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“I like to think of farmers in general as being very sustainable,” says George Crave. He should know: as part owner and cheese factory manager at Waterloo, Wisconsin’s Crave Brothers Farm, it’s a lifestyle he practices himself every day. “We work with the soil; we work with the land. We recycle nutrients and feed it to the cows. Cows produce the milk and meat, and of course the one thing that’s left over after that is the manure, which has always been recycled back onto the fields for the nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous to grow next year’s crops.”

When George talks about this cycle of conservation and sustainability, two things become clear: sustainable farming is a passion for him and his family, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with trends. That’s backed up by Debbie Crave, George’s wife, who suggests that farmers doing right by their land is a rule much more than an exception. “I think farmers naturally do other land friendly things that people don’t even talk about, whether it’s crop rotation or minimum tillage,” she says. “They’re natural stewards of the land already and always have been before people tried to be trendy with [words like] ‘green’ and ‘sustainable.’”

Still, when it comes to sustainable farming these days, there are certain trends and buzzwords that tend to dominate conversations (no one can deny that farmer’s markets and farm-to-table dinners have taken on a life of their own in recent years) and one of those hot topics is renewable energy sources.  Crave Brothers Farm is invested in several innovative efficiency projects, from its onsite cheese factory to its progressive larger barns. But what it’s doing in the field of renewable energy is nothing short of de rigueur, and it’s garnered them a lot of attention.

Born of a partnership between waste solutions company Clear Horizons and older brother and farm bookkeeper Charles, Crave Brothers Farm is powered by an unlikely source: the 1,200-plus Holsteins who call it home.

“Before the manure from the farm goes back to the fields, it’s all processed through some large 700,000 gallon fermentation tanks that heat the manure up to 105°,” says George. “That’s the ideal environment for the maximum breakdown of the biomass that produces methane gas.” The fermentation tanks are part of a revolutionary computer controlled anaerobic digestion system. The methane gas produced by the heat of those tanks powers an internal combustion engine and turbine, the same as any other natural gas. In turn, that turbine provides electricity to the farm, the cheese factory, and an additional neighboring 300 homes. Left behind is nutrient-rich, odor-free fertilizer that’s still fit for priming the fields, as well as softer, warmer barn bedding for happier and more comfortable cows.  

“Obviously it’s a trend,” says George. But he and his brothers, all dyed-in-the-wool dairy farmers who grew up on their father’s and neighbors’ farmsteads, got involved in the practice for a different reason: common sense.   

“Electricity’s costing more, and this technology has been perfected to where we can harvest these gasses,” he explains. “That’s all we’re doing, is capturing the gasses from the fermentation and breakdown of the biomass – whether it’s orange peels, bananas, leaves or manure. We’re able to do this every day, rain or shine, windy or not. As long as we’re feeding the cows and they’re making their waste, we’re able to produce electricity.”

George even dashes the common fear that sustainability becomes an unwieldy, or even impossible, prospect as a farm gets bigger. On the contrary, George indicates that a large farm can actually be an advantage when it comes to renewable energy. “It makes more sense as you’re larger,” he notes. “There are some efficiencies of scale that you can take advantage of once you have a certain number of units – that enables you to justify this type of equipment. It’s difficult to do this on a one hundred, or even a two hundred cow dairy, because they just don’t have enough biomass to make it all work.” Not that new or smaller family farmers should be discouraged. “I think that there are a lot of systems that would be adaptable for smaller farms,” he continues. “I think most people should investigate it.”

The one thing that is necessary, however, is a willingness to stick with the plan for a good long while: biomass systems like the one used at Crave Brothers require a partnership commitment of ten years or even more. But if anyone should be interested in sustainable farming practices, it’s those who make farming a lifelong career. There’s so much more to be gained – and so much more to lose, if these practices aren’t explored to the fullest.

“This is our farm – it’s our land, and our children are going to farm here someday,” says George. “We want to leave it as good as or better than when we moved here. So we have a lot of incentives to keep our land and our natural resources as healthy as possible. Because really that’s what it is: a natural resource. We can call it our land, or our air, or our water, or whatever it may be. But the one thing we have in America that they don’t have in a lot of countries is tillable ground with rainfall and potable water, and that’s a natural resource that we don’t take for granted.”

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