Chris and Harold Perry take the power of science and sustainable farm practices very seriously.
The southern Alberta farmers call it their “2020 vision” — reduce farm inputs such as water, fuel, electricity, and synthetic fertilizer by 20 per cent while increasing net yields by 20 per cent.
And they don’t think small.
In November, they officially commissioned a $7.1-million anaerobic digester system on their farm near Chin, about 30 kilometres east of Lethbridge.
“The Perrys are very progressive farmers,” said Seth Clark, a New Brunswick native who came to work on the farm’s potato operation and is now the production manager of the two digesters.
“They really see themselves as stewards of their land. For instance, they were composting manure for quite some time prior to even considering the anaerobic digester — just as a way to reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers they needed for their land.”
The twin digesters will process about 25,000 tonnes of organic waste annually (at least half will be feedlot manure) to produce about 630 kilowatts of green power. Diverting manure from the nearby KCL Cattle Company and Kasko Cattle Company will reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the feedlots by more than 10,000 tonnes annually.
“Here in southern Alberta, we have a number of feedlots that are manure rich and land poor,” said Clark. “There’s lots of manure out there, and in some cases, there is more manure than the producers can actually apply to their land base.”
“I think it’s a win-win for both parties,” added Les Wall, owner of KCL Cattle Company near Coaldale.
Wall said he strongly supports the overall concept and is cautiously optimistic the facility, which took about a year and a half to build, will work as advertised.
“It makes you feel good to promote some green energy. They are making good use of our manure, and they are generating energy which helps to run their farms while they sell the excess,” he said.
“I’m pretty happy to be a partner with them. They are good people, and I am pretty excited to see where it will all grow.”
The digester system and power facility that generates electricity from the biogas is owned by a company called GrowTEC, a contraction of ‘Grow the Energy Circle.’ The name reflects the green energy credentials of the farm, which produces potatoes, sunflowers, green peas, seed canola, and a range of cereals on 4,000 irrigated acres. The operation also generates 105 kilowatts of geothermal power for both cooling and heating of their potato storage operation, and another 20 kilowatts of solar power. The Perrys also make about 7,500 tonnes of compost from raw manure gathered from area feedlots. The manure used in the composting program will not be disrupted by redirecting that manure to the anaerobic digesters.
“We wanted to try compost because that is the natural way that things work,” said Harold Perry. “When the buffalo were here, they ate and manured the grass at the same time, and that’s how the natural cycle worked.
“Fertilizer prices have also helped because compost makes sense if you strictly go by dollars. The cost of putting the amount of nutrients you put on your soil using compost is less than if you were to purchase that at a fertilizer dealership.”
GrowTEC’s operating licence requires at least half of the raw feedstock for the digester must be feedlot manure, and it’s currently well over that level. It will also use potatoes that didn’t make the grade, which previously were sent to feedlots for animal feed or spread back on the land, which involved a fair amount of trucking and transportation.
“Potatoes are a very good feedstock for an anaerobic digester, so it got the Perry family thinking about how they could utilize this waste material and add some value to it,” said Clark.
In addition to biogas, the digesters will also produce high-nutrient organic fertilizer in both liquid and solid form.
The project would not have been viable without a $3.5-million contribution from the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation, the provincial body that uses money collected from large gas emitters for projects to help the province reach its greenhouse gas reduction targets.
“With current energy prices and market the way they are for electricity in this province, it is very difficult to justify putting a project like this together, purely on the economics,” said Clark.