Waste not, want not 

Amana Farms Manager John McGrath outlines operations at its anaerobic digester facility to Amana Society President and CEO Greg Luerkens and Ron Corbett, former Cedar Rapids mayor and vice president of economic development for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance. The digester produces energy and high-quality fertilizer from cow manure, which is collected onsite, and industrial byproducts from regional partners. CREDIT KATHARINE CARLON

It powers all seven villages in the Amana Colonies, provides high quality fertilizer to farms and literally turns cattle manure and industrial waste into energy gold.

Amana Farms’ 2.8-megawatt anaerobic digester is a fitting addition to the Colonies’ longtime commitment to sustainability and the land. And it could serve as a model to a greener future, as Corridor economic development officials learned on a tour last week of the Colonies’ 1.6-million-gallon digester – one of just three such agricultural facilities statewide.

“When you look at the origins of the Colonies, they’ve always been kind of a self-sustaining operation, so this just kind of makes sense,” said Amana Farms Manager John McGrath, who oversees the Colonies’ corn, soybean and wheat operations in addition to a 2,500-head cow and calf herd, a 4,000-head cattle feed lot, the state’s largest privately-held forest and the anaerobic digester set up at the cattle feedlot to generate electricity. Using a brew of cattle manure and factory by-product, mostly sourced from nearby Cedar Rapids, the digester produces methane gas, which in turn is burned to generate electricity sold on the Amana grid to power the Amana Colonies.

The Amana Society Service Company buys “green energy” from the digester, which powers all 1,400 homes and businesses in the Colonies except for the massive Whirlpool plant in Middle Amana. The waste product, after methane is extracted to produce energy, provides Amana Farm’s fields with environmentally friendly fertilizer, reducing the use of traditional commercial fertilizers.

“This thing is greener than wind because this thing generates power all the time, whereas wind may or may not be going,” Mr. McGrath said. “We’re powering the Amana Colonies, plus a little bit more.”

Mr. McGrath likened the biodigester operation, which relies on a cocktail of waste carefully balanced to break down organic material, much like composting, to a “big concrete cow.”

“Because we’re doing the exact same thing – it’s anaerobic digestion, just like cows do,” he said. “They’re breaking things down in their gut that we could never eat, and the bacteria is doing the work. That’s the same thing right here. The bacteria is doing the work.”

Amana Farms secured funding from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence in 2006 to construct the digester as part of a statewide effort to transition to a more phosphorus-based cropping system and to reduce smell – an important consideration for one of the state’s most highly-visited tourist destinations, in addition to its environmental and financial benefits.

But the early days were not easy, and making the digester operate efficiently took years of trial and error. One of the first lessons, Mr. McGrath said, was that the 75 tons of manure produced by Amana Farms cattle daily would not be enough to sustain the operation. The second was that despite being sold on the premise that the digester could work efficiently processing just about any sort of organic industrial waste, that was not the case. Waste containing a lot of solids, such as cardboard waste, was an early miss as it proved difficult to break down.

“Our first couple of years, we were hemorrhaging money pretty badly,” Mr. McGrath said, adding that hiring the right people – “firing the engineers and hiring farmers” – and finding the right industrial partners to help feed the digester made all the difference. In the early days, “we would jokingly say our little sideline is we’re going to start up a digestive consulting business. And we’re going to [charge] a quarter million dollars to tell you not to build one, and we’re all going to be way ahead.”

Today, however, Mr. McGrath would answer differently, touting the sustainability loop of producing corn to feed cattle that produces manure that can be turned into energy and high-quality fertilizer.

“The crops are feeding the cattle, the cattle is feeding the digester and the digester is feeding the crops,” he said, adding that being able to help industrial partners be more environmentally sound was a bonus. “We have a closed loop system here in Eastern Iowa that’s pretty cool.”

Now Amana is looking to pull the loop even tighter by launching its own meat production operation out of the former Happle Pie building in Homestead, bundling and marketing the beef the community raises itself.

“From the time that the calf is born to the time the consumer gets it in their hands, we’ll be able to kind of control that whole thing,” explained Amana Society President and CEO Greg Luerkens. “The idea is making this whole process sustainable and local.”

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of food safety, Mr. Luerkens said, while the recent cyberattack on JBS USA underscored the frailty of America’s food supply chain.

“Our hope is that we get better pricing on the processing side, a better amount of money for our cattle, and then going direct to consumer, we should very easily be able to compete with grocery stores,” he said. “This will solidify our cattle business and diversify Amana Farms.”