BIO IMPACT: Auburn company urges Vashon’s farming community to change practices

Island farmers, entrepreneurs and residents spent a few hours at Matsuda Farm and Island Spring Organics this past Monday learning how they could improve their crops or business practices through new environmental sustainability efforts.

Those efforts are thanks to Impact Bioenergy, an Auburn-based company that manufactures modular systems to convert food waste into plant food and low-carbon energy. Last year, it installed an anaerobic digester at Island Spring Organics’ tofu factory and started conducting crop trials at Matsuda Farm. While the factory has been using Impact Bioenergy’s anaerobic digester to take food waste and convert it into bio-fertilizer, Matsuda Farm has used that fertilizer on its fields.

“We really are excited to tag team this event because it is a lot more than just our company — it really is about the community on Vashon and the close-knit community you all have and the food economy that you have,” Srirup Kumar, community engagement officer for Impact Bioenergy, told event attendees in a greenhouse at Matsuda Farm.

Billed as “part educational workshop, part marketplace launch and part community forum,” Impact Bioenergy hoped to entice island farmers and businesses to purchase the digester’s products and services — the organic renewable natural gas and the organic bio-fertilizer.

Kumar said in an interview the event was perfectly timed almost a year out from Impact Bioenergy unveiling the anaerobic digester.

“Now that we’re installed and up and running, it’s time to really co-op the project and see how we can provide ecosystem services to the farmers on island,” Kumar said.

Kumar noted that both the that digester and the farm trials are the first “community-scale system” that Impact Bioenergy has ever launched.

“We’re inviting folks out from all walks to say, ‘Does this add value to your business? How can we reduce your costs and provide more value and at the same time, be more resilient together?’” Kumar said. “Any location can act like an island in terms of self-sufficiency — depending on themselves, growing their own food, producing their own energy, instead of constantly having trucks come in and out of their area.”

He added, “Let’s make this paradigm shift together and show how Vashon Island can be a leader and a model for others to act like an island.”

Digester production and test trials

Luke Lukoskie, Island Spring Organic’s owner, who could not attend the open house on Monday, said in a recent interview with The Beachcomber he is happy that his company started using the digester.

“I have always believed that there was money in the garbage — and now, the proof of concept exists,” he said. “My 45-year dream is coming true.”

Paco Joyce, an employee with Impact Bioenergy who works on island with the anaerobic digester, told The Beachcomber it’s been a “fun project” and well worth it getting the community involved.

“I think it’s going to fulfill a real unique niche here on the island, dealing with our organic waste and generating local fuel and plant food,” he said.

Tofu is made from soybeans, he explained, and after its processed, it’s left with okara — solid waste — and whey — which is liquid waste. Impact Bioenergy is taking both of those and using the whey to make it “a pumpable slurry.”

“We’re calling it ‘Organic Renewable Natural Gas — ORNG,” Joyce said.

Erika Carleton, development director for the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, which owns Matsuda Farm, bought the property years ago with the intent to lease it. But then farm officials realized that leasing the farm would put control of the property in the hands of a farmer. So the farm decided to manage it and hire someone specifically to do that.

“So that we could do these things that we thought of as public benefits,” Carleton said. “We weren’t sure entirely what all of those would be, but it didn’t take long for the community to start coming and bringing ideas to us. … Impact Bioenergy came around and said, ‘we’re looking for a place to do these trials’ — great.”

Carleton wrote in an email to the newspaper that the farm is “looking forward” to testing the above-ground biomass and soil nutrient levels in the test crops, in which red clover is the test subject. After those cover crops are tested, they will be transitioned to a food crop — kale.

Hopefully, Carleton said, “the tests will show that liquid plant food from the digester at Island Spring Organics works to grow more robust crops while enhancing soil health.”

She added, “We are providing much needed space for the trials while Impact Bioenergy staff focus their brains and technology on the exciting work of building a circular economy on Vashon that turns food waste into energy, in the form of compressed natural gas, and liquid plant food. It’s our privilege to be part of it!”

Andrew Corbin, a lead scientist/agronomist for Impact Bioenergy, said Matsuda Farm is an ideal place for trials because of its location to the digester and its property is supported by the Land Trust, which allows Impact Bioenergy to do things it would not be able to do on a commercial farm.

“We are trying to prove that addition of digestate to soil will improve soil quality,” he said. “Soil quality improvement is necessary to have productive systems, resilient systems and sustainable systems.

Island reaction

The Beachcomber heard directly from a few of the event’s attendees about why they came to Monday’s event and the difference Impact Bioenergy’s solutions are having on them.

Lisa Hasselman, board president of Vashon Island Growers Association and owner of Forest Garden Farm, told attendees she is a relatively new farmer on the island — about five years worth of experience. But Hasselman was not the only farmer attending, she noted.

“It’s just great that we’re all here,” she said. “There’s a lot of depth, here and knowledge, and a lot of diversity in things that people are trying in order to be more environmentally sustainable. I’m just really appreciative of Impact Bioenergy bringing this idea to our island and building it and for the Land Trust for having a place to try it out.”

Right now, Forest Garden Farm uses a backpack sprayer to dispense a liquid fertilizer. Hasselman said she could trial the fertilizer on her farm.

Collaborations like this with Impact Bioenergy and other farmers comes from “sitting down, talking to each other and figuring out different ways we might work together so we can close these circles,” she said.

Hasselman was referring to the cycle that food waste goes through before becoming a material that is reusable. Impact Bioenergy had titled Monday’s open house “Closing the Loop.”

Jasper Forrester, a farmer with island-based Green Man Farm, told The Beachcomber she is the accountant for VIGA. Kumar actually came to her farm last year, so she knew about the digester and crop trials before most of the attendees did.

“I was really looking forward to, okay, what are their next steps, what are they doing here on the ground,” Forrester said. “So this is a really great follow up.”

She said a lot of growers, including her, have tried to find ways to utilize crop residue.

“Imagine you grow a whole crop of corn — the only part that gets used are the corn kernels; everything else is waste,” Forrester said. “In order to really utilize it, you need to chop it up or something before you compost it.”

But using a digester like the one at Island Spring Organics is an alternative, easier way to take crop waste and put back into the soil to grow more crops.

“Partly, it’s finding ways to utilize the extra crop waste, but It’s also about closing the circle,” Forrester said. “I’d like to be able to utilize what we grow here on Vashon to turn into soil fertility so we can continue to grow.”

Islander Joe Yarkin was another resident who attended Monday’s open house. He and his wife operate Sun Island Farm on Maury Island, growing fruits and vegetables on a small commercial scale. The farm also has solar panels.

“I’m impressed with the work of Impact bio energy and look forward to testing their product on some field crops this summer,” Joe Yarkin wrote in an email to The Beachcomber after the event.

He is also thinking about making a small-scale methane digester on his farm.

“If this project works out then I hope it can expand to cover all the island’s biological waste,” Yarkin wrote.

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