We know that massive-scale meat and fish producers are pretty terrible for the planet. They all use far more resources than justifies their end results—too much land, too much water, and even more energy. And we know they’re not reporting their emissions honestly, a failure that, according to a recent study, could be “putting the implementation of the Paris agreement in jeopardy.”
The truth is, it’s not easy to reduce emissions in a factory farm setting. According to a 2016 report from Civil Eats, 45 percent of the methane produced in California comes from the state’s nearly two billion dairy cows. It takes a lot of reverse-engineering to capture the carbon released from all ends of the cow on a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, like this. Then, in 2016, the state legislature of California—the state that produces the most dairy in the US— passed a law requiring key sectors of the state’s economy to reduce emissions by 75 percent of the levels as of 2014 within 20 years. It left most of the dairy industry scrambling.
But not the Straus Family Creamery. The Strauses got in on the ground floor of the sustainability movement, switching their entire dairy farming and processing outfit from conventional to organic way back in 1994. And a decade later, in 2004, they were the first farm in California to build an anaerobic digester, sequestering a huge amount of their cows’ carbon emissions, and powering the entire farm on cow poop.
An anaerobic digester works by hosing down their feeding barns to collect the cows’ waste, separating the liquids from the solids. Then, the liquid is pumped into a manure “lagoon” that has a floating cover over the top, which collects the methane produced by the bacteria underneath. “That is the fuel for the generators that provides electricity for the farm, and then we use that electricity to charge the trucks’ batteries that feeds the cows,” explains owner Albert Straus.
The all-electric feed truck, which Straus describes as a “big Prius,” humms along past the long feeding barns, dumping organic feed to the herd, quiet as a mouse. “I like to say, the cows are powering the truck that feeds them,” says Straus, quite proud of this closed loop he’s created. Essentially, he’s also created his own microgrid system right there on the farm, taking himself off the public utility grid completely. (He's even able to sell excess electricity back to the Marin County utility.) Straus, and other farms all over the world, are using this method among many strategies to get there, including adjusting the type of feed the cows eat in order to reduce the infamous cow burps, or strapping rather alarming looking backpacks that attach to the cows' front and rear ends to, well, bottle up the animals’ burps and farts.
California has still got a long way to go to get it’s dairy industry’s greenhouse gas issue in check by 2025. It's expensive to implement strategies as equipment-heavy as anaerobic digesters, and with dairy consumption dropping in the US, lots of dairy farmers are more strapped for cash than ever. Straus is one of less than ten farms in the state that uses a methane digester like this to counteract their herds' output—and the method is only able to capture 20 percent of the emissions that the cows produce anyway.
But, Straus says, the steep expectations of California's SB 1383 are pushing the industry in the right direction. "I think that organic farming is part of the solution to climate change," he says. "And to a better farming and food system for the future."