From Cow Pies to Clear Skies
A Wisconsin Family Dairy Farm Lets Nothing Goes to Waste As Their Holsteins Help Produce Clean Energy
The green movement is sweeping the food industry. From the “buy local” trend, to the increase in composting, to the demand for energy-efficient equipment and facilities, every segment of the industry is seeking more and better ways to be environmentally responsible and sustainable.
In an inspiring example of finding a greener way to do business, the Crave Brothers Dairy Farm and its cheesemaking enterprise, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, have a sophisticated, computer-controlled anaerobic digestion system that generates electricity -- enough to run their rural Wisconsin farm and cheese plant and power up to 120 homes – that runs on organic waste from their 750 pampered and productive Holsteins.
Anaerobic (oxygen-free) digestion is a biological process in which microorganisms break down organic waste in a process that ultimately produces gas, mainly methane with some carbon dioxide. This gas can be burned just like natural gas, thus generating energy.
Now, even city folks know that on a dairy farm, “organic waste” means “manure.” The Craves, already known as agri-business innovators, are industry leaders in using this technology to transform the manure from their herd into a dependable, renewable source of clean and sustainable energy. When the Crave Brothers system was installed in 2007, it was one of only a handful in Wisconsin.
“Our family has a history of working in harmony with the land to produce quality milk and cheeses,” said George Crave. He and his family are partners with his brothers, Charles, Thomas and Mark, and their families. George, a licensed cheesemaker, explains: “We want to build our business for future generations of our family, and we are committed to doing that in a way that respects the earth.”
On 1700 acres of rich, rolling land an hour west of Milwaukee, the Craves grow soybeans, corn and alfalfa to use as nutritious feed for the herd. Each cow produces about 28,000 pounds of milk per year (about 3300 gallons).
The fresh milk is piped from the dairy across the road to the 6,000-square-foot cheese plant, where cheesemakers use a combination of modern-day equipment and Old World techniques to craft the award-winning Crave Brothers Farmstead Classic Cheeses. These include Mascarpone, Fresh Mozzarella, and their own creations, a European-style cheese called “Les Frères” (French for “the brothers”), a parchment-wrapped 2 ½-lb. wheel, and Petit Frère (French for “little brother”), an 8-oz. wheel of Les Frères, packed in a wooden box.
But, as on all dairy farms, along with the milk produced by the herd, there’s also manure, a byproduct that’s unavoidable and often hard to dispose of. The Craves plan to expand their businesses in the future, so there will be even more “organic waste” in years to come. That’s where the anaerobic digester comes in. It is owned and installed by Clear Horizons, a firm that specializes in organic waste management solutions and biogas energy systems, and is computer-controlled over the Internet from the company’s office in Milwaukee.
The digester helps manage the farm’s manure, provides clean, renewable energy for the farm, and produces excess electricity, which Clear Horizons sells on the electrical grid. What’s more, the digester reduces odor from the manure, and provides some saleable byproducts. The Craves use the liquid byproduct as fertilizer on their fields. Solid byproducts are used as animal bedding, and in a line of organic potting mixes.
For the Crave family, the decision to use the anaerobic digester grew out of their usual consideration of what is best for the environment, the consumer and the cows. For them, a commitment to go green is a natural way of doing business.