New machine to help with farm runoff problems

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(Host) It’s long been known that manure is a boon to growing crops on the farm, but it can be a bane to cleaning up Vermont’s waterways.

A new device was unveiled today that could help farmers fertilize their crops and reduce agricultural runoff.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Farm runoff from manure spread on fields is a significant source of the phosphorous that finds its way into Lake Champlain.

The phosphorous contributes to troublesome algae blooms on the lake. In high concentrations it can lower oxygen levels in the water and contribute to fish death.

Monday, Green Mountain Power, the University of Vermont, and a Burlington company unveiled a high tech device they say will help solve farm runoff problems.

(Machine sounds)

(Zind) It’s a portable machine compact enough to fit on a small trailer. It’s basically a big box with a thick power cable running into it. Attached to the box is a hose that runs through a pump.

There isn’t a cow within miles of this Williston industrial park, so the device is being demonstrated using water instead of manure.

Buzz Hoerr is President of ElectroCell Technologies which manufactures the machines.

Hoerr points to a hose that’s drawing water from a stock tank into the machine and explains how it works:

(Hoerr) “And it pulls the material out with this screw-type pump, here and runs it through this tube, which we call the reactor. The reactor has stainless steel electrodes in it, and there’s a charge being fed across the electrodes, which basically gets intercepted by the bacteria and all the cells and molecular material that’s in there and they pop.”

(Zind) Hoerr says his machine kills up to ninety-five percent of the bacteria in manure by zapping it with an electrical charge. The dead bacteria cells sink to the bottom of the pit, along with the phosphorus attached to them.

The strong smell is created by the high level of bacterial activity in liquid manure, so the process also renders the manure odorless.

Hoerr says other advantage of the process include reduced ammonia and nitrate levels and a drop in insect populations that thrive on animal wastes.

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Hoerr chairs an advisory committee to the Lake Champlain Basin Program. He says the technology will help clean up the lake and give farmers one more tool as they adjust to new federal and state regulations governing nutrient management.

(Hoerr) “Because what we’re finding when farms do nutrient management plans is that they find they’re over their phosphorus budget in some cases. This could come in as another layer and drop them down under their budgets.”

(Zind) The units cost $75,000 but Green Mountain Power is purchasing a number of the machines which it says it will loan to farmers.

The use of the machines will be free, but farmers will have to shoulder the costs of the electricity to run it – which could run to several thousand dollars annually. In many cases farmers will also have to pay a one-time charge of $5,000 or $10,000 to upgrade their electrical service to accommodate the machine.

Hoerr says there’s money available in the federal Farm Bill to help offset some of these costs.

Green Mountain Power says it hopes to make the machines available to farmers in its service area beginning this summer.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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