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Summer 2011 | 31

organic wastes, in the absence of oxygen, to release energy. Mike first had the idea of purchasing a methane digester six or seven years ago. After doing research and touring other farms he started thinking about how Brubaker Farms could apply the technology. The $1.2-million project became a reality thanks to a federal and state grant. The technology behind methane digesters is nothing new, explains Mike. “In some Third World countries, people have very primitive methane digesters. In tropical climates, people—who live with no utilities, no electric—may just dig a hole in the ground and put in their cow dung and food scraps,” he says. “They seal it, with only a little rubber hose coming from it. And they attach the hose to a burner, which they use for cooking.”

More than One Shade of Green

While efforts to convert waste to useable energy are noble from an environmental standpoint, there’s another “green” aspect of these projects to consider. “I look at sustainability as not just an environmental concept, but an economic one too,” says Mike. “To me, sustainability is when you can hinge an environmental concept with an economic concept,” he explains. “If you can have the two work hand in hand, so that you have a win both environmentally and economically, you really have something that’s sustainable. If you’re doing something that’s environmen-tally smart but it makes no economic sense, it won’t work in the long haul.”

Mike was able to marry economics with eco-friendliness in a recent collaboration with Joe Metro, Elizabethtown College’s

director of facilities management and construction. Mike and Joe connected for the first time several years ago when they applied for a grant for a sustainable measure that would use the College’s food waste in the methane digester. At the time, the grant appli-cation was declined, but the two recently rekindled that dream. “I was very familiar and comfortable with the College and real-ized that a lot of good things were happening there. That made it easy to dive into the initial partnership with the College on this project,” says Mike. “We thought it could be a real win for the College and a good partnership for our farm.”

Mike says he’s always open to further collaborations with the College. “I know Joe and Eric Turzai, director of dining services, are very proactive, and they’re always looking for more ways to be greener, to be more sustainable. And we are, as well,” he reflects. “We’ll each turn over stones looking for the next new idea.”

One Door Opens Others

The digester has led to other sustainable measures. “The digester kills 99 percent of the pathogens in the animal waste, so we’re able to recycle that in a way,” he explains. “We separate the liquids from the solids, and we can use the solids as a very sterile bedding material for the cows.”

Mike also has found ways to recycle the excessive heat given off by the digester and the generator it powers, using it to warm parts of the farm and to pasteurize milk.

Last year, the Brubakers installed solar panels on their barns, which generate enough electricity to power 150 houses. “Between the solar panels and the digester we generate about 70 percent more electricity than we use,” he says. “So we’re selling our excess to PPL Corp., and it goes right to the grid. We joke that it makes the lightbulbs in the neighboring homes glow green, since it’s renewable.”

MakingWaves for Others to Catch

Mike estimates that currently there are about 150 active digesters across the United States. That number is steadily growing thanks, in part, to the digester at Brubaker Farms. “Quite a few farmers I know have toured our facilities, over the past few years. A few digesters have been built after farmers visited ours and liked the idea. So the wave is catching on in renewable energy,” he says.

The digester has been running continuously since its completion in December 2007.

At Brubaker Farms, the biogas produced by the digester is used to power an engine/generator, which creates electricity.

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