Dordt College News

Maas verde

January 23, 2012

Kevin Maas (’98) didn’t grow up on a farm, but he grew up with lots of kids who did.

As an adult, he’s come to understand how important small farms are to rural communities, and how important rural communities are to the whole country.

“We used to be surrounded by dairy farms,” he says of his childhood home in Mount Vernon, Washington. Many are no longer there, in part because a middle class family has trouble supporting itself on a small farm today. Increased operating costs are one big reason. So Kevin, along with his brother Daryl, set out to try to do something about it.

Today, they run Farm Power Northwest, a company that turns manure into electricity, fertilizer, and bacteria-free animal bedding. The company has two operating manure digesters that sell electricity to Puget Sound Energy, and three more are in development.

“The technology is relatively simple, and it’s not hard to find good digesters, but it takes a lot of work to connect farmers, bankers, regulators, environmentalists, and the utility company,” says Maas. After nearly five years, he’s beginning to settle into a more balanced life, but it took two and a half years of hard work before Farm Power made its first kilowatt hour of electricity. And it took several more to get to the point where he could pull back on the amount of time he had to give to the company.

Maas began Dordt College in 1994 as an engineering major; he left as a history major. He began his career as a teacher—first in Russia and then at Southwest Christian High School in Edgerton, Minnesota. He now runs a business in his home state of Washington. They’re all connected. While in Minnesota in 2001-2003, he saw farmers begin to put up windmills to help keep their energy costs down—and to sell energy so they could make enough money to stay in farming.  He became  interested in developing alternative energy systems to help farmers stay on their farms.

“It was really interesting to see these $2 million projects going up, and local people owning them,” Maas says. He and his brother tried to bring wind power to an uncle’s farm in Minnesota, but they didn’t have the financial knowhow to make it work at that point.

So Kevin enrolled at Bainbridge Graduate Institute in his home state of Washington to get an MBA in sustainable business.

Interestingly, it was the contrasting mix of rural dairy farmers he’d grown up with and environmentally conscious urban professionals that he’d connected with at Bainbridge that made Farm Power Northwest possible.

“The support of both groups made all the difference between success and failure,” says Maas. “They didn’t see the world in the same way politically, but they saw that using manure to create energy could be a good thing for everyone.”

It was an exciting culmination to months and years of thinking and planning by Maas. He knew that the amount of energy locked in manure is huge, and he believed that it could be harvested with a little cooperation and lots of hard work. He knew that the groups he had to work with usually don’t consider cooperating with each other. He also knew that even farmers who like the idea of manure digesters don’t have the time to deal with the web of regulations and permits needed to make it work—and they can’t afford the cost. Times have been difficult for dairy farmers.

In the end, he was able to help all parties see that such a project would have economic, environmental, social, and community benefits.

An article in the Seattle Times quotes the executive director of the Skagit County Economic Development Association in Mount Vernon as saying of the Maas brothers, “Whether anyone else could have carried this off, I don’t know. I had to admire their tenacity and boldness. They really believed in this.”

“We’ve been able to unlock value and return it to the farmers,” says Maas. Many of the farmers they began working with are people he went to elementary and high school with.  He hopes he can provide a little help so they can afford to stay on their farms and continue sending their children to the Christian schools they attended as children.

The Maas brothers contract with farmers to process manure in a digester that mimics a cow’s stomach, capturing the gas produced and burning it to create energy. The farmers not only get an odor-free way to deal with their manure; they get back pathogen-free fertilizer and solid fiber they can use for bedding. This saves them thousands of dollars. One greenhouse farmer who is hosting a digester on his land is also saving thousands of dollars in heating costs by routing hot water (a byproduct of burning the methane to create electricity) through his four acres of greenhouses.

The Farm Power digesters also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the amount of waste that goes to landfills. “For every cow’s manure we process, it’s like taking one car off the road,” says Maas. And as cities and homeowners increasingly compete for land, a contained process that reduces odor makes everyone happy.

Maas’s work is as much a passion as a job. He desperately wants to help his community and others like it to be able to hold on to both their heritage and their livelihood. He also is wholeheartedly committed to helping develop energy from sustainable sources.

“The rural agricultural Reformed community is vital to who I am,” he says, “but what we’re trying to do here is very different from how things have been done in the past. We had to believe that, in this instance, we were smarter than older and wiser people about what needed to be done—and then step up and do it.”

That conviction and the Maas brothers’ business plan birthed Farm Power.

“Our company is unique because it is designed to make projects happen,” says Maas. They don’t just offer to sell or install digesters or other equipment. They develop and run the whole project. That may be why they’ve been successful where others have failed.

“It’s a heavy and slow, high-risk and capital intensive process,” Maas says.  “There are lots of good digesters around, but the hardware is only one small piece of what needs to be done to extract energy from manure.”

He spends a great deal of time talking with farmers about the extent of the benefits they’ll realize. In fact, in a day when most people consider websites to be essential to grow a business, Maas almost proudly points to Farm Power’s website for its barebones delivery of information. They want the process to be face-to-face collaboration and interaction from start to finish.

Farm Power has been able to grow, in part, because of its location. The power company they work with pays twice what a company would pay in Minnesota where rates paid for alternative energy are kept low. That makes the difference between being able to operate or not.

And Northwest dairies are an ideal source of manure because the digester needs a daily source of manure, not a weekly or monthly dump from chickens or hogs.

The Maases also found “green banks” to work with in the Northwest, institutions that “understand the value of working with a regulated utility,” says Maas. This was crucial to the company, which depended on a mix of government construction grants (including federal stimulus dollars), loans, and individual investors to get it going. Kevin and Daryl have learned just how difficult it is to find money in a recession.

Maas doesn’t know what the future holds for farming, but for now he’s producing sustainable, unsubsidized power at very competitive rates, and he believes he is helping members of his community stay on their farms and continue to thrive—helping sustain the institutions that were so formative as he grew up.


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