CHIN, Alta.—We all know what it takes to be leader of the pack—tenacity, vision, confidence, optimism, an ability to see and seize opportunities.
These are some of the critical traits leaders must possess to move daringly forward, especially when they are implementing complex, highly technical energy projects in an agricultural setting.
Meet the Perry family, fourth-generation owners/operators of the GrowTEC farm in Chin, Alta.
You name it—energy self-sufficiency, innovative business strategies, use of alternative green energy—the Perry’s are working to integrate it into their operation.
On GrowTEC’s 4,000 acres, they produce potatoes, sunflowers, green peas, seed canola and a range of cereals for companies such as Frito Lay, McCain, Lucerne Foods, Hytech Production and Spitz. “We are very aware…that [with irrigated vegetable crops], we use a significant amount of resources,” says GrowTEC President and CEO Chris Perry.
“There is a great need to do better intrinsically across the industry,” Perry notes. “We are environmentally-aware producers and have always gravitated to utilizing the best technology, investing in efficiency and decreasing our dependence on non-renewable resources.”
Their ambitious goal is to reduce farm inputs (water, fuel, electricity and synthetic fertilizer) by 20 per cent while increasing net yields by 20 per cent, all by the year 2020.
After three years of electrical engineering studies in his youth, Chris longed to return to his roots. He obtained a science degree in Agriculture Technology and Management and returned home alongside his brother Harold.
Over the next ten years, the “Brothers Perry” tripled the farm acreage. They focused on growing high-quality crops, securing good contracts and carefully analyzing inputs each year to find “balance in the fluctuations.” By the end of the decade, they had increased the net worth of the business six-fold. “We also try to utilize our employees’ strengths around savings and opportunities,” Perry notes, adding modestly that “Mother Nature is a farmer’s best friend and luck always plays a part.”
In terms of leadership in energy production and management, by this summer GrowTEC will fire-up a large anaerobic digester. It will turn farm manure, cull onions and potatoes as well as off-farm organic materials into biogas that will in turn be fed to a generator to produce renewable electricity. This reduces the farm’s greenhouse gas emissions and the nutrient-rich, pathogen-free sludge periodically cleaned from the digester will be used on the fields or sold as fertilizer.
The project is being completed with the help of $3.5 million from the Climate Change And Emissions Management Corporation of Alberta (CCEMC, an independent organization that supports and builds on the strategic direction established by the government of Alberta’s 2008 Climate Change Strategy). The CCEMC estimates that over the next ten years, the digester will reduce GHG emissions by about 74,000 tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalency, a quantity that describes equivalent amount of CO2 that would have gone into the environment).
Running digesters in the Canadian climate is tricky business, and more than one digester project across the prairies has sputtered out over the last few years. But the Perry’s are accessing experienced contractors who are very aware of best practices. In terms of other challenges, Chris admits that jumping the regulatory hurdles and getting the proper permits in place is very frustrating and time-consuming. “We are adopting a process that is much better than our current practice from an environmental perspective,” he notes, “and the amount of monitoring and regulatory restrictions we now must adhere to is a significant obstacle, [taking] time, effort and money.” However, the Perry’s will press on to make this vision a reality. “Persistence and dedication to the final outcome,” Chris states, “are necessary to play this game.”
Negotiations with various sources for off-farm feedstocks are underway. Optimum digester operation and electricity generation depends on rich organic materials besides manure (perhaps such as spent cooking oil). “There is significant agricultural and organic waste in our region and not much competition for these feedstocks,” Chris notes, “so we are optimistic that all will go well.”
Tenacity and optimism will also be needed on the road to optimizing digester operation. As with anything new, it will be an ongoing learning process to define the best mixture of feedstocks. The Perry’s will fully utilize the expertise of the digester tech provider and plan to stay away from potentially-problematic high-protein materials. Excess sodium is a concern in the sludge fertilizer, but this and all other aspects will be closely monitored.
The digester will provide a net power generation of 540-560 kW, and existing on-farm solar panels add another 20 kW. (GrowTEC’s geothermal system, measured in tonnes of capacity, supplies all the cooling and heating needed for their potato storage facilities, about 40 tonnes.) The entire farm has a peak energy load of about 230 kW, and all the excess power will be put to good use.
While the short-term future of GrowTEC’s electricity is to enter the grid, the longer-term outlook involves a collaborative business strategy. The goal is to create an innovative and diverse regional business cluster over the next five years in partnership with local companies and municipalities. For example, an algae biofuel plant or vegetable greenhouse will use residual digester heat and perhaps power as well. Farm-generated electricity will also be used to power what is planned to be Canada’s first large-scale crop fibre processing plant. The facility will have an annual output of 50,000 tonnes of hemp and flax straw for use in North America’s construction, automotive and animal bedding industries.
GrowTEC also continues to collaborate with a number of private and public entities to demonstrate the feasibility of new data-driven agriculture (DDA) practices that can be adopted by the entire industry. DDA integrates aerial imagery (from satellites, remotely-operated aerial vehicles and planes), remote sensing and GIS platforms in the use of variable rate irrigation systems, which use only as much water as necessary.
“We are proud farmers,” Chris says. “There is satisfaction at doing the best job we can with respect to the planet, and knowing we will leave our land more productive than when we started.” That, he says, is sustainability.
In that and more, the Perry’s lead the way.