By Lilian Schaer
Entrepreneurial farmers offer low cost, green solution for food waste
An innovative group of agricultural entrepreneurs has banded together to offer a low-cost solution for organic waste disposal – and are producing green energy while they’re at it.
Cornerstone Renewables was formed a year ago when eight farmers and operators of two other sites in southwestern Ontario with electricity-producing bio-digesters decided to join forces to better manage how they do business.
An anaerobic digester is like a big stomach, says dairy farmer Korb Whale of Clovermead Farms near Drayton, Ontario.
It is fed a diet of organic inputs, such as livestock manure and bedding, fruit and vegetable peels and scraps, or food processing waste, which generates natural gas that powers a generator, which produces electricity that is sold into the provincial grid.
All Cornerstone members have 20-year Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) contracts with Ontario Power Authority for their electricity, and the material that is left over after electricity production is applied back to the land as fertilizer.
Whale, who has a digester on his farm, was instrumental in bringing together others with anaerobic digesters to form Cornerstone Renewables.
“This is a very new industry and there are very few of us doing it, so we needed to start working together to share opportunities and tips and information on issues,” he explains, adding that the new corporation has also helped create economies of scale.
“One farm can take 10,000 tons of off-farm waste per year, but the 10 sites working together create an annual market for 220,000 tons,” he says, adding that capacity is key for the waste sector. “As well, if one site is down, we can re-direct waste to another site, giving our customers stability and consistency.”
Those customers are primarily food and beverage producers who need to dispose of organic wastes their businesses create, such as sugar water from cookie-making, fat and greases, left over bread crumbs, or batches of food products that aren’t suitable for sale.
The eight on-farm digesters – six on dairy and two on beef farms – aren’t allowed to take post-consumer waste, which is anything that has already gone to the consumer, such as restaurant leftovers or compostable household waste.
The other two – one located at a Leamington greenhouse and the other at a commercial facility in Elmira – have permits that allow them to accept Source Separated Organics, such as green bin contents, and each can take about 70,000 tons of waste per year.
Sourcing and maintaining those contracts is something Cornerstone’s members weren’t good at on their own, says Whale, which is why they hired Travis Woollings to be their point person.
The group had worked with a professional facilitator during their development phase to help prepare a strategic plan for the new corporation, so they knew exactly what skills they needed to bring to the business.
Anyone who disposes of waste through Cornerstone pays a tip fee, which varies depending on the waste type. Doing business collectively means stable and set pricing for tip fees for both Cornerstone’s members and their customers.
“Food companies are glad to have us, we provide a reliable and green home for their waste at a competitive price,” says Woollings. “The interest we’ve received has been great and very positive. The waste sector is very interested as they’re starting to see the benefit of operations like ours.”
Cornerstone’s current priority is to get all of its existing sites working at capacity and maintaining a level of consistent production. Expansion is definitely in the cards, though, and Woollings is constantly reaching out to food processors to let them know there’s an economical alternative to landfill for their waste.
“We market ourselves as a destination – we want to make electricity, not haul waste, and we’re not a broker or a consultant,” explains Whale. “We want to maintain and nurture a positive image for the company, so it’s important we work with the right people to do that.”
Cornerstone is entirely self-funded with all ten members as investors, and ongoing operations are paid through a check-off fee paid by members. Woollings is the only employee, and the company owns no bricks and mortar, so costs can be kept pretty low.
“One of the key things of this group is the commitment and passion that is there. It’s not just about their farm businesses, it’s also about the environment and the need to preserve for future generations,” says Woollings.