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Innovative farmers as solution to society’s “wicked problems”: The Vander Haak Dairy

Posted by Chad Kruger | June 27, 2013

About once a year I accept a request to present on the topic of the future of agriculture and food. Usually, when I’m asked to do this, I know that the audience I’m presenting to is hoping for something inspiring – which, if you’ve seen me present, you know is something of an oxy-moron. I have a (somewhat earned) reputation for “doom and gloom” due to the fact that much of the science I work on focuses on the “wicked problems” facing the future of agriculture (e.g. climate change, energy privation, water resources, etc.) which can be daunting. And while I love the scientific pursuit of solutions to these challenges, there are definitely times that it can be overwhelming.

So, when I look for inspiration in my own day to day efforts, I generally think about the innovative farmers I am blessed to work with. I firmly believe that they hold our future in their hands.

A decade ago a colleague and I sat in an office with Lynden, Washington dairy farmer Darryl Vander Haak discussing the risks and opportunities of anaerobic digestion technology. We wanted the Vander Haak’s to take the plunge and build the first dairy digester in the state so that we would have a commercial project to use as a test-bed for research, development and demonstration. At the time, digesters were an expensive and less-than-guaranteed technology (they still are) and being the first was a huge financial gamble with a lot of downside if things went wrong. We knew it and he knew it – and so did every other dairy farmer in the region. And yet, as an innovator and visionary for the future of agriculture, Darryl and his family dairy took the plunge — installing the first dairy digester in Washington in 2004.

Not only did the Vander Haak family take on a lot of risk and management challenges with this decision, but they committed themselves to a long-term, uncertain partnership by granting access to their facilities and record books to research scientists that didn’t necessarily always have similar visions and goals. And yet, this decade long partnership has been proven invaluable to our mutual learning, development and integration of this technology platform into the dairy of the future.

And the Vander Haak’s risk-taking didn’t end with that first investment — they’ve continued to sign on for version 1.0 of each additional hair-brained research idea or new technological innovation in the hope that we’ll make incremental progress that enables them to solve the next sustainability challenge on their list (often telling us before-hand when an idea won’t work).

Furthermore, I think it’s important for the broader community to note that the Vander Haak’s are not only risk-takers, they are extremely altruistic as well. They never get the “final product” that works perfectly or most cost-effectively on their own dairy – because version 2.0 (or 5.0) results from what we learn working with them – and the new and improved version goes to the next dairy. The Vander Haak’s have clearly influenced the vision we have developed for the future of dairy anaerobic digestion systems. But this is how innovation works and the only way that we will be able to successful address the wicked problems that we’re facing. Like many other innovative farmers, the Vander Haaks are the vanguard of a sustainable agriculture and food future.

On July 10th, we will be featuring the Vander Haak Dairy Digester as the core of a field day on the evolution of Digester System Technology. If you are interested in being a first-hand witness to progress in improving the sustainability of agriculture, take the day and come on out. I’d love to see you there.


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