Denise Barstow: Dairy farms are part of the climate solution

  • Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley is a sixth- and seventh-generation dairy farm that’s been in operation since 1806. SUBMITTED PHOTO

  • Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley is a sixth- and seventh-generation dairy farm that’s been in operation since 1806. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Friday, April 26, 2019

Climate change has challenged our society to adopt practices and technologies to cut fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and live more sustainably.

With razor-thin margins, farmers are being further tested. Our livelihood directly depends on a healthy economy, a healthy community, and a healthy planet.

You know you’ve made it as a farmer when you buy a cow. The goats clear the land, the pigs eat the scraps, the chickens feed the family and the farmer tends the fields. But the cow? She does it all. Cows are natural recyclers and they can help us rethink the food waste stream in our communities.

Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley is a sixth- and seventh-generation dairy farm that’s been in operation since 1806. We feed our herd from the land we farm, harvesting corn, hay and alfalfa from wide open Massachusetts farmland.

We also feed our cows cranberry pulp from cranberry juice production. Most people see this as food waste, but for us, it’s a plant-based sugar we can feed our girls (milking cows need about 4 percent sugar in their diet). Mixed right in with the silage, it’s a lot like a glass of orange juice with breakfast! Through the bitter New England winter, we also offer our animals a natural starch of “second potatoes,” or ugly potatoes, that shoppers wouldn’t buy in the grocery store.

Living in Massachusetts, cranberries and potatoes are readily available foods, part of an important and historic state identity. Other dairy cows across the nation recycle food byproducts in their communities too — peels, pits, pulp, veggies, fruits and even almond hulls.

These food byproducts, with minimal nutritional value, might have ended up in landfills, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, our girls converted that food waste into high quality, nutrient-rich milk.

A mature dairy cow produces around 9 gallons of milk per day — and also about 100 pounds of manure!

Here at Barstow’s Longview Farm, an anaerobic digester captures the methane from food waste and cow manure. The system provides renewable electricity to 1,600 local homes, heats the family farmhouses, diverts food waste from landfills, reduces farm odor, minimizes chemical fertilizer use, improves soil health and crop yields, and reduces our carbon hoofprint by 85 percent.

According to the Enviornmental Protection Agency, U.S. agriculture contributes 9 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Half comes from animal production, the other half from crop farming. If we did away with animal agriculture, there would be only a 2.6 percent reduction in total emissions.

Why so little?

To start, to make up for lost nutrients in our diet from meat and dairy, we would need to grow or import more plant foods. And without manure from animals, farmers would rely on more chemical fertilizers.

Additionally, we would lose our natural recyclers. Cows across the nation are eating up food waste that would end up in landfills and pasturing on landscapes that sequester carbon through plant life. Farmers are maintaining farms with compost operations and anaerobic digesters; systems that recycle food waste, improve soil health, and keep farmland open.

Plants and animals have been cohabiting for millennia. It’s an ecosystem that works and can continue to work in this century with this technology and with these farmers!

Farmers and their cows have been closing loops and reducing waste for generations — it’s better for our cows and for our bottom line. Compare 1944 to 2007. It takes 21 percent fewer cows, 35 percent less water and 10 percent less land to produce the same amount of milk — with a 37 percent smaller hoofprint.

Like the barnyard with goats, pigs, chickens and cows, each is a solution to a healthy, sustainable farm. As policymakers look to lay the groundwork for a healthy, sustainable nation — one piece of the puzzle lies with the climate-friendly practices found on the dairy farms in their backyard. Making food and recycling it — the farmer and her cow are a part of the solution too.

And we don’t shy away from hard work either.

Denise Barstow is a seventh-generation dairy farmer and education director at Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery and Barstow’s Longview Farm in Hadley.