California has a pioneering spirit. Rural folks there have been on the frontier for generations. That frontier may have been gold mines and cattle grasslands in the past, but today that frontier is the very air, soil and water of California itself. Climate change is transforming California like it’s transforming our globe. But Californians are leading the pioneer charge to transform, with pragmatism, ingenuity and a commitment to rural communities.
Just recently, I visited a small dairy farm in Elk Grove, California, the site of an anaerobic digester. Case Van Steyn’s operation of around 700 cows produces manure, and the Maas Energy digester, secluded in an unobtrusive red shipping container, uses the manure to produce methane. That methane creates enough electricity to power 125 homes—and enough to sell electricity back to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD.
SMUD unveiled the Van Steyn anaerobic digester project last Thursday as its newest dairy-fueled renewable energy plant, financed in part by USDA’s Renewable Energy for America Program. Van Steyn works the cows and Maas Energy works the digester. It’s a new model, where every player does what they do best, and it may mean many more digesters will crop up in the future.
For the sake of California and our nation’s struggle with climate change, I hope we see a lot more successes just like the Van Steyns’. Dairies are a backbone of California agriculture; milk and cream products are the second largest agricultural export and represented over $9.4 billion in production value in 2014. Turning dairies into clean energy plants positions them in a new, more sustainable niche—one that supports California families and one that is better for the state’s air, the water, and the soil. With a digester, local dairies can produce milk for the world and clean energy for their own communities.
“Dairying isn’t farming,” said Van Steyn when I visited him. “Dairying is a way of life. If you don’t want to wake up at two in the morning on a Sunday to pull a calf, then this isn’t for you.”
Van Steyn’s commitment shows in the dairy itself, from the hand-built dairy sheds to the bright red digester. He inherited the land, the buildings, the cows, and the way of life from his parents, who bought the dairy in the 1970s. Now his son works with him to run the farm today.
Digesting on the dairy is certainly a new way of doing business. But the high-tech system helps Van Steyn to manage the manure and makes money, too. He calls it a win-win. And he says he couldn’t have done it without help from the USDA.