You stop at Wegmans in Harrison on your way home from work, pick up some milk, ice cream, and pizza. Milk for morning cereal, ice cream for the kids, and pizza is on the menu for that night.
The next day you’re planning Fettuccine Alfredo for dinner, so you stop at MOM’s Organic Market in Dobbs Ferry for some broccoli and cheese.
What do these stores have in common? Along with restaurants, colleges, and other grocery stores, they are teaming up with NY family farms to repurpose food and organic waste in a safer, cleaner way than local landfills.
Not all food gets used, eaten, or sold, so the waste must go somewhere, right? That’s where anaerobic digesters come in.
An anaerobic digester is a large tub or holding structure that uses naturally occurring bacteria in manure and food waste to break down organic matter. This process results in biogas and a solid substance.
A digester acts similar to a human or cow stomach. The waste enters, bacteria munches on and breaks down the waste, and gas and a solid substance are the result. The biogas produced by digesters can be used like natural gas to provide heat or power cooling systems, and the solid material can be used to fertilize fields on farms.
Because we are turning manure and food waste into new energy sources, we use the term upcycle. The magnitude of waste that can be upcycled and the power that can be produced, depends on the size of the farm or how much waste is accessible for recycling, in addition to the size of the digester. Some digesters are used for manure. Others are used for both manure and food waste.
To put it into perspective, one ton of waste can be upcycled into 250 kWh of electricity, which can power the average home for more than a week. And unlike fossil fuels, renewable natural gas is net carbon-neutral, burns cleaner, and reduces the odor of manure and food waste substantially.
On our family dairy farm in Upstate New York, I am the seventh-generation farmer. I work alongside a team of 30 dedicated employees who help milk 1,850 cows and take care of 3,000 acres of farmland. Our team is committed to keeping the cows comfortable and happy, producing the highest quality milk, and ensuring we protect the land, water, and atmosphere for future use.
We have been upcycling waste using anaerobic digesters since 2003. In 2014, we built a new digester which has allowed us to upcycle both cow and food waste. We strategically built the digester between our farm and creamery so that any waste produced while making cheese can be recycled in an environmentally friendly way. This has allowed us to offset electricity costs on our farm while also contributing extra power toward our community’s grid.
The success of the new digester ultimately led to the foundation of an entirely separate endeavor dedicated to connecting groceries, restaurants, and other businesses with sustainable upcycling practices. The company, Natural Upcycling, has allowed us to partner with businesses from Buffalo to Albany, and down to New York City – including right here in the lower Hudson Valley. Every month we recycle more than 9,000,000 pounds of food waste which reduces carbon dioxide pollution by 3,964 metric tons. That’s the equivalent of taking 10,269 cars off the road every month.
So, the next time you stop at your local Wegmans, MOM’s Organic Market, or other food-based business, chances are they’re sending waste to be upcycled, or have the opportunity to do so.
When farms and other businesses work together to reuse and upcycle waste, we are all doing our part as stewards of the land. By reducing our carbon footprint, farmers are collectively working to leave the land stronger and more viable for the next generation, and we’re proud to play our part in that.
Chris Noble is an active supporter of the NY Animal Agriculture Coalition, a farmer founded and funded not-for-profit organization that strives to enhance the public’s understanding of and appreciation for animal agriculture and modern farm practices, including anaerobic digestion. Chris Noble is a 7th generation farmer at Noblehurst Farms in Upstate New York, manager of Noblehurst Green Energy, co-founder of Craigs Creamery, and CFO of Natural Upcycling.