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Michigan dairy enters partnership with Consumers Energy for its manure
 
By Stan Maddux
Indiana Correspondent

ALTO, Mich. – Energy from the sun and natural gas harvested from cow manure will be produced at a Michigan dairy farm in what’s billed as the first agri-energy center in the southwest part of the state.
Consumers Energy in partnership with Swisslane Farms has begun constructing a biodigester to convert the carbon in manure into methane, which will be processed into natural gas and pipelined for use by customers of the utility.
Matt Oesch, CEO of Swisslane Farms, said the amount of money he’ll receive for the manure is not close to like striking oil.
However, the amount will be enough to better position his fourth-generation mid-sized dairy to be competitive long into the future.
“It’s another revenue stream,” he said.
Oesch strongly believes the deal with the state’s largest energy provider is a model for how dairy farms should operate nowadays to avoid mergers into larger, more cost-efficient operations.
“In the dairy industry, the economies of scale are very real. We can’t just assume the way the dairy industry looks today is how it will look in 10 to 20 years,” he said.
Swisslane Farms has three locations, two in Battle Creek and one founded by his great grandfather, Frederick, about 45 miles to the north in Alto.
The 150 million pounds of milk the farm produces annually ends up in containers under brands such as Fairlife and Country Fresh.
The biodigester and enough solar panels to power 25,000 homes will be on land Swisslane Farms has leased from Consumers Energy since 2021 when Oesch acquired a dairy farm previously owned by a milk producing couple wanting to retire.
“This first-of-its-kind project provides a blueprint not only for other farms, but for the entire state, on how to integrate the clean energy transformation into existing businesses,” said David Hicks, vice president of clean energy development for Consumers Energy.
Oesch said all the manure from his 3,000 cows at both Battle Creek locations combined will feed the biodigester that is expected to be operating next year.
According to Consumers Energy, renewable natural gas technology (RNG) captures methane released by decomposing manure and purifies it to make it safe for customer usage and better for the environment.
Currently, Oesch said all his manure, including the waste from his 2,000 cows in Alto, is used to fertilize the corn and alfalfa he raises to feed the animals.
Once the biodigester is finished drawing methane from the organic matter, Oesch said the manure will be removed and remain plenty useful enough to spread in his fields.
“It still contains, basically, the same nutrient qualities,” he said.
The solar panels scheduled to be functioning in 2026 is strictly a Consumers Energy portion of the AgriEnergy Center.
“Farmers like the Oesch family are truly leading the way in this piece of Michigan’s clean energy transformation and we look forward to seeing the positive impact the AgriEnergy Center will have on their farm and the community,” said Holly Bowers, vice president of gas engineering and supply for Consumers Energy.
Oesch said the partnership resulted from him being approached by developers with similar ideas before reaching out to Consumers Energy, which he felt could be a more stable and long-term source of value-added revenue.
“We got together and started working on what it would look like,” he said.
Consumers Energy, which serves close to 70 percent of the state’s 10 million residents, is following a plan that calls for eliminating coal as an energy source by next year and meeting 90 percent of customers’ energy needs through clean sources like wind and solar.
Oesch said his great grandfather was a 16-year-old orphan when he and his brother came here from Switzerland in 1904.
He later founded Swisslane Farms on 90 acres of ground still used for the operation. “He was the embodiment of the American dream,” he said. 
Oesch said he and his brother, Tom, and cousin, Annie Link, now run the dairy farm he wants to become an option for future generations in his family to take over someday.
He believes the odds of that happening are much improved from the added financial stability of having multiple income sources.
“We see it as our vision to show the way forward in the dairy industry,” he said.

6/17/2024