Sweetening the dairy air

Ag-related businesses such as anaerobic digesters strengthen Calumet County economy, land use

Posted on Aug 31, 2016 :: Economic Development
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

As the definition of “family farm” continues to change from a bucolic 50-cow dairy to a bustling 1,000-plus cow operation, so do the needs change for both the farms and the local communities.

In Calumet County, where 70 percent of the landscape is dedicated to the ag industry, this shift is top of mind.

“It’s a large chunk of our local economy and land mass,” says Matthew Payette, county director of planning, zoning and land information. “The secondary component is just off the farm, taking products off the land, primarily dairy.”

Agriculture brings $318 million to the local economy and employs more than 4,000 people in Calumet County. This includes a number of large-scale dairies, some with as many as 12,000 cows. Companies that support the ag industry are seeing expansions and growth as farms continue to get larger, produce more and have needs particular to large-scale farms, such as waste disposal and odor control.

“As farms get into larger capacity with larger animal units, I think it’s important to look at the waste and the means of disposing it in a responsible, environmentally friendly manner,” Payette says.

And in that effort there are economic opportunities for both the producer and local businesses, such as Chilton-based DVO, Inc., builder of anaerobic manure digesters. DVO’s patented digesters generate products such as animal bedding and compressed natural gas for power from the waste. “I think it’s a great idea from an economic and environmental standpoint,” Payette says.

DVO, founded by former Packerland engineer Stephen Dvorak, installed its first digester near Stevens Point in 2001. The digesters can process any kind of organic waste, such as byproducts from food processing plants, offering another revenue stream for farmers.

“I would say roughly 50 to 60 percent of our customers take in outside waste streams in addition to the manure,” says Melissa VanOrnem, Dvorak’s daughter and vice president of marketing for DVO.

DVO now sells its digesting systems nationwide and internationally, the most recent to a hog farm in South Korea. The digesters solve a lot of problems like odor and waste disposal, and save farmers money in heating, power, bedding and manure storage costs, VanOrnem says. The energy produced by the digesters is usually more than the farm needs and can be sold to utility companies.

“We know there are a lot of benefits (farmers) are enjoying,” VanOrnem says. “They’re going to get a check from the utility, and if they’re using solids for bedding, they see savings from whatever they were purchasing before.”

They also can add a greater volume of liquid waste per acre because the digester reduces harmful nutrients in the waste.

“What that really translates to is not only an increased crop yield but a reduced disposal cost because they don’t have to truck as much waste and they don’t have to truck it as far,” VanOrnem says.

The digesters can also be a tool for local food processors that want to expand and need a method of disposal for the added waste stream if the local waste treatment plant can’t handle the extra capacity. That makes it easier for companies in the county to grow and add jobs.

“It really becomes a tool from a land use perspective and an economic perspective,” Payette says.

Calumet County has the additional need to protect its land resource because it’s part of the Niagara Escarpment, a protected geologic formation that curves into Door County and around the Great Lakes to Niagara Falls. It consists of shallow bedrock and karst features that make the groundwater prone to contamination.

Sargento, Amerequip, Briess Malt expanding

• Sargento Cheese is completing a 60,000-square-foot addition adjacent to its processing facility in Hilbert this year, with 140 new positions planned.

• Amerequip, which has facilities in New Holstein and in Kiel and makes components and machinery for the ag industry, is expanding its facility in Kiel. In January the company agreed to purchase the Wieting Family Funeral Home to build a 90,000-square-foot addition to a facility nearby the main plant in Kiel. Work was expected to begin in August and completed in summer 2017. Amerequip also finished two expansions, adding 110,000 square feet and 100 jobs in 2014.

• Briess Malt & Ingredients Co., which produces malt for the brewing industry, is adding a facility at Commerce and Columbia streets in Chilton, Payette says. The $2 million, 21,000-square-foot expansion includes a warehouse and a 104-foot tower. Work started in the spring.

Payette says the county is in the process of looking at its economic model, the services it provides and the relationships it has with other entities such as the Fox Cities Regional Partnership and New North, Inc., to find ways to partner on a regional scale. As many residents of Calumet County work within the Fox Cities and the Green Bay area, it’s important to sustain those opportunities, he says. “But then we also need to look inward and what we do here within Calumet County for employment,” Payette says. “The ag industry is a huge component and a niche here in the county that we want to see strengthen.”