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U.S. Ag secretary, other officials, tour Crave Brothers Farm

By Gloria Hafemeister for the Daily Times staff | Watertown Daily

United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, center, visits with Karl Crave, left, and Mark Crave during a gathering of state and federal officials at the Crave Brothers Farm in Waterloo Friday. (Gloria Hafemeister/Daily Times)

WATERLOO - The Crave Brothers Farm at Waterloo has a long-time reputation for embracing technology, providing numerous jobs in the community and using green energy sources to power and heat the farm and cheese factory.

United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, came to the Crave's farm on Friday to see the innovative farm first-hand and ask questions of the four brothers who run the farm about ways they believe the United States Department of Agriculture can help encourage others to adopt some of these green technologies.

Vilsack said the visit was a part of the USDA's effort to promote a sustainable, safe, sufficient and nutritious food supply, and ensure that America revitalizes rural communities by expanding economic opportunities.

Vilsack and Sutley were invited to Wisconsin and the Crave Brothers Farm by Gov. Jim Doyle, who praised the Crave family for their innovative ideas and urged the USDA officials to take a look at what can be done on farms.

The visit began with a round-table discussion between the USDA, state officials, Sutley, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the Crave Brothers and others in order to determine opportunities for rural America to embrace science and create clean energy jobs. Other goals that were discussed included achieving energy independence, mitigating climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy.

Vilsack quizzed the Crave Brothers about their experiences and challenges as they grew from a 43-cow rented farm to their current 1,800-acre, 1,100-cow dairy that also includes an on-farm cheese factory and two anaerobic manure digesters.

George Crave said producing quality food, renewable energy and being a good employer is something they don't take lightly. His brother, Charles, added, “We take our responsibilities seriously.”

Regarding the digesters, Tom Crave pointed out, “We get what's left over. Forty percent of the phosphorus in the manure is in the solids. The liquid that's left for us to apply as a fertilizer makes it easier for us to manage our nutrient management plan.”

On the tour that followed Karl Crave and Dan Nemke, representatives of Clear Horizons, the company that owns and manages the digesters, explained that part of the separated solids is used for bedding on the Crave farm where it eventually makes its way back into the digester with the manure. The remainder of the solids is marketed as a brand name EnerGro potting soil mix. By removing those solids from the farm, the Craves can apply more of the remaining liquid portion to their fields as fertilizer without fear of having excess nutrients that lead to environmental problems.

Nemke says the technology is changing rapidly and the systems are improving all the time. He also said his company has learned a lot from their work with the digesters on the Crave farm and that will lead to improved technology in the future. He is hopeful an economical system will evolve to efficiently serve smaller farms as well.

“I believe we are at the cusp of a new rural economy,” Vilsack said. “We are looking for a way USDA can partner to create these resource management types of opportunities for more farmers.”

When asked about financing their projects, the Craves said they had the support of their lending institution for the expansion projects and cheese factory because they had a good track record and came in with a sound business plan. They worked with Clear Horizons on the digester project because that company retains ownership and management of the system, allowing the Craves to concentrate their resources on other aspects of the farm.

The Crave Brothers have made what Charles describes as “a huge investment in ways to capture the resources we already have on the farm.”

They are getting the maximum value from their milk by turning it into a high-quality cheese and capturing energy from the manure before it goes to the field as a fertilizer. They are also making use of the whey by-product of the cheese plant as a nutrient in their feed.

“You need to have a profitable business in the first place before getting into these value-added ventures,” Mark Crave said of the ventures. “These are not things you do to generate income to save the farm.”

In response to Vilsack's questions about challenges or barriers, George credited Wisconsin's dairy infrastructure for providing the expertise in areas where they were not familiar. He said the brothers understand the business from a production aspect, but marketing is important. They got help in those areas from the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Department of Agriculture.

At the conclusion of the visit Vilsack commented, “Hopefully by highlighting operations like this one we can get other successful farms to think about the opportunities there are.”

He said the visit illustrated the importance of financial backing and technical backing from universities and organizations and promised he will work on ways the USDA can assist.

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