Thursday, October 27, 2011

Buffalo Dung Keeps the Lights On

You're looking at a herd of 200 water buffalo on a remarkable property in the hills north of Venice. The best vineyards for sparkling wine are just up the road, at Conegliano, in the region known as Prosecco DOCG. The Collalto family have 215 hectares of vines (over 500 acres) planted mostly to the prolific Glera grapes, part of a much larger diversified operation known as Borgoluce, and open to the public as a "didactic" or educational farm.

More about the farm and the family in future posts. First, though, let's look at the buffalo. Like all female bovines, buffalos give milk. A particularly desirable milk, for its rich flavors and high fat content, yet these curious, friendly beasts are not particularly generous. Compared with a standard dairy cow that gives some 9 gallons of milk a day, you're lucky to get the stingy water buffalo to produce a quarter of that. But what milk! And what cheese you can wring from that milk, the world-famous mozzarella di bufala. A ball of fresh cheese sells for the equivalent of $9 a pound at the farmhouse shop, twice that in stores. In the US, restaurants and cheesemongers have shipments flown in directly from Italy and charge a small fortune. The official DOP Mozzarella di Bufala zone is actually in Campania, the region of Naples, but there have long been herds of cheese-producing buffalo in the north as well, here in the rolling hills of the Veneto.

The animals are fed grain and hay grown on the property, which, in addition to vines, includes woods, pasture, row crops, a pig farm, walnut trees, and a variety of grains, and several buildings with bedrooms for paying guests. (There's a fabulous castle as well, San Salvatore, in the village of Susgana.) It's a vast property, almost 4,000 acres altogether.

Each thousand-pound animal, having contentedly munched all day, does what animals do: poop. Bovines generally poop about ten percent of their body weight every day, which means there's a lot of buffalo crap for the farm to deal with. A ton or so every day, in fact.

The waste is scraped into enormous tanks, mixed with silage from nearby fields (like corn husks) and pumped into giant cone-shaped digesters. The sludge produces methane gas, which in turn is converted (by an Austrian co-generating machine that runs 24 hours a day) into electricity. A full megawatt every day. The farm only needs five percent of that megawatt to run every piece of equipment on the farm, so it sells the surplus to the government-run electric utility. It's enough surplus power to supply 250 homes.

Under a European Union mandate to produce more energy from renewable sources the utility pays Collalta twice the going rate of 14 cents per kilowatt hour. It's not a boondoggle; Collalta's managers figure they spend 18 to 20 cents to produce one KWH. Even so, they're still making a nice profit by doing the right thing. That is, the buffalo are doing the right thing, the only thing they can do. And we get to turn the lights on.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad.

Location:Conegliano, Italy

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