Science in Society Archive

Dream Farm 2 - a Work of Art

A visit to a potential site gave an unexpected perspective to the implementation of Dream Farm 2 Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

The farm in West Sussex was not easily accessible except by car. We grossly underestimated the time it would take, especially in the rain and congested traffic. As we got near, the drive took us through some splendid farmlands glimpsed through the dense canopies of trees in the hedgerows lining both sides of the road. The day had alternated several times between rain and shine before we arrived at the farm and continued afterwards, as though intending us to experience all the moods of the landscape in a year compressed into the brief hours of our visit.

We stopped in front of a well-proportioned two-storey Victorian farmhouse in burnished-red bricks and decorative tiles. Henry, who had to guide us in his car for the last five minutes of the trip, came up to greet us, happy and bemused at our inability to find the our way around the local country lanes.

The sun had just come out from behind the clouds, and the rain-cleansed orange-red farmhouse looked stunning set against the emerald green meadows and the brightening sky.

Henry’s farm consists of 80 hectares in all, 40 owned by him, and 40 rented.

The estate also includes 25 hectares of natural woodlands of beech, oak and white ash mixed with conifers, some perhaps 50 metres tall.

The fields are all under the UK government’s ‘higher level stewardship scheme’, which basically involves keeping the meadows as permanent pastures in an organic regime to maximise natural biodiversity in return for subsidies.

“We identified about 50 species in one square metre of our best meadow.” Henry said, beaming with pride.      

The well carpeted gently undulating meadows were liberally sprinkled with white clover and other wild flowers in pinks and yellow, shimmering defiantly beneath the slate-grey sky.

As Henry introduced his son and daughter-in-law, and talked about his farm after we sat around the table in his dining room, we could see some of his herd of 42 cows and two bulls roaming happily about and looking quizzically at us from the distance. The cattle are traditional Herefords and pedigree Shorthorns bred for meat, completely grass fed and free to roam outside except for 5 months in winter when they are housed in an old unheated barn and fed on hay and silage, never grain. The total population of cattle is usually about 100 including the calves, which are fed by their own mother for a year, until she gives birth again, and the older calves are sold on to other farmers for ‘fattening’, leaving the mothers free to suckle their newborn calves. Every year 35 calves are sold.

In addition, 18 Portland Sheep - a rare breed - stay out in the field all the year round. Henry’s wife Susannah has a passion for animals, and a name for her special pets. The animals are lively and curious, and the herd followed us as we crossed the fields.

Henry tells us that the gross turnover of his farm is about £50 000, with a net ‘profit’ of £22 000 last year, which is essentially the total earnings for him and his wife. There are two things he wanted to do: install a biogas digester to help with his fuel and energy needs, and to contribute to sustainable agriculture, which was why he found the Dream Farm 2 idea (see final chapter of Food Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free , I-SIS publication [1]) ‘inspiring’.

Henry and Susannah run the entire farm without any help. They use 74 450 kWh energy in fossil fuels a year consisting of 26 301 kWh off farm use of white (ordinary) diesel for the car, and 4 500 litres of ‘red diesel’, or 48 150 kWh, for farm machinery. Red diesel is just diesel discounted for agricultural use, the cost of which has gone from £0.25 per litre in 2005 to £0.70 in 2007, nearly three-fold increase. In addition, they use 4375 kWh electricity for cooking and lighting, and burn an unspecified amount of wood for heating. So the total energy use from non-renewable fossil fuels is 78 825 kWh a year.

How much energy can they get from anaerobic digestion of available wastes?

In the five months of the year that the cattle are kept in the barn, generating a total 700 tonnes of solid manure plus bedding straw soaked with urine Assuming a 6 percent solid matter input to the biogas digester, and the manure/bedding material is fed into the biogas digester at about 2 tonnes per day all year round together with about 30 percent of other biological wastes from crops, the kitchen, etc., then a 150 cubic metre digester would deal adequately with the wastes, and theoretically supply much more than enough of the farm’s energy needs. (I assume that the feedstock remains in the biogas digester for three days on average.)  

A rough rule of thumb is that a biogas digester will produce its volume of biogas per day, i.e., 150 m3. This is about 90 m3 of methane, yielding 1000 kWh energy per day, or 365 000 kWh per year, nearly five times the current total consumed  Combined heat and power generation at 30 percent efficiency for electricity would yield 109 500 kWh electricity, with 50 percent of the energy available, i.e., 182 500 kWh for heating, some of which used in warming the biogas digester to about 40 C for optimum production of methane. The large excess electricity could be sold to the National Grid.

Biogas methane could also replace firewood for heating, thereby substituting for the wood biomass they now burn, which has been identified recently as a “major cause of harmful pollution” [2]. Wood smoke is the biggest contributor of many organic compounds including benzene, ethane and ethyne, all “known to be harmful to human health.” Biogas, on the other hand, is a smokeless fuel, and when cleaned and upgraded, can be used as fuel to run farm machinery and mobile vehicles [3] (The Biogas Economy Arrives, SiS 40). The farm would clearly benefit from installing a biogas digester, and an obvious site is next to the winter animal housing.

The day at the Nicholls' farm raised a very important aspect hitherto neglected in our considerations on Dream Farm 2. The abstract ideal of a Dream Farm 2 not only needs to adapt to local physical resources but also give precedence to higher priorities such as the history and the strong feelings associated with the place and the people. They inspire us in the diverse ways in which Dream Farm 2 can be implemented, as individual works or art that enhances and complements the utilitarian aims.

The farm and surrounding countryside are hauntingly beautiful historical monuments, a fitting tribute to the generations of farmers who love nature above all. There was such a reigning sense of peace and tranquillity that I am loathed to disturb a single blade of grass.

Article first published 01/09/08



References

  1. Ho MW, Burcher S, Lim LC, et al. Food Future Now, Organic, Sustainable, Fossil Fuel Free, ISIS/TWN, London and Penang, 2008, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/foodFutures.php
  2.  “Residential wood burning – a major cause of harmful pollution”, Science for Environment Policy, DG Environment News Alert Service, Special Issue on Air quality and Emissions Trading, Issue 4, May 2008, European Commission.
  3. Ho MW. The biogas economy arrives. Science in Society 40.

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