Farmers’ Stories – to adopt or not

The following technology adoption stories are from interviews with farmers as part of Dartmouth Team IFES’ Life-cycle Benefits of Dairy Digesters research project.

Farm A

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Farmer A is one impressive man. Not that one would expect a farmer to be anything but that, but A’s work ethic is particularly admirable. Nearing 80 years of age, he still wakes up everyday to farm the 1500 combined acres he owns and rents in a wealthy tourist town.

His farm is perched above the town, providing arguably one of the best views of the surrounding foothills and village below. His environs are reminiscent of Switzerland, with mountain bikers flying down the hill behind the farmhouse, losing the elevation they worked so hard to gain, as Jersey cows munch in the background on the rolling fields.

Farmer A has a gruff voice but is his inner warmth soon surfaces as members of the Dartmouth IFES group begin their interview. Escaping the afternoon August heat, A and the IFES members enter the cool refuge of the farmhouse where they are greeted by A’s wife who insists on serving the group coffee.

Throughout the hour and a half of back-and-forth, mainly between Farmer A and 1 IFES member, it becomes apparent that A has a unique mix of forward-thinking aspirations and traditional values. For instance, A does not have an anaerobic digester onsite at his farm, and never has. But when it comes to such new technological advances, he admits that he “likes that sort of thing.”

The IFES group has been warned of such tendencies so is not surprised when A abandons the questionnaire in favor of his own, far more interesting stories. He provides insight into the outlook of someone who has toiled for all of his life, and who has witnessed his home change drastically throughout the decades. Yet there is not a tinge of resentment in his voice—no strain of jealously or unfairness—that he has worked harder and longer than those who surround him. And one would think that a 1500-acre farm in a bike and ski town would cause some overt tensions between his operations and the entitled tourists. On the contrary, however, he deems this relationship as largely symbiotic. According to A, many seasonal inhabitants view his farm as part of the landscape, whether explicitly (such as one man who told A he bought his house in order to look out at A’s farm), or as part of a “landscape subconsciousness.”

A has tapped maple trees for years, and admitted that he tapped trees and pastured his cattle on a neighbor’s parcel of land for three years without admitting anything or asking for the neighbor’s permission. One day, gruff and sturdy A built up the courage to sheepishly walk up the hill to the owner’s house. He finally met the neighbor face-to-face and admitted his actions of the past three years. The neighbor’s response? “Yes I knew you were doing that, and no I don’t want you to stop.”

Farm B

There were eight different scents of cow manure. “Scent” is a generous word actually; “odor” is more accurate—the type that seeps into your clothes and your hair and your interview papers, so that when you open your desk drawer, you are instantaneously brought back to a dairy farm and can reminisce about the experience while sitting in your office.

It was the Dartmouth IFES team’s first farm visit. Their trusty guide MR led the way, while two other team members traipsed behind, attempting to hold their breaths while exchanging eye contact that seemed to express, “Is MR really taking us there?” He was just so excited. Excited to be on a farm with a digester—a farm he had spent many an hour at helping to install the digester—and especially enthusiastic to be showing others around. Needless to say, the fact that he happened to stop and perform show-and-tell at the most pungent locations seemed to occupy very little of his mind.

Stop #1: The heifer barn. MC and RL followed in MR’s hiking boot footsteps, tip-toeing around manure in their sandals until they finally caved in and embraced the muck. Was MC really wearing flip-flops? Amateur mistake- he’ll learn. The heifer barn wafted a sweet smell, like fermenting clovers after a spring rainstorm. The calves turned their heads to send their big bulging eyes in the direction of the group, offering licks with their long saliva-covered tongues. From 1-10 on a scale from most tame to most nauseating, this location would earn a 1 or a 2.

Stop #2. The milk parlor. Here you immediately imagine that someone has stuck a wedge of aging French cheese beneath your nose. The how-can-it-smell-so-bad-but-taste-so-good question pops into your head, but you smile and nod to MR as he bounces around from one temperature gauge to the next, his hair fluttering a bit in between each stop. You look engaged and nod along with his explanations, but don’t say anything because it’s early in the morning and you’re not in the mood for a bite of French cheese…yet. This smell would receive a 4 on the scale.

Stop #3. The engine generator, or GenSet if you know what you’re talking about. This is MC’s least favorite scent; RL doesn’t mind it that much. It’s a bit sweet (maybe where things go wrong for MC), reminiscent of distillers’ grains and rotting barley. It’s hot and loud inside, which definitely adds an unfair bias to the scale ranking. MR insists on talking more here even though the others can’t hear a word. After enough nodding but still no speaking, he gets the point and moves into the quieter room next door to continue his explanations. RL would give the GENSET a 5; MC would rank it higher.

Stop #4. The below-ground bubbling vat of rotting fats, mostly Ben and Jerry’s waste. MR suggested that MC and RL stick their heads over the edge and “check it out.” Between the 90-degree temperature outside and the bumpy early morning drive, RL nearly keels over right then and there, envisioning her own demise in the wretched vat. This one gets a 10 for sure. Strong, sweaty, pungent, metallic to the tongue, and instant stay-with-you-for-the-rest-of-the-day (forever?) clothing-seeper. As for MR? Per usual, not at all affected. He kept chatting next to the opening in the ground as RL and MC strategically started to tip-toe away. For all we know, he could have given a full-on lecture by that vat.