If you want to understand the local impact of climate change, ask a farmer.
“We are now preparing for when it does not rain for six months,” says Rich Clothier; “We want to be self-sufficient for water as well as energy.”
Rich, who, alongside his brother Tom, farms about 1,500 acres in the beautiful (and beautifully named) Wkye Champflower, just West of Bruton, is no ‘alternative’ smallholder. Their family can trace their Somerset farming and cheesemaking roots back through the generations to at least 1861.
“We are unashamedly well mechanised,” continues Rich Clothier. Mechanisation is simply about repeatable quality for Wyke Farms. Their farmhouse Cheddar is still matured in wooden boxes, with no accelerated ageing.
It works. Wyke Farms’ products are now distributed in national supermarkets as well as local chains and independent shops. 150 local dairy farms supply milk to make Cheddar, butter and yoghurt. Wyke Farms is a Somerset business success story – but the brothers have also become sustainable business visionaries along the way.
Like many, Rich & Tom’s journey started with cost cutting. They installed a few solar panels on the roofs of farm buildings to benefit from the Feed-in Tariff (FiT), as many local residents have done.
Their revelation came when they started to look at their farm the other way round. Why not make Somerset’s natural assets work for green energy?
Rich & Tom are not keen on installing solar panels on their productive fields. Like many families, they disagree on some things. One brother does not want wind farms built upon nearby hills – the other likes the look of the white sails, turning silently.
In 2013 they completed their most ambitious sustainable energy investment to date, with an Anaerobic Digester ‘Green Energy Centre’ biogas plant. It is this that I went to see at the start of the month, taking along Molly Scott Cato, our Green MEP for the South West.
This biogas is fed through big blue shipping contained sized molecular filter units to separate it from carbon dioxide, the other natural product of the digesters. We notice that there is no smell, despite the tons of pig and cow manure that these huge compost heaps feed upon.
In fact, the biogas is too pure to go into the gas grid as it is. Heavier molecules such ethane and propane are added to degrade its purity to match North Sea gas. Wyke Farms can then receive the biogas equivalent of the Feed-in Tariff.
Around the other side of the digesters, a gas turbine fit for a container ship generates electricity, as well as heat to accelerate the process. Another similar ‘combined heat and power’ plant up the hill supplies heat and power for cheese making.
Tom Clothier tells me that farms are ideally placed for similar local renewable power generation, because they already have the engineering capabilities onsite as well as their agricultural know-how.
“When this is running flat out, it supplies enough biogas to heat the whole Bruton,” states Tom proudly.
This biogas and electricity is produced entirely from farm waste such as manure and harvest by-products. No additional land is taken by crops grown to feed the digesters. In fact, the ‘digestate’ compost waste is spread back over the fields to enhance grass and milk yields.
Rich & Tom Clothier had the vision to realise that there is competitive advantage in sustainability. “Some farmers say that they cannot afford to do it,” concludes Rich, “we have proven that you cannot afford not to do it.”
“Our biggest worry is that the tariffs go with acres of south-facing roofs un-utilised.” And with agricultural waste capable of heating and powering many more thousands of homes across the region, an eighteen month wait for grid connection from energy suppliers certainly does not help.
There should be a network of similar Anaerobic Digesters around every town in Somerset. It is a waste not to.