Dairy farming: More than just milk

A few months back I was lucky enough to attend a conference put on by The Economist Events called the Innovation Forum. Yes, the magazine The Economist. I was there with the incredible honor of representing the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. You may wonder why something so traditional such as the dairy industry was present at this conference, well I’ll get to that in a minute, but first: sustainability.

To me, sustainability is a three-legged stool, a milking stool, if you will. One leg is environmental, one is social, and the third is economic. To be sustainable and ensure a going concern for future generations, you need all three legs in tact. I’ve recently touched upon economic sustainability; here we’ll talk environment and economic to some degree.

I saw this tweet the other day, which rewarded me for my procrastination with this post. The story of how the dairy industry has improved its environmental impact over the past several decades is inspiring. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the steps taken by dairy farmers to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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Jeff Simmons is President of Elanco.

Some dairy farmers go above and beyond the rest of us. Yankee ingenuity was born on a farm, and it’s still alive and well today on a place located in the northwest corner of Connecticut, the Freund’s dairy farm and Cow Pots. A CowPot is a biodegradable nutrient-rich planter that is made from cow manure, after it has been run through a methane digester. Recently, the Freunds were awarded with a Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to recognize their innovative efforts in this area.

Amanda Freund graciously took a few minutes out of her busy day to do a quick Q&A with

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Amanda Freund

me:

How did the idea of CowPots come about?

This far-fetched idea of making a pot from poop has evolved into a successful business due to 3 very important factors:

1.     Our farming family collaborated with neighbor farmers to develop the Canaan Valley Agricultural Cooperative. The farmer members meet annually with the specific purpose of working and brainstorming together to manage the manure collectively produced on our farms. Amongst the farmers that attend, there are over 4000 cows represented, which equates to a lot of manure! These cooperative gatherings also include agents and professionals from CT Department of Agriculture, CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, UConn Extension, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service. Using this network of people and services has been critical from the very beginning of introducing the idea to developing and branding the end product.

2.     Thinking of manure as a resource and not as a waste product. Changing our mindset about how we think of poo (or other byproducts) is a big deal. The reality is that there is a lot of fertilizer value in manure and it holds a great value for producing food. It stopped being a discussion about waste management and became a conversation about resource stewardship.

3.     Perseverance. Ten years of trial and error, research and development, failures and successes took place before a viable product was developed and ready for market. During that time there were a lot of dead ends and bumps in the road, but my family carried on and didn’t stop until they proved there was a way to turn manure from poo to pot.

How does it fit into your overall goals for the farm?

The technical way that CowPots fits our overall goals is that it allows us to export 10% of the manure produced on our farm to places where those nutrients can benefit someone else’s garden. We ship boxes and pallets of this value added product to greenhouses and retail stores all over the country (and Canada). This is an important farm activity to comply with our Nutrient Management Plan, which is a contract between our farm and the USDA on how we manage the manure produced by our cows. 

From an outreach standpoint, marketing CowPots has provided us an awesome opportunity to talk to all sorts of groups around the country (and world) about our farm. We hosted Mike Rowe in 2006 to film an episode of Dirty Jobs, which has aired in over 120 countries. We’ve spoken at conferences in Seattle, St Louis, Washington DC, Worcester and many other cities describing the environmental and horticultural benefits of our products. Inevitably, these conversations also allow us to talk about the 2 most important components of our business; our cows and our family. Without these things, there would be no CowPots.

What was it like winning the dairy innovation award- were there any particular moments or otherwise that stood out for you?

It was a team effort to draft our application for the Dairy Sustainability Award; I think we had 4 or 5 family members that contributed to the effort. It was very special to be able to share the honor with the whole family.

As the dairy farmer’s daughter, I was proud to see my dad and uncle be recognized for their unwavering commitment to being good stewards of the land. It was an honor to share the stage with my dad to receive the award and it sets the bar quite high as I think ahead to the positive impact my generation can make on this land and this community.

What else is on the horizon for the farm?

In March of this year we introduced our cows to a brand new barn with rotating brushes for back scratches, waterbeds for improved comfort, alley scrapers to keep the alley ways clean, a robotic feed pusher to ensure they have access to fresh feed 24 hours/day and most significantly, 5 robotic milking machines. We’re excited to be the first farm in the state of Connecticut to install this technology. This allows our cows to voluntarily choose when and how often they want to be milked. We’re still in the transition phase, but they’ve adapted to the new routine very well! And while there was a learning curve to accessing the robot milker, they didn’t need any training to figure out the back scratchers!

As for CowPots, we’re experimenting with some new recipes and styles as we consider developing products that can be used outside of horticulture. We’re looking into the opportunities for manufacturing packaging corners and other products using our cows’ manure. There are an infinite number of products that we could form using our manufacturing process; plantable pots are just the tip of the iceberg.

Well done, Amanda. My best to you and your family.

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