Slurry produced by dairy cows is fast becoming one of the most serious problems in agribusiness today. Fields are often over-slurried, and the resultant run-off causes serious pollution of streams and rivers.
So the launch of an initiative that not only solves the ever more pressing problem of what to do with all this effluent, but utilises it in a way that creates an energy source to run a business as well as produce a nitrogen rich, odour free, fertiliser in the process, is a kind of miracle.
The Anaerobic Digestion (AD) plant at Wyke Farms in Somerset does all of these miraculous things; this is the culmination of five years of planning by the Clothier family who have been making cheese here since 1861. Thanks to their efforts the environment will be spared a colossal 4,000,000 Kilo's of carbon dioxide as 75,000 tons of farm waste gets turned into energy every year.
So how does it work? Well, the cows eat the grass and make the manure which is then fed into the AD where it creates methane gas which is sent to a generator to convert to electricity and heat, which then powers the dairy and the cheese factory and any excess energy goes back to the grid.
This closed loop of energy at Wyke Farm will be the corner stone of a process that produces 14,000 tons of cheddar per year. The digestate from the AD goes back on the fields as fertiliser. This digestate is not only nitrogen rich; it contains no pathogens and has no smell. Anyone who lives in the countryside will appreciate this last benefit; the odour of slurry is fast becoming an unwelcome and unhealthy common nuisance.
It may sound simple but the technology involved is cutting edge and highly sophisticated, the three digesters are vast green structures with a capacity of 4,600 cubic metres each, the gleaming pipe work and state of the art generating stations are a testimony to the £10,000,000 investment that has gone into turning this inspired vision into a viable and ground breaking initiative.
The enthusiasm of the family and staff for the project is unmistakable; Tom clothier who is the inspirational visionary behind this enterprise has demonstrated a commitment to the environment that is positively uplifting. This business is family owned and run, and family values go hand in hand when it comes to nuturing a strong relationship with the land.
The green commitment initiative is the way forward not only for the environment but for Wyke farms as a business. In the words of Richard clothier: "I have seen that our 100% Green commitment is yielding cost savings and efficiencies which in turn will make our business fit for the future, as well as improve the environment that we live in - many of these savings are only possible to achieve through sustainable practise".
Dairy farming must evolve, current practise is unsustainable, the ever more industrialised nature of the modern dairy farm is creating bigger and bigger herds of animals and slurry lagoons are becoming vast lakes of biohazard exuding greenhouse gases and poisonous fumes.
There is simply not enough acreage on which to spread all this effluent. Wyke farms have turned one of dairy farming's biggest problems into a solution, which reminds me of a friend's comment that: ‘There is no such thing as waste, just resources in the wrong places'
Wyke farms are showing the industry the way forward, AD technology has come a long way in the last ten years and this family has seen the potential and taken a leap into the future. The family want to ‘create a truly symbiotic relationship with the countryside that provides our food, our income and our home'.
They are travelling towards this goal knowing that there is always more to be done - water reclamation and solar energy are also on their agenda. In their own words ‘This is a journey, not a destination'. The Clothier family have had the courage and foresight to make Wyke farms the first 100% Green Initiative in the UK and what's more their cheese is absolutely delicious.
Lynn Batten works for Resurgence & Ecologist, and is a writer and local environmental campaigner. Her works of fiction have been published by the Write Factor.