Written by: Betsy Freese
Published by: Successful Farming
Standing in an established pollinator patch means bees are regularly buzzing your head, but that doesn’t bother these three men. They are happy to see the bees and butterflies in this prairie planting.
The field is a part of a Smithfield Foods hog finishing site, called Valley View Farm, near Greencastle, Missouri. This site has spaces for 114,000 hogs, and half of the lagoons are harvesting methane gas. Three years ago, Smithfield teamed up with Roeslein Alternative Energy (RAE) to install biogas infrastructure across all company-owned finishing farms in Missouri. In addition to using manure, the project will harvest prairie grass from this field and others for methane generation.
Smithfield has made a commitment to reduce the company’s greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2025. In 10 years, says Smithfield, nearly 100% percent of company-owned hog finishing spaces in Missouri will have the capabilities to produce renewable natural gas (RNG).
In 2018, Smithfield joined the Environmental Defense Fund’s Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange, which restores monarch butterfly habitats on private lands including Smithfield hog farms in Missouri. Smithfield planted almost 1,000 acres of pollinator habitat in Missouri this year, with more to come.
Successful Farming joined these three experts in the prairie grass patch to get the scoop on the projects:
Rudi Roeslein (pronounced race-line), president of Roeslein Alternative Energy
David Wolfe, director of conservation strategies at Environmental Defense Fund
Michael Rainwater, general manager, Smithfield Hog Production Missouri
You are going to produce methane gas from prairie grass?
MR: Yes. We hope to be able to harvest the prairie grass like silage during the times when our lagoons are inactive because of cold weather. We would cut it like forage, store it like you were going to feed cows, then feed it to the digester. It’s basically the same process that silage goes through as cows digest it and make methane.
RR: These plants build deep root systems. By the third year, they have tremendous biomass to harvest for methane.
Where will additional prairie acres be added?
MR: Some of that will be driven by the final placement for the digester. You locate the prairie next to that. We have a lot of options. Smithfield owns 44,000 acres in six counties of Missouri. About 12,000 acres is in traditional row crops, 20,000 is in hay and grazing, and the rest is with hog production. Most of the land is grazed because we don’t have a viable solution to work with the slope without creating erosion. We own 5,000 acres around this farm because if you are going to water all these pigs you have to somewhat control the watershed. We have some land that needs further development, and rather than look at drain tiles we are going to look at contour till with prairie grass. That will be my next step, and when the digester comes on we will figure out the rest. We could plant prairie strips to hold water and then harvest the forage off those strips for the digester. You could grow conventional crops with the prairie strips. I don’t want to build terraces and lay tile. That is too expensive. All you do with drain tile is create velocity with water.
Rudi, why are you working with Smithfield?
RR: This is the largest hog farmer in the U.S. I felt like I could demonstrate to them that this will save them money, provide them with income from the alternative energy industry, solve the issues of rain events increasing their cost to treat water, reduce odor, and help their image by showing that big Ag can be an environmental steward. We are also working with Smithfield in Utah, where they are expanding and adding 350,000 new finishing spaces. We started that project last year. There is a previous project from another developer that failed because they were trying to produce electricity, at a low selling price and unless you use the waste heat coming off the generators it’s wasted energy. They were leaving the manure in the pits for a long time and moving manure long distances and this exposed it to the atmosphere, which reduces the methane potential by over 50%.
What is involved with the biogas system here?
RR: All 14 lagoons at Valley View are covered, but only six are in the methane purification system. The rest are flaring. We are trying to do it incrementally, so we don’t have one big installation that fails. My goal is to develop a digester that is economic enough and small enough that I can put one at each lagoon. I want to start on a small scale, demonstrate that it works, and then slowly expand it. I don’t want another failure like the abandoned fertilizer plant model from a decade ago that still stand at the Valley View Farm site. We do everything in modular systems, so that system can be moved to other locations in case one farm has to be shut down. We have one pipeline at another location interconnected. That site has nine lagoons and 70,000 hogs. That was a $1.5 million investment in pipeline. We are hoping to get the funds to add another 13 miles from the purification point to Milan for Valley View. I want the Smithfield hog processing facility there to work off natural gas.
RR: The model at this location uses membrane technology, instead of pressure swing absorption – which is a lot more complicated. This is like turning on a compressor. We still have things to work on. Last winter we had some temperature-dependent issues, so we may enclose the digester this winter.
Let’s talk about the monarch butterfly project. How did you get involved?
RR: I had a conversation three years ago with David Wolfe and gave him my vision about combining market-based energy with ecological services and wildlife habitat. They are interested in saving the monarch. My interest is not in saving one thing, but putting the right mix of grasses together so it can serve as biomass for energy, have ecological benefits, and help save the monarchs. I want to provide commercial solutions that provide a return for both the farmer and society.
What is in this patch?
RR: This has a mixture of 25 forbs and legumes, which provides an entire season of pollination. It costs about $400 an acre to seed this, but it is a one-time cost. My vision is to restore 30 million acres of prairie and put 100 million acres of cover crops on the ground. I’ve spent 10 years restoring and reconstructing my farm. I have 1,700 acres and have spent significant money on savannah and prairie restoration.
David, why is the monarch project important?
DW: The migratory pathway for monarchs comes through the Great Plains and Midwest. The Midwest is most important for breeding. Monarch numbers have declined by 90% in the past 20 years. It’s important to add this habitat back to the landscape, not just for monarchs, but for water quality and soil health. This habitat can solve all those problems. The caterpillars feed on common milkweed exclusively, so we need that for them to lay eggs on. We also need nectar sources for energy to help them along the migratory pathway.
How do we make this a reality?
DW: Public and private funding are important. We need to get the cost down on seed mixes. Biogas creates an alternative income from this habitat. We need a lot of different approaches and tools, incentives and motivations, to get this habitat across the landscape. You don’t need large expanses of land for monarchs, just little patches along the migratory path. Our goal with the current project here is to get 1,000 acres in. We have over 600 now. There is more potential beyond that with Smithfield.
Is regulation of farmland use a possibility?
DW: The monarch was petitioned in 2014 for listing on the Endangered Species Act. The Fish and Wildlife Service is looking at the science and assessing efforts like this one and others across the country. They are scheduled to make a decision in June 2019 as to whether the monarch should be listed or not. If it is listed, it means potential regulations. We would like to see an option for farmers that if you are participating in a conservation program that is putting in habitat such as this, you can avoid any additional regulation by participating in a conservation plan. Farmers in a watershed could work together to set aside a total of 1,000 aces, for example, so that everyone is participating. We want to make it flexible and appealing for farmers. We don’t want to make it a burden on them.