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USEMCO President Pat Rezin, right, talks about manure digesters as state Rep. Mark Radcliffe, left, state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout and Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Rod Nilsestuen look on.

Wisconsin farmers have long known there’s money in manure, but extracting power was an option only for the biggest herds.

The state’s secretary of agriculture announced a $200,000 grant Friday to help a Tomah manufacturer develop a manure digester that could help small farms turn waste into electricity.

Though Wisconsin leads the nation in the agricultural use of anaerobic digesters, current technology — which requires on-site construction of concrete or steel structures — is best suited to farms with at least 1,000 animals.

USEMCO has developed a tank that makes it economical for farms with as few as 100 cows. The first model, which at peak production should generate enough electricity to power about 45 homes, will be tested on a 150-cow Chaseburg dairy.

Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Secretary Rod Nilsestuen said small-farm digesters could bolster the state’s manufacturing and agriculture industries while promoting clean energy.

If the test is successful, USEMCO president Pat Rezin expects the demand for digesters could mean 15 to 20 new jobs and an addition to his Tomah plant.

“There’s a lot more small farms in the state than bigger farms,” Rezin said.

Wisconsin has about 13,000 dairy farms, with the average having fewer than 100 cows, according to state records.

Rezin said the idea was hatched about four years ago when he sent his 401k team to a Western Technical College investment class taught by Dean Blegen, who had invested in an anaerobic digester company.

“We can make these,” his employees thought.

Farmer Wayne Peters said he got involved because he was curious and concerned about the energy supply.

“I’m always interested in stuff,” said Peters, 74. “We’re going to be short of power one of these days. We’re so close to being out of power, most people don’t realize it.”

USEMCO will own and operate the digester. Peters will have an option to buy it after the one-year test.

La Crosse-based Dairyland Power will purchase the electricity.

Dairyland, which plans to get a quarter of its energy from renewable sources within 15 years, already has five manure digesters online, though the smallest generates about five times the power of the new unit.

“Everything counts,” spokeswoman Katie Thomson said. “This is something Dairyland is excited about, since we have so many dairy farms in our footprint and many are smaller.”

In addition to generating renewable energy, a network of small farm digesters would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bad odors while also cutting down on solid waste that can end up in lakes and streams.

USEMCO’s funding was part of $3.5 million in competitive agriculture grants announced Thursday by Gov. Jim Doyle. Most of that money will go to support a $47.2 million expansion at a Foremost Farms plant in Appleton.

Nilsestuen said anaerobic digesters, which also run on food waste, will be key to developing home-grown energy while creating new revenue streams for family farms.

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