a new futures created with urban agriculture and community gardens. And so this has been very eye opening for me to be here but those same principles I think are real critical when works at a university or is doing research work is to make that work as useful and meaningful as possible for the health and growth of communities in a sustainable way. One nice thing I also like about Michigan, one of many, is that it is more ecologically diverse, there are more production regions; there are fruit growing regions, vegetables as well as commodity crops. So I really like that diversity and having a chance to see where I can perhaps add some value to the state. I’m always willing to come back to Iowa, I have told all my colleagues there and maybe I’ll have other chances not only on the radio and presentations to come back over the years. Iowa will always have a very important place in my heart.
JM: Well, thanks to the great work that you’ve done, we feel like you’re here with us already moving the farm and food equation forward. Thank you so much for your time, for the great work. We look forward to connecting again. And, I guess, really isn’t that what it is all about. This is James Moore with Stuart Tanner for the Dream Green Series here on solar powered KRUU-FM. We’ve been speaking with Rich Pirog, having a great time doing it. Keep up the good work.
RP: Thanks for having me.
JM: We’ll be back in just a moment.
JM: And we are off to see the wizard. No, sorry, the yellow brick road was just dancing in my head. We have just left the confines of Iowa City. We are literally winding our way; I know I say that a lot, but literally at this moment, winding our way towards the Amana Colonies. The Amana colonies, a very interesting area in Iowa. A long storied tradition, we’ll talk about some of that, but in addition and specifically, we are going to find out the low down on the low down. We are going to be talking all about manure today, folks. So I hope you have your boots on, we are going to learn about energy, we are going to learn about the deep earth that is done in a very special way at Amana Colonies. Also traveling with us on this segment, Danna Schill, we are always happy her on board as well as Stuart Tanner of Tanner and Moore. We are overcast today, for those of you keeping score. Before I bring Stuart in, I want to give just a little bit of background, Stuart, on the history of the Amana colonies. It’s a national historic landmark, one of Americas longest lived communal societies. It began, check this out, you’ll get a kick out of this, in 1714 in the villages of Germany and continues today on the Iowa Prairie. So there’s this tradition in the turbulent f18th century of Germany, amidst the religious movement called the pietism, two men, named Eberhard Grubber and Johan Rock, perhaps the start of Rock and roll, I’m not even sure. Stuart in the background said “It sounds like a heavy metal band.” Eberhard Gruber and Johan Rock advocated faith renewal through reflection, prayer, and bible study. Their belief that was shared by many other Pietist, and I bet you that’s pronounced differently, was that God, though the Holy Spirit, nay inspire individuals to speak. They sought freedom then and came over; I think about 1843 and 1844. Community membered pooled their resources and purchased 5,000 acres near Buffalo NY and eventually, when more farm land was needed for their growing community, they looked to Iowa where land was attractively priced and plentifully available. One valley on the Iowa River seemed particularly promising. Fertile soil, stone, wood, and water enough to build a community of their dreams, and that’s where we are headed folks. A little bit of background on there. And I’m wondering Stuart how you’re feeling today and what are we headed for?
ST: Apparently, at Amana colonies they have a facility where by they can make energy from manure. Which obviously is a great thing to be doing with that manure. I assume that it actually neat things coming from that manure. But we are going to be learning all about that, clearly that’s an innovation that is great at generating some extra energy. I’m sure it’s very efficient for them and saves money, where going to be fascinated to see how that’s done.
JM: Well I am particularly coming from grandparents of dairy farmers so we’ll see what kind of cows we are talking about. I have a feeling we’ll be in that range I thane you thane we all thane for methane. Methane we’ve come across before if I’m not mistaken, the Methane are gases, the fueling element in the wastewater plant at Davenport. Is that correct, the waste water facility?
JM: Now, just if you could explain the difference between the methane from the wastewater, obviously I know what methane is from the cows. How does that work because I’m seeing that more and more with methane being used to generate electricity for different operations?
ST: It’s a bit of a curve ball question, asking me if I know the difference between the methane from the waste water facility and the methane from cows’ manure. I don’t know. We’ll going to have to talk to the experts and they’ll help explain these things. I can have a stab at it obviously the bacteria is dealing with the waste water produce at the waste water facility and methane is one of the byproducts of that process. That would be my guess. Well we’re certainly talking about waste products. And perhaps it shouldn’t be called that anymore because if you can generate energy from that waste produce than it’s damn useful.
Global Positioning System: Turn left and then arrives at destination on right.
JM: Well, there we are, we just pulled into the Amana colonies and you know what? I have not been here before. This is absolutely delightful. You see some people walking around here, the village store fudge factory, Yana’s Lady Boutique Clothes and Counter. Oh man, plays on words, I love them. Oxioc Inn, Amana coffee and Tea Company, maybe we will have time for a quick coffee. The Sandstone Winery the Azul gemstone jewelry, bakery café Amana colonies. Popcorn and ice-cream, Chocolate House. Just like Outhouse, my old group. This is amazingly beautiful back here. I can’t believe it, I’ve lived in Iowa this long many years, I’ve never been here. I’ve heard many people talk about it, and this is absolutely adorable first time popping in. National landmark since 1965. There’s the fest Halle Barn. This is German from the background. We should have brought our good platum guest host Gerald Gromin. Who speaks very good American German. Anyway we are here, were going to walk around more but I am telling you, first entrance for me, amazing. Donna have you been here before?
Donna Schill: I haven’t actually.
JM: What do you think?
DS: I think it’s going to be great, and I’m part German too, so...
ST: There is the quilting and needle work shop. Their something we should call in, James.
JM: Perhaps the Java house as well. Okay, now I’m going back and forth between Spanish, French and German.
ST: The look of the place is interesting, isn’t it because the architecture is, well a little bit Germanic I think like a lot of the things around here.
JM: It is gorgeous, very well quaft as it where, very tidy and neat. Beautiful building. Wow, this definitely… I’m telling most Iowans something they don’t know already what a beautiful area… We’ll be back with you in just a moment, we’re Dream Green Series and so are you if you’re listening. Thanks for tuning in, solar powered KRUU-FM.
JM: And here we are, at the Amana farms. We’ve driven a little bit away from the beautiful Amana colonies, which we had a lot of fun going in and looking at. This is James Moore with Stuart Tanner, Donna Schill along today as well. It is a beautiful Iowa day which means it is not raining, it’s not sunny, it’s a little warm, but it’ Iowa. It is all good. We’re with John Peterson. We are standing outside the facility. We’ve been talking about visiting, a very special way of turning a very special waste product into energy, and if I’m not mistaken, this is one of the first Iowa power fund projects, is that correct? First of all, tell us about yourself, John.
John Peterson: I’m John Peterson, president and CEO of the Amana Society. I’m very proud that one of our assets is Amana farms and as part of Amana farms the anaerobic digester that where standing in front of right now. It was, as I understand at least, one of the first Iowa Power fund projects to actually operate. We have been operating since August of 2008.
JM: My grandparents where dairy farmers so I’m familiar with this particular pungency. Tell us a little bit about this operation.
JP: This particular waste product, we call it feed stock and they are all nice words for cattle manure. That is the primary feeds stock for the anaerobic digester. It produces the bacteria that digest whatever we put in it. And as part of that digester process creates methane. The methane is collected, we route it into the building and then pump it into engines which we run four, 16-cylender engines about 1050 horse power each, and four generators going with those to produce 2.8 megawatts of power here.
JM: Fantastic. Well we are going to get inside. We’re going to talk with someone who actually is managing this facility, is that right, the farmer?
JP: Well, John McGrath is our farmer; this is one of his responsibilities along with crops on our 25,000 acre plot of land here and our beef operation.
JM: Great. Tell me just a little bit, John about Amana society that you are head of. Just give us a little bit of a background for our listeners who may not be familiar with Amana Colonies which, hard to imagine anybody in Iowa not being familiar with it but just give a little bit of a run down
JP: The Amana Society was actually created in 1932 when it was split from the Amana sheriff society. The Amana people came from Germany in the mid 1800’s. Settled first in New York and then in the 1850’s came out looking for plots of land, found this one in the Iowa river valley, saw this one, liked it and bought up 25000 acres of land. They proceeded to build eventually 7 colonies; actually one of them was already there and began their life. They lived communally, primarily out of economic necessity not out of religious convection, and did so until the early 1930’s. In 1932, I think largely because people were looking for more opportunity, the children really didn’t have any options other than for women to work in the kitchen house and the men to work on the farm and they wanted to go to school. They didn’t have an income per say living in a society like they were. So they broke up the business into the Amana business society I’ll call it and they took charge of all they businesses. The people who had lived and worked here as part of the settlers received shares of stock in the Amana society, they were allowed to trade in their shares of stalk to buy their homes, to buy goods, and for a time that developed and over the years the Amana society has sold off a number of the businesses had sold off some of the small parcels of land. But still owns the primary block of land that the farm, pasture, timber and a number of the businesses including Amana farms and utilities that serves the Amana farms and buys the power from the anaerobic digester.
JM: They knew good land when they saw it I think. Stuart did you have a question?
ST: I just wanted to ask you, are there any other features to the Amana colonies that are to do with energy efficiency or sustainable practices?
JP: There are actually. And one of the more remarkable characteristics was a seven mile canal that was dug into the Amana. Originally it ran water wheels that powered the rolling mill. And in the early 1920’s, I believe, it was converted into small hydro-electric plant. That hydroelectric plant still runs today.
JM: How many watts?
JP: Just a few KW.
JM: There were about 50 of those at one time around the state of Iowa. We visited one in Ottumwa. That’s great, anything else in terms of the sustainable approaches?
JP: I think if you just look at the whole concept of the anaerobic digester, it’s a project that defines sustainability. I mean we grow the corn, that we feed that cattle, that produce the quote unquote “waste product” that produces a methane that we burn in the engines to generate electricity. And the product then that comes out of the digester, the effluent, has pretty much the same fertilizer values that we put in but we extracted the methane. So we extracted probably the most noxious greenhouse gas that there is and we burn it instead; we turn that fertilizer into the ground and produce more feed.so it’s a nice cycle.
JM: A cycle, a perfect circle. Is there anything about Amana that we could just say generally before we head in?
JP: We are very proud of it. A lot of historic buildings a lot of a high percentage of historic buildings, and as people in Iowa know, but maybe others don’t, it is a national historic landmark and has been since the 1970’s.
JM: Well we are going to head inside know, into the facility here, and see if we talk with, I believe John McGrath is the person in charge of this and we will go from there. So, you can here as we walk pass some big fans on the outside, blowing fresh air. Fresh air plus, we’ll call it fresh air plus as we go past here. A whiff of nature let us put it that way. We are walking behind the facility now. We see a number of pipes. John, could I just ask you to explain what we’re seeing here for the listeners?
JP: What we are looking at here as you look off to your left is the top of a 1.6 gallon tank on the ground. That is where we feed in the various feeds stalks and the bacteria digest them. Theirs a U-shaped pipe coming out of the top of that; gas gathers at the top of this tank and is gathered at the top of the main building to the engines.
JM: Okay, so that’s what we’re seeing as we walk past here, and again, 1.6 million?
JP: 1.6 million gallon tank, yes, 16 feet deep.
JM: 16 feet deep, that is a lot of…
JP: They are actually feeding the digester here right know. They have a small loader tractor that is feeding the manure into the mixing pit, it is probably interesting to see, come on over.
JM: Let us take a walk, and as John mentions was walking over here. I know it was a little bit noisy in the background but we have tractors and of course the big fans and here is the fresh stuff. This is the real deal right here. This is what corn eventually becomes, and we see a tractor here.
JP: Now, we may have missed it but this is the tractor we use to load up the manure. It’s dumped first in a mixer then goes into a covered pit here which is also 16 feet deep and it we use to mix up a batch which is then pumped in over the course of a day into the digester.
JM: Okay so that what where seeing here I see. He’s cleaning up the tractor right now. So we missed the actual scoping. This is how it works; I mean pretty simple stuff, isn’t it?
JP: I mean yeah, it is, but what’s unique about this digester is this manure is only about 20% of what we put into it. The rest of what we put into it is industrial and food processing waste that we get from nearby plants in Cedar Rapids or trucks from as far as Indiana. And we have been experimenting with a lot of those feed stocks. In fact, that was the main reason we got the grant from the Iowa power fund was willing to support us with this experiment. Most digesters are almost exclusively dairy manure. This doesn’t even start with dairy it starts with beef manure, which is a little harder to gather, and 80% of what we put in here is various waste products including restaurant waste from fat and grease and food processing and turkey slaughter, and this building which we should take a look at. It takes very large tanks which we use to store liquid feed stock so we can meter them out into the digester.
ST: How many other places are there like this in Iowa or elsewhere?
JP: As of about a year ago this was the only operating farm digester in Iowa. There were a number of municipal waste digesters but this was the only operating farm dieter. And to my knowledge it is one of very few maybe only the one using beef manure at this point in time. And certainly the only one using such a high number of off farm substrates to feed the digester.
JM: Obviously you’re keeping track of records over time what seems to work and produce the most?
JP: We are and we had a very interesting struggle. For the first two years we ran, most of the time, one engine out of four. In August of 2008 we had a happy accident; we found a feed stalk that worked and all of the sudden we ran three and then four engines. So, a lot of research, a lot more science than we ever thought it would take, but we have gotten to a point where we very well gotten to understand it.
ST: I just wondered what, in terms of the energy output that you get; can you give us an idea of what that will power? The design was to power about 10% of the Amana colonies load in the summer and 15% in the winter. And we were doing that throughout this last winter.
ST: How many houses is that? How big an area and so on?
JP: It’s all seven colonies about 1,400 residence and probably 70 or 80 businesses.
ST: So, what does that represent in cash terms? In terms of saving on an energy bill for those colonies?
JP: I have to do a little thinking here. We either have to but the power from ourselves, or we buy the power off the grid, and this is anywhere from one and a half to two cents cheaper than what we buy off the grid. So it represents probably a 20-25% savings when we incorporate this for these kilowatts where we generate here.
ST: How many other communities can do this? Could operate this model?
JP: That is part of what we are trying to prove. That you don’t need to have a cattle herd of 10,000 to do one of these. We have a cattle herd with, on the feed here about 2500 head of cattle. Those cattle produce some of what we need in there. So by adding the off farm substrates we help to expand the number of site that have potential r a digester like this. And we are getting to the point where we are proving the concept.
ST: It’s interesting isn’t it because you are actually using part of the digestive system of the cow to prepare a material that you can generate energy from. So it’s actually biology that is doing a lot of the work free energy you are getting.
JP: We just built a very large cow stomach. A 1.6 million gallon cow stomach, that is pretty accurate that is about what happens in the digester.
ST: What would happen elsewhere if you got the manure from the cows, know what is the difference between what you are able to do with it and what somewhere else would do with some of the manure that was generated.
JM: Typically the manure is gathered and spread on farm land as fertilizer. We are doing the same thing but first we are extracting the methane gas. This is a negative noxious greenhouse gas. This has the same fertilizer value as I said before. So that is what we are doing. We are extracting the greenhouse gas, extracting some kilowatt hours of energy, and still maintaining the fertilizer.
JM: So everything stays the same except you’re getting energy out of it and saving the greenhouse emissions so, basically nothing is staying the same. It’s just all getting better and being used great cycle as you said.
ST: When you burn the methane gas what is the byproduct of that?
JP: Primarily Carbon Dioxide, which is not a great thing to emit into the air but it is a lot less harmful than methane
ST: Presumably if that manure is going onto the land, than methane is emitted from it?
JP: Yes, yes it is. As the manure decays, it does emit methane.
ST: So you are producing CO2, but otherwise you would be producing methane. And in that process of producing CO2 of course your also producing energy, which in order to produce that energy elsewhere would be producing CO2.
JP: Yeah, CO2 or something else.
JM: Well I don’t know about you, Donna, but I’m getting confused with all that. I heard it but I’ll have to listen back to know exactly what they said. I think it’s good on balance. And maybe we need to move over to the next building. We’ll be back with you this is James Moore with Stuart Tanner, Donna Schill and James Peterson at the Amana farms for the Dream Green Series on solar powered KRUU- FM. Keep it tuned right here.
JM: And this is James Moore, we are back with John McGrath right now. We would like to welcome you to the airwaves here. Give us your assessment of what you’ve got going here. It’s pretty exciting stuff.
John McGrath: Yeah, it is pretty exciting we have been in operation for going on three years now. We’ve been going in operation for 3 years now but I never tire of being excited about what we’re doing here and you seeing these big thousand horse motors being run off cow manure is pretty amazing no matter how many times you see it.
JM: Obviously as we have learned you have gotten to a place where you’re supplying a heck of a lot of energy from this process. Are you feeling like it is something that could be translated to others. Is that part of what we are seeing from this process?
JMc: Yeah I think that’s one of the reasons the Iowa power fund was willing to support us with some of our construction endeavors was because they felt and we felt like that we could learn enough here that some of this technology might be transferable to other locations within the state and hopefully within the country. You know this is base low generation that’s generating on days like we’ve had this week where there’s temperatures been extremely hot and wind turbines aren’t turning. We think there’s a lot of things going on with either the livestock installations, if they can be located near some waste streams coming out of some industrial process, if that can be married up together and produce at least a fair amount of power in small communities I think it can be helpful.
ST: How are the numbers looking now from the original investment? From what you are saving from not having to buy energy elsewhere. Is it paying for itself? Is it making money for you?
JMc: It is paying for itself. It’s not as successful for various reasons as we thought it would be at this time. Mostly due to the down turn of the economy. We had counted on carbon credits and renewable energy credits as being a fairly substantial part of our income stream. Because of the downturn of our economy those are basically nonexistent at this point. So we anticipate that those will come back and be hopeful part of the income stream as we move forward but at this point that is not something we are able to obtain. Now having said that there are some other things like the tipping fees we are able to charge. Some of the industrial partners that we have, they have been excited about being involved in a renewable energy project. Those that would have been a little bit better than we anticipated, so there has been some tradeoff I guess on the income side of the equation. But we are lagging in where we hoped we’d be at this point but we are profitable.
DS: What products have you found produce the most energy?
JMc: That’s an interesting question because some things, we have them lab tested before they go into the mix and when you test them by themselves you get a different answer sometimes versus when you put it all together in a six or seven ingredient mix. Sometimes two plus two equals ten and sometimes two plus two equals one half. It’s very difficult sometimes to determine exactly where all the energy is coming from within that mix but we are using things like short cardboard fibers from card board recycling. Some grain processing byproducts were very close to Cedar Rapids. Well there is a lot of different things coming off of Cedar Rapids; off spec material and so forth. Some process washes with water. When those certain manufacturers or biodiesel manufacturing, if they are cleaning out their facility after one batch and getting ready for another batch their might be some clean out waters that they need to get rid of. So things like that. Lots and Lots of different products that we have tested. Something like 30 different products.
JM: So it’s a constant mix. I think traffic said it best, “medicated goo” is part of the process here in figuring out what works. John I want to thank you so much for giving us this brief tour. Great job, keep up the good work. We will think fondly as we think of the Amana colonies about this process that is going on. I’ll ask a final question of you. Are their people showing up, aside from Dream Green Series types, asking you questions, coming from other parts of the state or around the country or the world?
JMc: Oh, absolutely. We’ve had lot of both local, state, and national and international tours. We keep track of our visitors and since we’ve began we are approaching 2000 visitors here in about the last two and a half, a little over two and a half years. Where getting sometimes two to three tours a week of varying sizes. You bet.
JM: John, I’ll throw it to you for any other closing comment on this great facility or the Amana colonies.
JMc: I do want to thank you for the opportunity to share our story; it is a very important one for us. I think it is a very important one for the environment and a very important one for the sustainability of the state. So thanks again for coming, I really appreciate it.
JM: Well our pleasure, is there a website for Amana Colonies in general for people to come to?
JMc: There are a number of websites. There is one for the Amana colonies commissions and business bureau. We are just redoing ours for the Amana Society. A number of the Amana society sores and others too have websites so I encourage you to go look at those websites they’ll give you a little sense of what it is like to visit Amana. And then do visit it when you get a chance.
JM: Thank you both very much. We are out of here for the Dream Green Series. Keep it tuned, right here, to solar powered KRUU-FM.
JM: Ah yes, that is the bare foot polka, by Bear foot Becky, Beck has actually played October fest here in Fairfield several years and beautiful music, good season, kind of fitting we thought. And I hope you enjoyed it very much. Thank you so much for joining Stuart and I, again, we are winding down to the end of our 20 part radio series. Next week we will be talking about the wind, you will not want to miss that. And we have final show that will combine all the great pieces we’ve put together in this wonderful puzzle traveling all across this wonderful state of Iowa looking at energy efficiency, sustainability practices, different communities that are putting great things to gather use. Hopefully this has been extremely inspiring. It really has for us learning all of the great stuff going on in the state. So keep it tuned right here, this is the Dream Green Series. You can go to greeniowa and check out more. Be back next week, same time, same station. Solar powered KRUU- FM; this is Stuart Tanner and James Moore