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Conservation Highlights

The New Face of Green

Dairy farmer John Fiscalini poses in front of his state-of-the-art methane digester that converts cow manure into electricity.

For more than 15 years, Sustainable Conservation has advanced a model of environmental sustainability that builds uncommon partnerships with business, agriculture and government. It's one of the things that makes us so unique.

Across California, an unlikely group of environmental heroes has joined us to tackle tough issues, like climate change, facing the state. For decades they've been labeled by many as part of the problem, but thanks to Sustainable Conservation's years of support, they've become a major player in the solution. This surprising group? Farmers.

Green Gets a Makeover

"We've always touted ourselves as the original environmentalists," said John Fiscalini during a visit to his 530-acre dairy in Modesto. "We hope the rest of the world starts seeing us that way, too."

The quiet 59-year-old is leading a surprising movement in California that has farmers partnering with long-time environmental advocates like Sustainable Conservation to clean up the state. Tired of being portrayed as part of the problem, John is proving that farmers can be a big part of the solution.

"Now more than ever, farmers have an opportunity to showcase how good we can be at protecting the environment," John said.

Slowing a Changing Climate

At the top of John's growing list of environmental achievements is his fight against climate change. John's biggest asset is one of the world's most advanced methane digesters (below), which he built with Sustainable Conservation's help. The digester captures harmful methane gas from the manure his 1,500 cows leave behind and converts it into clean, renewable energy.

"Now more than ever, farmers have an opportunity to showcase how good we can be at protecting the environment."
- John Fiscalini

While not the worst among greenhouse gases, a title that goes to carbon dioxide due to its prevalence, methane is 21 times more potent. And, manure from livestock - especially cows - is a major source. By some accounts, methane from livestock constitutes nearly 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions in California. Manure also speeds the formation of smog, affecting tens of thousands of Central Valley residents - especially children and the elderly - suffering from respiratory illnesses.

Once fully operational, the system's two 860,000-gallon tanks will trap 5,400 cubic feet of methane and produce more than 700 kilowatts of electricity each hour. That's so much juice that only half of it will be needed to power the 88,000-square-foot cheese factory John plans to build in the coming year. He'll feed the other half into the electrical grid to power 200 nearby homes.

"It's a pretty cool thing ... to not only help with global warming, but at the same time produce clean energy that can power my operation and neighbors' homes," John said. "It will also save me thousands of dollars a month in utility costs."

Fiscalini Farms' two 860,000-gallon methane digesters turn cow manure into electricity, and will soon power an 88,000-square-foot cheese plant and 200 nearby homes.

Sustainable Conservation is proud of its role in making the digester a reality. Over the last two years, we helped John secure government funding to build the system and provided technical expertise to make it more efficient and burn methane more cleanly. Building on more than five years of groundwork, Sustainable Conservation also influenced the California public utilities Commission's 2008 decision to require large utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric to purchase power from renewable energy producers like John at fair prices. This means John and other dairy farmers have more incentive to make digesters a permanent part of the state's effort to curb climate change.

"We couldn't be more thrilled with John's achievement," said Sustainable Conservation Program Director Allen Dusault, who oversaw the project. "He's helping advance a new model of sustainability for the state and country, and demonstrating that agriculture is vital in fixing the planet. We hope other farmers follow his lead."

If others do follow and digesters are installed on all California dairies, they would capture as much greenhouse gas as 2 million cars emit annually. They would also save farmers $2 million in energy costs each year.

Methane, though, is only one drawback of manure.

Cultivating Clean Water

California's nearly 2 million dairy cows produce 65 billion pounds of waste each year - as much as the state's entire human population. Manure can pollute waterways and drinking water for millions.

Dairy cows in California generate more than 65 billion pounds of waste each year - as much as the state's nearly 37 million human population. If not managed right, manure can pollute rivers, lakes and drinking water that millions of Californians depend on.

John keeps water on and off his farm healthy in a number of ways. First, wastewater used to wash his milking facility and cows' stalls is run through his new digester to kill harmful pathogens that could make his family and cows sick. The "digested" water is then applied to his fields to grow the crops that feed his cows. According to John, the treated water is actually better than other organic fertilizers because the processed nutrients in it are more easily absorbed by his crops. That means fewer nutrients can escape into the environment.

"We don't use commercial fertilizer because we've found how to be more efficient by using only manure," John said. "And, we produce enough to take expensive commercial fertilizer out of the equation for our farm."

Applying manure water instead of commercial fertilizers also helps avoid polluted runoff that's common with synthetic varieties. And, because the manure is free, John saves up to $50,000 a year in fertilizer costs.

There's more to John's story.

Clearing the Air

Want a tasty way to help John fight climate change, and protect clean air and water? Fiscalini Farms' award-winning cheeses are available throughout the Bay Area. Protecting the environment never tasted so good.

In 2008, Sustainable Conservation showed John an innovative cultivation technique called conservation tillage that reduces air pollution. Much of the pollution in the Central Valley, including places like Modesto, comes from farming. Standard cultivation techniques, practiced on millions of acres, kick up clouds of dust and involve diesel-burning machinery. This, combined with emissions from automobiles and other industries, makes the Valley home to some of the dirtiest air in the nation.

Conservation tillage involves leaving crop stubble (such as corn stalks) on the surface of the soil and planting a new crop right on top. Doing so reduced the number of tractor passes required to prepare John's fields for planting. It also kept large volumes of dust and diesel fumes from darkening the sky - and helped John's neighbors breathe easier. Statewide, conservation tillage could cut dust pollution alone by up to 80% compared to standard cultivation practices.

"When I look across the Valley and see all that haze, it's good knowing that's not from me," John said. "Or, at least it's less me than other folks."

Less time on his tractor meant John pocketed more than $25,000 that he would have otherwise spent on fuel, maintenance and labor. He was also able to focus on more important things - like his family.

From renewable energy to clean water and air, John Fiscalini is putting California farmers in a whole new light. With support from Sustainable Conservation, he's proving that they are a big part of the solution to pressing environmental problems facing California. And, they're happy to do their part because, as John likes to say, "We're all in this together."