Wildlife management area created as working dairy farm is saved

Bill and Ursula Johnson sold their landmark dairy farm in Canaan, Vermont, creating a wildlife area at the same time. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 8-8-2012

CANAAN — A landmark working dairy farm here has been sold to a young farm family while a new wildlife area was created, protecting six miles of frontage on the Connecticut River and ensuring public access for fishermen, campers, and bird watchers.

It was a complicated deal and one lots of people wanted to celebrate at the Bill and Ursula Johnson farm on Friday, August 3.  About 70 people attended, including the heads of several state agencies, plus local legislators — Senator Bob Starr and Representative Bob Lewis.

Secretary Deb Markowitz of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said the Johnsons’ sense of civic duty in wanting to make the whole thing happen was laudable.

“This is just one more example of what it means to be a Vermonter,” she said.

Secretary Chuck Ross of the Agency of Agriculture said when he was approached about this idea that it was so clearly a wonderful project that it was a “no-brainer.”

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Berry said the project is unusual because it brings together three of Vermont’s top values:  working lands, conservation, and public access.

“Look around you.  This is a big deal,” he said.

Bob Klein of the Nature Conservancy agreed.  “What makes Vermont so special is the integration of those things,” he said.  “Every project is a manifestation of a collection of values.  Conservation isn’t something somebody else does.”

The deal took more than two years to put together.  The Johnsons sold 849 acres, of which 583 is being kept in farming, with conservation easements.  The remaining 266 is being made into a state-owned Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  The property and easements cost $1.45-million, according to Tracy Zschau, regional director of the Vermont Land Trust.

She said the first step was to buy the conservation easement, which was about $450,000 of the total cost.

The first main funding source was the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Upper Connecticut River Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.  Representatives of the fund put up the money for the easement plus the additional $1-million to buy the property, with the understanding that VLT would find others to help share the cost.

In the long run, Ms. Zschau said, other funding sources agreed to help, and the New Hampshire group ended up paying under $500,000.

Funds came in from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Nelson family bought the working dairy farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelson bought the 583-acre working farm, with easements in place, for $965,000.  The Nelsons will also have a free lease on 50 acres of land within the state-owned WMA in exchange for allowing public access to the river.

Mr. Nelson said he was glad to have the opportunity.  It was not a simple decision though.

“It was a big commitment financially and for our family in general,” he said.  Cy is the son of Doug Nelson, who was also on hand for the celebration.

“I’ve worked for him on the family farm since I was a kid,” he said.  Now he and his wife, Andrea, have a two-year-old daughter of their own, named Sloan.  They are expecting again soon.

Mr. Nelson said the Johnsons helped make the transition very smooth.  The Nelsons are employing the same five workers the Johnsons did, which they said has made a big difference.  Some of the employees live in housing on the farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelsons have 215 milking cows in Canaan and 250 in Coventry.  He said the river-bottom rock-free land on the Johnson farm is ideal for farming, and the corn is doing extremely well this year.

“I think we’re as good as anything,” he said.

“The dairy industry is a pretty unique industry.  Our profits are always fluctuating.”

Bill and Ursula Johnson have retired as farmers, but Mr. Johnson still serves the area in the state House of Representatives.  Mr. Johnson represents the towns of Brighton, Canaan, East Haven, Lemington, Newark, Norton, and Westmore.  Ursula Johnson worked in the field of conservation.

Over and over again in the course of the day, officials remarked on what a wonderful job the couple had done keeping the land in great shape.  Where many farmers would have drained a lot of the wetlands in order to make more pasture or hay land, the Johnsons kept a lot of it intact, and as a result there is a tremendous abundance and variety of birds and wildlife.  On Friday, people saw half a dozen great blue herons, a northern harrier (marsh hawk), and several other species of birds.

After the speeches, people were invited to take tours of the farm or two parts of the WMA.  One was north of the main barn, and the other was south into part of Lemington.

“There’s not a written plan for this area yet,” said Fritz Gerhardt of Beck Pond LLC, a conservation scientist who led the Lemington tour and pointed out some highlights in the farm land and wetlands.  The WMA plans for the whole state will be discussed at a public hearing in Montpelier on August 21.  People who have ideas for what should be done with the property will have a chance to give their opinions.

Joan Allen of The Nature Conservancy, Ms. Zschau and Jane Lazorchak of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department were credited as being the three masterminds behind the complicated project.

“This is exemplary by national standards,” said David Govatski, president of Friends of Pondicherry, based in New Hampshire.  Mr. Govatski did a bird survey for the land trust that showed 89 species, some of them rare.  He said the wetlands are home to hundreds of wood ducks, American bitterns, and purple sandpipers to name a few.  Of the species found in the survey, 30 species of special concern to conservationists were noted.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle.com

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In Greensboro: Cow power produced from a medium-size herd

Peter Gebbie checks the readings on his new methane generator. Although he admits to being slow with computers, his wife, Sandra, said Mr. Gebbie turns out to be very good with the high-tech system. Photos by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle July 25, 2012

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — On Sunday morning Peter Gebbie had finished milking.  The truck from the St. Albans co-op was loading and his hands were moving out to get the second cut of hay in.

But there was more for him to do.  He and his wife, Sandra, headed toward a new building behind one of his barns.  A sign on the door wisely warned against entering without hearing protection.  Inside an engine roared.

Mr. Gebbie grabbed a clipboard and walked around the room checking readouts at various points along a complicated series of pipes.

He looked pleased at the results.  “Eighty kilowatts,” he said.  When they first started the generator about two weeks ago, it produced only 20 kilowatts.

When it is running at full speed the methane generator will produce 150 kilowatts of power.

Switching the generator on was the culmination of a process that began in Newport a little more than five years ago at a meeting sponsored by the state Agency of Agriculture.  That meeting at the East Side Restaurant brought together dairy farmers who were interested in the process of turning manure and other organic matter into methane and eventually electricity.

At the time the Gebbies were milking 200 cows at Maplehurst Farm.  The farmers who were getting into the electricity business had herds ten times the size of his.

On Sunday, Mr. Gebbie recalled that when he first started calling firms that design and install methane digesters he was turned away.

“The guys who sold digesters laughed at you,” he said, “unless you were at least a 1,000-cow farm.”

Mr. Gebbie persisted and eventually his calls started getting returned.  He said that it seemed to him that the digester builders had worked their way through the big farmers and were ready to deal with someone his size.

While they were investigating the possibility of building a methane digester, the Gebbies doubled the size of their herd to 400 cows.

They were fortunate in having long before set up their barns with slatted floors through which the cows tread their manure and bedding.  Gravity was enough to move this fuel into the digester, a round tank with a flexible cover.

Manure will produce methane with or without special equipment, but left to nature the volatile hydrocarbon will go into the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas.

Mr. Gebbie said he has heard it has a 24 to 25 times greater effect than carbon dioxide.

The Gebbies knew that things were going well when they saw the cover on the digester begin to balloon upwards.  That indicated that gas was beginning to build up a head of pressure.

From the digester the gas goes into a scrubber which removes impurities to protect the engine of the generator.  Mr. Gebbie said he is lucky because the gas produced by his manure is low in sulfur.

From the scrubber the gas goes to the generator or, if for some reason the generator is down for a while, through an upright pipe which is set up to burn extra gas to keep it from going into the atmosphere.

Once the manure is run through the digester, it could be spread on fields.  The Gebbies have chosen to separate the liquids from the solids, spread the former and use the latter as bedding.

Levels need to be checked throughout the system. Peter Gebbie stands in front of the tank that cleans the methane before it is fed into the generator.

Sawmills used to give away sawdust, Mr. Gebbie noted.  Today they use everything, and the price of bedding is a major cost of doing business.  By producing his own bedding, Mr. Gebbie said, he can save as much as $20,000 a year.

Studies show the bedding produced by digesters reduces the incidence of mastitis and results in a lower somatic cell count, an indicator of a healthy cow, Mr. Gebbie said.

Of course, electricity is the main product of the system.  The Gebbies have a contract to supply 150 kilowatts of power to the Hardwick Electric Company through the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program.

They are guaranteed a price of 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, well above the current market price of four cents.  In addition they can sell Renewable Energy Credits (REC) through the Cow Power program started by Central Vermont Public Service and now under the auspices of Green Mountain Power.

Mr. Gebbie said the REC credits bring in an additional three to four cents a kilowatt-hour, less a small brokerage fee.

The system cannot operate at full capacity with only the manure produced on his farm, Mr. Gebbie said.  To get to the full 150 kilowatts, he will need to find an outside source of carbon.

Typically that means a liquid such as whey, he said.

The 150-kilowatt limit is convenient in one regard.  Power from the system can be moved on a simple single-phase line, the sort that typically serves a home.

Large scale generators on the farms in Franklin and Addison counties may generate more than a megawatt of power and require a very expensive three-phase service to move electricity off the farm.

In addition to power and bedding, the generator can also provide heat for the Gebbies’ home and milking parlor, and hot water, Mr. Gebbie said.  The potential savings could be as great as those from the bedding, but they will require substantial investment in underground pipes, he added.

The digester cost “$1.5-million and climbing,” Mr. Gebbie said.  Grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of Energy and the state Department of Public Service’s Clean Energy Development Fund helped pay between half and three-quarters of the cost, he added.

“Most people would like to see things paid in five years,” Mr. Gebbie said.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring page.  For all the Chronicle‘s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital.  

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