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Teaching innovation: A field trip to Laurelbrook Farm

On Friday, May 27, 20 Housatonic Valley Regional High School students emerged from a tan bus, gripping clipboards and questionnaires. By a brook that winds through the fields, dusted with pink and white flowers, farmer Bob Jacquier welcomed them to Laurelbrook Farm.

The event was organized and sponsored by Esurance, a Project Supporter for the Laurelbrook Farm Compost Project. After helping build the project, Esurance wanted to spread the word about reducing greenhouse gas emissions and agricultural runoff.

The students gathered in a circle on the grass, quiet and somewhat sleepy in the morning sun. Bob began with a quick introduction to the farm, explaining that the cows produce 9,000 gallons of milk per day, about 10 gallons per cow. Laurelbrook is one of a diminishing number of dairy farms in Connecticut. To survive in a state with extremely high land prices, the Jacquiers have had to be creative.

“We want to be here in 20 years,” he noted. “So we’re doing some innovative things.”

One of these innovative things is, of course, the Laurelbrook Farm Compost Project that NativeEnergy customers helped build. Beckoning to the white tents across the field, I explained that by separating and composting the cow’s manure, the farm avoids greenhouse gas pollution that would otherwise arise from manure storage.

“So, what does ‘anaerobic’ mean?” HVRHS teacher Mark Burdick asked the class. The students were silent. “Anyone? It means ‘without oxygen.’ Typically, manure is stored anaerobically, which creates methane, a greenhouse gas.”  

Bob added, “By removing the manure solids, we also reduce the need for field-spreading. If we didn’t have this equipment, we’d have to truck the manure to rented land, which would be very expensive.”

Then it was time to see the technology in action. The first stop was the barn, where rows of black and white Holstein cows followed us with their pink noses. Bob brought us upstairs to view the Integrity Ag Systems equipment that separates the manure solids. 

“You know,” Mark said to me as the students were entering the building, “I once taught Bob, and here I am teaching his sons.” Laurelbrook is truly a family farm—it’s been around for four generations!

Next, we headed to the white composting tents, settled beneath the hilly backdrop of the farm. Tucked inside the tents lay piles of deep brown, composted manure. According to Bob, this operation has been a big success. Without any advertising, the compost has sold out to gardeners and others in the local community, and the proceeds have become a new source of income for the farm. Better still, in addition to composting their manure, the Jacquiers are now accepting 1,000 pounds of daily food waste from local schools.

The students watched as the windrow turner—a large piece of equipment that aerates the manure—made its way along the rows of compost. It rounded the corner and stopped as one student familiar with the farm gestured toward it. “Okay if I ride?” he asked Mark, who nodded. As the student disappeared into the cab, the rest of us investigated the compost piles.

At the end of the visit, we were driven directly through the barn, where the cows greeted us with their wide ears and placid faces. Several, on their way to the milking parlor, stopped mid-step and watched the trailer. In a world where family farming is becoming more difficult, it’s inspiring to watch farmers like the Jacquiers innovate and benefit from sustainability. Rather than a hindrance, environmental initiatives can actually be profitable for farms.

Whether or not the students will remember the meaning of “anaerobic,” I’m sure they won’t forget the core message of the trip: waste not, want not.

In addition to sponsoring this field trip, Esurance will award $2,000 in scholarships to HVRHS students at an upcoming ceremony.

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