Energy — the ultimate power struggle

A Hardwick sunflower. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar, January 15, 2010

It’s the middle of winter, and it’s a tough one financially for a lot of people.  We are all doing what we can to get by, hoping for a better time with this new year.

Vermont’s energy future is a power struggle like no other.  The Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is falling apart, piece by piece.  The Legislature will consider whether or not it should be relicensed.  The debate rages on about putting wind turbines on our mountaintops.  Our contract with Hydro Quebec has about four years left.

Some farmers are putting a lot of energy into, well, energy.  Among them are farmers in Hardwick who got a grant to work on making sunflower seeds into a source of fuel.

Sunflower seeds are not, by themselves, going to power the state.  But every little bit helps, and the exciting part of farm energy — and forest energy from biomass — is that so much of it is yet untapped.  In effect, we don’t know yet how much some of these energy sources will help.

Farm energy sources have a double benefit.  We get the energy, and we help keep farms in business, which seems to be harder to do each year.  At the beginning of last year figures from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture estimated that the average farm was expected to lose $92,000 in 2009.  Will they make an average EXTRA profit of $92,000 in 2010 so they can pay back all their debts and keep going?  Wouldn’t that be great?  This story also talks about the food venture center coming to Hardwick, which will help farmers add value, and provide some wonderful new food products for consumers.

The other reason I wanted to post this story today is to send you all some summer thoughts and photos.  Those sunflowers were just plain spectacular.

A special thanks to Senator Pat Leahy who is always a champion for the farmers and for the newspapers and open government.

Left to right are Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, Nick Meyer, and Senator Pat Leahy. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

Leahy announces biofuel and food venture center grants

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, September 2, 2009

HARDWICK — Senator Pat Leahy announced $484,300 in grants for biofuels research, development and demonstration in Vermont Friday.

The announcement was made in front of ten acres of sunflowers at the North Hardwick Dairy, where brothers Nick and Taylor Meyer will use their grant to buy a press to make sunflower oil and meal for their cows.

The grant to North Hardwick Dairy was for $13,000.  It was one of 15 grants awarded to projects around the state.

Earlier in the day, Senator Leahy announced that $350,000 would be coming to help build the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick this year, with help from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board.

“That’s going to put people to work, I think,” he said.  Not only will the venture center help new businesses get started, building the new center will create jobs in itself.

The Vermont Food Venture Center is currently located in an old building in Fairfax.  It was started 13 years ago.  Director Brian Norder said it has been a challenge to keep the old building together with bubble gum and duct tape, which he called the official Vermont fabric.

The new facility will be a place where people can scale up small recipes, get expertise on marketing and food safety issues, and rent processing equipment, among other things.

“We’re going to be able to do a wide range of meat processing,” said Mr. Norder.  This will allow people to add value to ground meat by making it into meat pies, burritos, stews and gravies, he said.

The center will also work with Jasper Hill of Greensboro to help farmers create new cheeses.

Andy Kehler of Jasper Hill said he and his brother are looking forward to working with farmers in the new food center.  In 2003 they started farming, and their goal was to create a system to help other farmers add value.  To that end, they have invested in seven rooms of underground cheese aging caves.

“Our goal is to be able to get two dairy farms a year viable making cheese,” he said.  Their 44-cow farm brings $600,000 a year into the local economy, he mentioned.

He said the caves are available for aging cheese, but there is no place nearby for developing recipes, processing, and growing a brand.  The venture center will be that place.  If all goes as planned, work will start this fall, and it will be open in the spring.

Todd Hardie of Honey Gardens Apiaries of Ferrisburgh said the venture center has helped him all along the way.  He is planning to build a new facility in Hardwick to make honey mead wine.

“I’ve been working with honey bees for about 44 years,” he said.  One of the people who helped him with ideas years ago was Lewis Hill of Greensboro, who told him about the value of elderberries.  Elderberry syrup is an old-fashioned remedy for colds, and Honey Gardens sells an elderberry syrup for that purpose.  It is available at Buffalo Mountain Cooperative and other natural food stores.

A brand-new company that is working with the venture center is called Relish Vermont.  The relish is created by Barbara Frechette of Essex Junction.

“I’ve been making it since the sixties, and everybody just loves it,” she said just after the press conference.  Her husband, who died in February, used to give it to his clients.  He was an accountant.  Spicy and sweet, made with zucchini and peppers, the relish is already selling well.  Promoter Steven Maestas, a friend of the family, said they are getting ready to go into larger scale production and hire people.  The venture center is a key to the enterprise.

Biofuels grants

Biofuels grants around the state will help people do research and development of fuels and crops from switch grass and canola to algae and sunflowers.  These grants are being given by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, which has a division called the Vermont Biofuels Initiative (VBI).  The purpose of the VBI is to try to develop renewable fuel sources and help meet a goal of 25 percent renewable energy use in Vermont by 2025.

Grants are going to the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College for feedstock analysis for oilseed crops like sunflowers and soybeans.  They are also going to farms in Shaftsbury, Alburgh, Newbury, and Brandon to study using biofuels to run farms.

Bourne’s Energy in Morrisville got a grant to blend biofuels into heating oil.

Netaka White is the biofuels director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.  He said Friday that farms in Vermont use six million gallons a year of fuel.  Vermonters use 300-million gallons of diesel, two-thirds for heating and one-third for transportation.

Included in a packet of information about biofuels was the statistic that Vermont uses the least energy of any state, but is number 18 in per capita petroleum consumption, sixth in gasoline consumption, and forty-third in diesel consumption.

Mr. White said if farmers can produce food quality oil from sunflowers and soybeans, the oil can be used by a restaurant for cooking and then taken back for conversion to use as a fuel.

The process of making oil out of sunflowers and other crops leaves high protein meal as a byproduct, and the meal can be food for cattle.

“Our long-term goal is to be self-sufficient with our farm,” said Nick Meyer.  The brothers use cooking oil from restaurants including Claire’s in Hardwick, but it’s not enough to run the whole farm.

Sunflowers can make 75 to 100 gallons of oil per acre.

Ellen Kahler, executive director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, said by helping local farms become more self-sufficient and growing their own fuels, Vermont can strengthen the local rural economies.  She said without the support of Senator Leahy, there is no way Vermont would be able to do this kind of research and development.

“The model that we’re creating does not fit the Department of Energy’s model,” she said, which is on a much more giant scale.

“We think we’re on to something here,” she added.  She said support from Senator Leahy has brought $2.9-million to the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, with $484,000 this year.  Next year there might be more than that, she said.

“I know we can do it in Vermont,” said Senator Leahy.  He said he is glad to help bring money for research to projects like those in Hardwick and the area.  When he is trying to get funding, he often points to successes in past projects.  He can even point at furniture in his office in Washington.  One table is protected by varnish made by Andrew Meyer’s company, Vermont Natural Coatings, a whey-based finish.

“That protects the finish of my antique conference table,” the senator said.

“One of the places I brag about is here.  I know it’s going to be put to good use,” said Senator Leahy about the money.

“I will continue to work on this,” he said, “because this is very real to me….

“Thank you for what you’re doing.  You’re preserving the Vermont that I grew up in and our children should be able to grow up in.”

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