When Danielle Goodrich decided to return to her family’s dairy farm in 2009, she returned through the darker days of the dairy industry.
“It was in my blood. I had no intention of doing anything else, ”she says.
But times were tough. Her father, Ernie, had just bought a nearby farm, and the family was struggling to make ends meet under a heavy burden of debt. When she and her brother, Chase, settled down as the next generation to join the company, which is located in Salisbury, Vermont, they realized changes needed to be made.
“We knew that one of the important things for us to stay here was that we were going to need to diversify some income,” says Danielle.
Danielle, who frequented Vermont Tech for dairy, spoke to a former professor of hers and began to pitch the idea of installing a manure digester. It took a while, but more than 10 years later his dream of having a digester and finally securing that secondary income for the farm has come true.
The inauguration of the farm’s 1.32 million gallon Farm Powered Anaerobic Digester, one of the largest manure digesters in the country, took place in 2019, and the project was finally completed last month.
The farm has partnered with Massachusetts-based Vanguard Renewables, Middlebury College and Vermont Gas Systems on the project that produces 180,000 cubic feet of renewable natural gas per year from manure and food and beverage waste. It is designed to absorb 3,650 tonnes of manure and 975,000 tonnes of organic matter per year.
It’s big enough to power 5,000 homes, Danielle says, but the gas is piped to nearby Middlebury College and over the gas network. The project also includes the first phosphorus removal system in Vermont.
For Danielle, with the completion of the project comes a sense of relief that it is finally over.
“A few times we weren’t sure we were going to see the end,” she says. “The end is here, and we’re really excited to have all of these partnerships. “
She explains that the first developer of the project gave up, leaving the project in limbo. Vanguard Renewables then reached out to Chase and Danielle to revive it, bringing in Middlebury College and Vermont Natural Gas as partners.
The partners went back and forth on designs several times, says Danielle, before agreeing on a final design. The digester, marketed as a Farm Powered digester, is owned and operated by Vanguard, and the company leases the farm space. The college obtains natural gas and provides some of the drinks and food waste. The pipelines are owned by Vermont Natural Gas.
Obtaining many permits from the state of Vermont was a challenge, Danielle says, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed construction last year as much of the materials came from overseas. But the key to getting it started and finally finishing it was to get everyone involved in its design and execution.
Billy Connolly, Vermont Organics Market Manager for Vanguard Renewables, explains that the co-digester absorbs animal material and food waste, mixing everything together in two large digestion vessels in an anaerobic – oxygen free – environment.
The methane is captured, refined to remove all impurities, and then routed to a nearby Vermont Gas pipeline. It is then transported 7 miles by underground pipeline to Middlebury College.
Connolly says the project is, by far, the largest of the company’s five farm projects, the others of which are located in Massachusetts and are grid-connected power generation projects. While the Goodrich family farm digester can generate electricity, he says it is only used to power farm operations.
According to a press release on the project, the company has 10 more manure digesters under construction or under licensing nationwide and plans to develop 100 in top 20 US markets by 2025. The company has natural gas off-take agreements with national utilities such as Dominion Energy and ONE Gas, as well as a strategic alliance with Dairy Farmers of America.
Connolly says Goodrich Farm’s location – in agriculture-rich Addison County – its proximity to nearby food waste operations and its location close to Middlebury College make it the ideal location.
“And Middlebury College wanted to reduce their carbon consumption, so they came from a good area,” he says. “So all the parts, all the components, fit right in here in Addison County.”
The digester solids are used for litter, Danielle says, and the project also has a phosphorus removal system, the first for such a project in Vermont.
The nutrient-rich digestate is applied to the fields, allowing the farm to purchase less commercial fertilizer.
The expansion feeds the digester
The farm now has 900 dairy cows and 2,000 acres of cropland, including 750 acres of corn and the remainder of hay.
Danielle’s grandfather started the farm in 1956 with only 10 cows at the time. His father returned to the farm and the operation expanded.
“As a teenager, I always knew I was definitely going to come back to work on the farm,” says Danielle.
Several expansions have taken place over the years, but the farm has settled into a 900 head operation in one location. The construction of a new four-row free-stall barn allowed the Goodrichs to house all the animals on one farm.
Animals are housed in three different style free stall barns: the new milker facility, a six row facility for young heifers and an older style “H” berth for the rest of the herd. “Having just one stream of manure was great for” the digester, says Danielle.
The farm ships 61,000 pounds of milk per day to the AgriMark Co-op. The herd, made up of more than 90% Holstein, contains on average 4.1% fat and 3.2% protein. The number of somatic cells averages 100,000, but increases in summer to almost 140,000.
Cows are milked in a 28-stall internal rotary, which Danielle says is 22 years old.
Aim for a reduced footprint
While her goal was to get home, Danielle says that she and her brother have had to deal with rapid changes in the industry – not only in terms of the overall milk market, but also increased environmental oversight of dairies.
In Vermont, this is a challenge because farms, especially those located near Lake Champlain, have had to make expensive upgrades to comply with mandatory reductions in nutrients – especially phosphorus – in waterways that flow into the largest lake.
Chase and Danielle were recognized for their work in reducing the farm’s environmental footprint. They recently received the 2021 Award for Outstanding Dairy Farm Sustainability from the American Dairy Innovation Center.
“What we’re trying to do is bigger than us,” says Danielle. “We are trying to be better for the next generation. We’re trying to do better for the environment, and that’s really important to us.
Although she and Chase are the primary managers of the farm, her father still owns controlling shares in the business and is still involved, although to a lesser extent than before.
Danielle is married and Chase is married with two children. Having to provide for three families can cause problems for some farms, but Danielle says it works through constant communication through weekly meetings and other forms of communication.
“Part of the reason I came back was that I wanted to wake up everyday, work with my dad, work with my brother and at the time work with my grandfather,” she says. “For us… it’s easy, we get along very well. There are certainly challenges sometimes, but we get together every week to solve problems and stuff.
“When I got home in 2009, I never could have imagined that I would be a dairy farmer and partner with a college, with Vermont Gas, with Vanguard. And by making us all work together, I think that makes this project really unique and really cool, ”she adds.