A Field Day with Big Bertha: Digesting the Information Stream

As I’m gazing abstractly at the ceiling, wondering how to start tonight’s post, I study the fluorescent fixture in this dorm room at Vermont Technical College and suddenly think, “That is manure-generated light!”

Big Bertha, the Vermont Tech anaerobic digester, is powered by a mixture of farm manure and clean food residuals to produce renewable electricity for Green Mountain Power, renewable heat for the college, and recycled nutrients for the farm community.

One might say Big Bertha, the Anaerobic Digester that provides much of the energy on the Randolph campus, works like a large cow. Much like the first compartment of the alimentary channel of ruminants, it breaks down cellulose and other indigestible-to-human plant materials to produce energy. A significant difference is that manure is part of the input here on the Randolph campus, coming as it does from the 500 acre farm‘s dairy cattle. Other materials that feed the digester include brewery residuals, spent grains, grease, and food processing wastes. The biomass moves through three large tanks, breaking down through the bacterial action and mechanical agitation into methane, which gives off heat and generates the kilowatts to meet campus needs for electricity.

Holstein cow at Vermont Tech.

On June 8, we learned about the digester and many other topics related to the carbon cycle as it pertains to plant and animal agriculture from three instructors of The Institute for Applied Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Tech: Chris Dutton, director of the Institute; Sosten Lungu, nutrient management specialist and instructor of agronomy; and Molly Willard, manager of Vermont Tech’s organic vegetable fields and small berry operations.

Following Moby the Great White Van’s morning pilgrimage from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, Chris put our minds to work right away with a speed-lecture on all aspects of carbon’s role in food production for plant, animal, and human. We talked about carbon at the molecular level, its place in photosynthesis, its conversion as energy from plant to animal and animal to us, and from food to waste, and from waste to soil. In democratic fashion, with guidance from Chris and the other instructors, the students designed a curriculum for the next two days based on their preferences. Our subject areas would include: methane digestion, money in animals, money in vegetables, crop production, genetic engineering, and a deeper discussion of photosynthesis and the carbon cycle.

Darryl Mosher, former dairy farmer and now a Vermont Food and Farm Education student, talks with Alexei Rubenstein from Vermont’s CBS affiliate, WCAX-TV.

The day was punctuated by on-camera interviews with Alexei Rubenstein of WCAX, the regional CBS television affiliate covering Vermont and the north country of New Hampshire and New York.

It was apparent that we would be stretching ourselves, weaving an ever-growing network of knowledge, contacts, and exposure. And we have.