Alcohol and Organic Farming – Methane, Frogs and Men on Mars

I was lucky enough visit Whisky Hill Farms and Blume Distillation this summer. I was blown away by the scope of this 14-acre certified organic farm. Not only are they the largest producer of domestic Turmeric, but they provide answers to the food waste dilemma by producing high grade commercial alcohol. I soon learned that everything that comes from the distillery goes right back into the farm! This is the second of a two-part blog focused on food waste
  
Composting in place
 
After learning about the distillery, we came upon a prodigious mound of traditional looking compost, but this one held secrets linked to the distillery.  Any good compost pile is full of CO2 and when the bacteria has gone to sleep a farmer takes his tractor and makes a new pile fluffing it up with oxygen.
 
Here they do things differently. 
 
David Blume is Farmer in Chief at Whiskey Hill Farms. He has laid tubes with spray emitters through the length of the compost pile.  Compressed oxygen captured from the alcohol distillery is gently pushed throughout the pile. The oxygen pushes the carbon dioxide out just like turning the pile but without all the work. “I’m kind of allergic to extra work” Dave uttered.  
 
Other tubes run through the pile filled with water. As the compost heats up the water in these tubes get pumped out to the greenhouse three feet under the surface of the soil. This hot water pipe heats the soil and the tropical plants use their roots to pull up the warm water and internally heat themselves. If they get a 30-degree night the plants still maintain 70-degrees inside. 
 
He never has to heat the greenhouses; he only heats the soil. He saves 90% of the energy use of running his greenhouse this way. 
 
The Methane digester makes natural gas
The waste water from the alcohol tank is pumped into a covered tank. The water is filled with solids and nutrients and the bacteria in the methane digester eat it all up producing natural gas.  This natural gas in turn fuels the boiler for the alcohol plant. They aren’t buying anything from PG&E to make their alcohol – they are producing their natural gas instead! 
 
Artificial marshes clean up the nitrates
After all the solids are broken down in the digester, the water is cleaner, but still loaded with nutrients – far too many to be dumped in a river or creek. Instead, this “waste” is pumped into a long pond that spans the length of the greenhouse. A crop of cattails grows vibrantly in this nutrient filled water.  The cattails thrive in these nutrients, taking it all up through their roots. 
 
The water goes in one side of the marsh with 30,000 units of nitrogen, when it gets to the other end – through the cattails – it has only 5 units of nitrogen. 
 
It’s completely legal to discharge the water now (if they wished to) and they have spent 1% of what a sewage treatment plant would spend to get the nitrates out. Dave proclaimed, “The plants are doing it for us!” 
 
If you harvest these cattails before they go to seed all the protein gets trapped in the leaves. When David juices the leaves and adds alcohol, the protein just falls out of the solution into pellets, that animals or even humans can eat. 
 
David tells me that “From an acre of these cattails you can get 15 tons of protein. An acre of corn only gives you only 2 tons. This process is more productive than corn and we are using the waste products from our distillery.”
 
And there is more down below!
At the bottom of these cattails lie horizontal rhizomes that are 70% starch. This starch when distilled produces 7,500 gallons of alcohol per acre while an acre of corn only gets 300 gallons. 
 
They get more protein and more alcohol, and they get to process otherwise polluted water in the same step. Dave sums up his vision: “If every city did this with their own sewage we could eliminate the need for oil and nuclear. Eat the food and use the raw materials to make energy and fertilizer for our fields. “ 
 
Algae, lobster and alcohol
 
Another pond beckons to the right. Algae grows here soaking up all the nutrients not taken up by the cattails. This tank grows nutritious algae that is ¼ protein and ½ carbohydrate. Algae takes up carbon dioxide and fills the water full of oxygen. 
 
When this oxygen-filled water is pumped into the next tank filled with fish they get water full of oxygen to breathe and algae to eat.  Dave pointed out that “When it comes to raising fish the two things that cost money are food and oxygen, and here we are making it ourselves cheaply.” 
 
They plan to switch over to fresh water lobster – giant cray fish – and they will get a crop every three months. 
 
He mused that “For every gallon of alcohol I make in the plant, I get $40 worth of lobster right here. The question becomes, where am I making the most money, lobster or alcohol?” 
 
Lobster does a better job of converting feed into food. You have to feed a cow 10 pounds of food to grow a pound of cow. When you feed a lobster, it only takes 1 ½ pounds of food to make one pound of lobster.  
 
All the poop that comes from the fish and lobster is pumped out through the irrigation system to fertilize his fields and greenhouses. 
 
Dave proclaimed that “We have extracted everything we can out of the raw material that made our alcohol and put it back into the land.” 
 
Irrigating with C02 
 
By night the irrigation system waters the greenhouse. During the day that same system is used to pump C02 gas from the plant filling the greenhouses with carbon dioxide. Plants just love carbon dioxide and this method triples the output per square foot of plants. 
 
Frog leg pest control and fertilizer 
In between the rows of plants lie much smaller ponds laced with floating duckweed. Beside these is a pile of rocks stacked neatly and bound together with wire. Dave waved his arm and said “This is where we breed frogs!  We turn on a lantern and open the doors. As far away as that light shines frogs can see it and hop over to my greenhouse. They see the pond (jacuzzi), the rocks (condominium) and say, ‘I’m moving in!’ I provide a house and a pool, and they quickly reproduce.”
 
He estimates that he has tens of thousands of them now in his greenhouse. They eat all the bugs in his greenhouse. 
 
Approximately 20 tons of bugs march across an acre every year – on these acres the frogs eat all of them. So, they get 20 tons of bug poop and he doesn’t have to spread the fertilizer; the frogs do it for him! 
 
Dave ruminated that “If you cooperate with nature you can get a lot of benefits rather than fighting with nature. Nature always wins.”
 
A prickly answer to our energy needs
Dave points to a prickly pear plant. He says that, “If you cut it down to knee height it grows right back. The leaves are filed with Inulin and I have a special yeast that can eat Inulin and make alcohol. You can produce 1000 gallons of alcohol per acre with prickly pear – remember corn is only 300 gallons. This is especially valuable in dry areas of the world.”
 
The greenhouses 
David currently has 14 acres under production with 5 under greenhouse all certified by CCOF. 
Here we sampled Papalo leaves, a local delicacy in Oaxaca, where they savor it with beer. We walked amongst rows of Lemon Cucumber, Watermelon, Habanero Pepper, Ginger, Eggplant, Jicama and Pepper. 
 
Turmeric is his prize plant and I witnessed two plantings – one at three times the size of the other. They had planted at the same time, but one was given shots of CO2 during the day.  
 
Whisky Hill farms is currently the largest producer of Turmeric in North America and will triple their production this year. 
 
Anyone going to Mars? 
 
The folks at NASA recently dropped by to see his farm. They told him that they want to have people live on Mars to do science but to send food to Mars is $10,000 per gram.  It’s obviously a better idea to send seeds! Dave told them that “We can certainly grow stuff on Mars because when I took this farm over it was Mars! It was a rose farm for 20 years with pesticides, herbicides, miticides, rodenticides, fungicides, and the soil was without organic matter. 
  
In just a few years you can see its outrageously productive now!” 
 
He told them “I can make special greenhouses to produce food on Mars for your team. What would they eat? They would have a choice of shrimp, tilapia or lobster and all kinds of vegetables and salads. All their poop would be handled and of course all the carbon dioxide they breathe out would be recycled by the plants in the greenhouse. We could save you money. 
 
But whenever I take on a project I insist on a site visit before I begin!” 
 
***
 
This blog was originally written by Melody Meyer and published on Organic Matters. Melody has enjoyed over 40 years working in the organic trade helping it grow and flourish. She provides a unique perspective of thought leadership and on all things organic. Photos credit: Melody Meyer.
 
Follow her blog at www.organicmattersblog.com

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