By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — National dairy industry representatives joined USDA officials last week to extend a three-year agreement that provides federal grants for the reduction of greenhouse emissions via biogas production.
The so-called Memorandum of Understanding, first agreed to in 2009, is intended to help the nation’s dairy industry cut its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020. For individual dairy farmers, the deal is to help producers turn methane into energy their operations can use, said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The nation’s top ag official signed the agreement at the White House, along with Thomas Gallagher, CEO of the Washington D.C.-based Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy.
Vilsack said, “This agreement is a prime example of how the public and private sector are working with America’s farmers and ranchers to take care of our planet. U.S. dairy producers have been aggressive in embracing in sustainable practices, and it’s a commitment to conservation … that shows they care deeply about the environment as well as the industry.”
Gallagher noted since the deal was signed in 2009, a total of 178 dairy farms have received federal grants toward the construction of anaerobic digester systems, devices that turn methane gas into energy.
New York farmer Doug Young, also at the announcement, said his farm has qualified for a digester he plans to have built this summer. Overall, he said, the deal with USDA “has the potential to help dairy farmers all around the world to become not only profitable again but sustainable, as well.”
Dairy farms worldwide are a large source of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture division, just the largest dairy farms worldwide account for nearly 5 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
After carbon, methane is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States. Capturing it and converting it to useful natural gas has the potential to meet up to 10 percent of the nation’s demand for natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Just 2 percent of dairy farms had anaerobic digesters in place at the start of 2009. With $53 million in grants awarded, that total now stands at about 15 percent, Gallagher said. “And we can do even better,” he noted.
In addition to the gas-producing devices, Vilsack said the deal includes money for overall energy audits for dairy producers.
More than 6,000 dairy farmers since 2009 (out of about 50,000 nationally) have received about $257 million in Natural Resources Conservation Service grants to identify and implement energy conservation plans, he said.
The secretary said he doesn’t have a specific dollar amount that would be available during the next three years under the memorandum, but he pledged that USDA is “willing to invest significant dollars to continue funding these programs.”