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Dairy farming has quickly evolved for sustainability. Here are just a few examples of how innovative dairy organizations and farmers are working to fight climate change by reducing their impacts, improving soil health and using regenerative agriculture.
The people who work from sunup to sundown to supply our nation with milk are the
backbones of our nation — so much so that in 1938, the playwright Thornton
Wilder immortalized the notion of the “milkman” in his Pulitzer
Prize-winning play, Our Town. The character of Howie Newsome,
Grover’s Corners’ local dairy farmer and milkman, was created by Wilder to
show the continuity of life in America. That is how deeply dairy farming is
woven into the fabric of our society.
In most places, the days of the local milkman are gone; but dairy still plays a
huge role in the diets of most Americans. As National Dairy Month comes to a
close, we want to honor the dairy farmers and cows that provide the milk that
feeds the nation — and look at how dairy farming has evolved to reduce the
industry’s climate impacts.
In 2021, Hoard's Dairyman
that “95 percent of dairy farms, no matter
the size are family owned, and 87 percent of all dairy cattle in the US call these
These family farms are largely multi-generational operations and are some of the
earliest adopters of regenerative agriculture
that are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and sustaining the land
and natural resources for the future.
The 11,500 family farm members of Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) have
made sustainability a top priority. While GHGs from the dairy industry only
account for 2 percent of the nation's overall emissions, DFA is striving to
reduce absolute emissions across its supply chain by 30 percent by the end of
2030 through transportation efficiencies, plant optimization, healthy soil,
and healthy cows. According to DFA’s 2022 Sustainability Report,
this is equivalent to taking 3.4 million cars off the road for one year.
This goal was not the first made by the largest dairy cooperative in North
America. For 15 years, DFA has utilized its Gold Standard Dairy Program to
promote continuous improvement in farm practices. This includes incorporating The National Dairy Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program, a national
program whereby dairy farmers commit to measurable criteria focused on
protecting the environment and herd well-being.
DFA is also leading by helping our farm families embrace renewable energy
sources such as on-farm anaerobic digestion. DFA’s strategic
with Vanguard Renewables to develop and
operate on-farm anaerobic digesters enables farms across the US to host an
anaerobic digester and do their part to address climate change.
“Anaerobic digestion can positively impact the economics and carbon footprint of
a farm, allowing generational sustainability and energy independence,” says
Hansel New, director of sustainability programs at DFA. “As our partnership
with Vanguard continues to grow, we look forward to more of our farms taking
advantage of the new carbon economy to make a positive impact.”
Meanwhile, Cabot Creamery Co-operative has more than a century of experience
making its award-winning cheese, butter and dairy products on behalf of its
600-plus farm family members. A decade ago, Cabot was the first dairy co-op in
the world to become a certified B Corp; as a dairy industry first mover, Cabot
embraces circularity throughout its product and process lifecycle. Cabot farmers
produce the high-quality milk used in the company’s products; and the inedible
processing waste is then sent back to the farms as feedstock for Farm Powered®
In Massachusetts, Cabot closes the circularity loop by purchasing renewable
energy to power its manufacturing facility created by those same digesters.
“We value our collaboration with Vanguard Renewables as a model of how to use
on-farm anaerobic digestion technology to optimize the value of cow manure while
reducing food waste and generating renewable energy,” said Bill Beaton, CEO
of Agri-Mark/Cabot Creamery Co-operative. “This is a wonderful example of our
farms and our manufacturing facilities cooperating to create award-winning,
Dairy farming has come under fire due to the methane emissions that are
naturally produced by dairy cows and their manure. Yet, family farmers around
the country are working to reduce those
and enhance the practices used to care for their land and their herd, and are
some of our fiercest climate advocates.
The Goodrich Family
in Salisbury, Vermont, a member of the Cabot Creamery Co-operative, was
recognized by the Innovation Center for US Dairy with the 2021 Outstanding
Dairy Sustainability Award. It has been a journey for the family and
particularly for Chase Goodrich and his sister Danielle
Goodrich-Gingras, who took over the generational dairy farm in 2009 and
developed a transformational and environmentally sustainable business model with
a focus on being great members of the community and protecting the sensitive
Lake Champlain watershed. Their journey began when milk prices had plummeted,
milk production costs were soaring, and the dairy industry was under intense
scrutiny centered around climate impacts.
Following extensive research, the duo developed a manure and nutrient management
plan that would use their dairy manure in an environmentally beneficial way and
mitigate GHGs. Partnering with Vanguard Renewables, Vermont Gas and
Middlebury College, the farm now hosts the largest anaerobic digester in
New England. In addition to the manure from the farm, the Farm Powered
anaerobic digester recycles inedible organic waste from commercial producers
including Cabot Creamery, Ben &
and Vermont Creamery, converting it into renewable natural gas, low-carbon
fertilizer and animal bedding.
“At the time, we saw two major challenges to our viability: The dairy business
was getting more volatile, and the environmental impact of dairy farms was under
greater scrutiny,” Chase Goodrich reflected. “Hosting the anaerobic digester
diversifies our income; improves our carbon footprint while protecting water
quality; and makes us better neighbors, farmers and animal owners.”
Since the completion of the Farm Powered anaerobic digester in 2021, the
Goodrich Farm has recycled more than 66 thousand tons of organic waste, which is
the equivalent impact on GHGs of removing more than 34,000 cars from the road
for one year. Additionally, the digester provides renewable energy to Middlebury
College, enabling the college to meet its net-zero goals.
Like the Goodriches, Peter Melnik has been working on his family farm —
Bar-Way Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts — since his return from college
in 1991. Peter and his father, Steven, have implemented several strategic
regenerative agriculture practices on the family’s 102-year-old farm. These
include the use of cover
to slow erosion, improve the overall soil health, increase biodiversity and help
control diseases and pests, and a no-till
The family is committed to the modernization of their dairy farming practices
with a focus on herd health, how they are managing their nearly 10,000 tons of
manure annually, and the related on-farm methane emissions; along with other
regenerative ag programs they’ve employed, this is all part of the Melniks’
commitment to protecting the Pioneer Valley watershed along the Connecticut
River. As DFA members, they also utilize that partnership to help guide their
decisions and further their regenerative and sustainable ag approaches.
About 10 years ago, the Melniks began to explore building an anaerobic digester
to manage manure, reduce their carbon footprint and create supplemental revenue
from selling renewable energy in the private market. Realizing that a project of
that scope on their own was out of their reach, they partnered with Vanguard to
bring their sustainability vision to life with less risk and farm investment.
The Farm Powered digester combines inedible, commercial food and beverage waste
with Bar-Way’s manure to produce enough renewable energy to power nearly 1,600
homes a year.
In 2019, Bar-Way became one of the first farms to legally grow hemp in
Massachusetts. In the first year, Heritage CBD allotted the Melniks 10 acres
of hemp. By using the digestate byproduct from the anaerobic digester to
fertilize the crop, they harvested the equivalent of 14 acres of hemp. This
notable yield, combined with the quality of the Melniks’ hemp crop, resulting in
Heritage increasing the farm’s allotment to 30 acres.
“The digestate fertilizer byproduct of the anaerobic digestion process has been
beneficial in increasing yields from our traditional crops and enabling us to
expand into hemp growing. Our crop is the envy of others trying to do the same
thing,” Melnik said. “The digestate is a wonderful non-toxic fertilizer — it
does not emit odors; it has a complex and balanced portfolio of nutrients that
makes the crops thrive; and being able to stop using synthetic chemical
fertilizer has helped us continue to be good stewards of the land.”
Adam Graft of Leatherbrook Holsteins in Americus, Georgia, is one of
the newest farmers to join the Farm Powered movement. A leader in the dairy
industry for over 20 years, Graft and his wife joined the Farm Powered movement
as a way to manage their manure sustainably. The Leatherbrook Holsteins
manure-only to renewable energy anaerobic digester will produce enough energy to
heat 10,000 homes a year; and the low-carbon, high-nutrient and nearly odorless
digestate will benefit their soil management program and save money on costly
“At the end of the day, we are a family dedicated to being good neighbors,”
Graft said. “I’ve been working on farms my whole adult life, from California to
Washington and now in Georgia. I understand the complexities of dairy farming,
which is why I was eager to put a manure management plan in place to mitigate
the odor that comes from having a large dairy farm. We are also excited to use
the digestate as fertilizer to help reduce our dependence and farm expense on
purchasing traditional chemical fertilizers — which are costly and detrimental
to soil, water and crop health as compared to the digestate from the anaerobic
Graft and his family work with many of the region’s colleges and universities.
Every year they invite agricultural students from 15 schools across the
Southeast to the farm to help uncover potential improvements and share ideas
about sustainable and regenerative agriculture. As a former agriculture student,
Graft feels that this is one of the best ways for students to learn about dairy
Dairy farming has always adapted and evolved with an eye on sustainability and
being stewards of our natural resources. These efforts are accelerating quickly.
The stories profiled are just a few examples of how progressive and innovative
dairy organizations and farmers are working to make a significant difference in
the fight against climate change by their carbon footprint, improving soil
health, and using regenerative agriculture as a way to protect not just their
land, but our planet.
Published Jun 29, 2022 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
David Darr is Chief Sustainability Officer at Vanguard Renewables. He has over 20 years of experience working with dairy farmers around the country to implement sustainable and regenerative farming practices.
Most recently, Darr served as the SVP and Chief Strategy and Sustainability Officer for the Dairy Farmers of America. He holds both a BS and MS in Agriculture Economics from Ohio State University, and an MBA from Rockhurst University.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.