April 1, 2008

Manure — it’s a good thing!

OLYMPIA — Farming and ranching have reputations for being labor intensive enterprises. The visions of farmers awakening before dawn to milk the cows and of ranchers wrangling their cattle are iconic images of hard-working professions. But agriculture is also a capital intensive industry as well — the equipment necessary to run a farm is expensive, and the ongoing cost of day-to-day operations doesn’t leave behind have much money to spare for investing in innovative new technologies.

Fortunately, though, a group of local dairy farmers will soon have a chance to try out something new, now that a bill sponsored by Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, has been signed into law by the governor.

Senate Bill 6806 provides a six year property and leasehold excise tax exemption for farmers who invest in anaerobic digesters, also known as biodigesters — specialized equipment that can convert farm waste into renewable energy and other useful byproducts.

Daryl Maas, a Skagit Valley dairy farmer [sic], believes the incentive will be exactly the boost that local farmers need to introduce this new technology to their operations.

“That tax exemption will help cover about ten percent of our annual operating costs,” said Maas, who has partnered with his brother Kevin and several other [sic] farmers to form Farm Power Northwest, a manure digester project in Skagit County.

Anaerobic digesters compost — or “digest” — organic waste in a machine that limits access to oxygen, which is what makes them “anaerobic.” Farms and ranches can use anaerobic digesters to recover methane from animal manure for producing electricity, heat, and hot water. The process destroys methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and can greatly reduce manure odor. It also yields byproducts that can be used for fertilizer and livestock bedding.

“A typical dairy operation currently spends around $200,000 each [sic] winter for sawdust and other material for bedding their livestock,” said Jeff Ellingson of Stanwood, who came to Olympia with the Mass brothers for the ceremony during which Gov. Chris Gregoire signed SB 68060 into law. “Digesters break down manure into its various components, one of which is fiber that we can use for bedding — saving us money in the long run.”

The catch is that an anaerobic digester, like most farm equipment, is expensive — about $4 million for the machinery, plus start-up costs. Since most small farms don’t have access to that kind of capital, the Mass brothers were excited to have the help of their local state senator.

“Senator Haugen realized that there was already a tax incentive in place for equipment to encourage the production of biodiesel and alcohol fuels, but no one thought about including biodigesters when they wrote that law back in 2003,” said Maas. “Mary Margaret thought that biodigesters have a potential for waste reduction and generating electricity that is worth investing in, so she worked on a bill to get things moving along.”

Along with extending the six year property and leasehold excise tax exemption to anaerobic digesters statewide, Haugen supported an effort to include $500,000 in the 2008 budget to begin the construction of what would otherwise be difficult for even a group of several family farms to invest in.

“It’s always a bit scary to be the first one to try a new way of doing things, but someone has to lead the way,” said Maas. “Once we’re up and running, I think this is going to serve as a great example for small farms all over our state.”

Brothers Daryl and Kevin Maas are congratulated by Gov. Chris Gregoire after she signs Senate Bill 6806 into law on Monday

Return to Sen. Haugen's home page


Questions or comments? Contact the SDC Webmaster

Copyright 2008 Washington Senate Democratic Caucus