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Dairy Feature Friday: Technology Becomes a Platform to Discuss Dairy with Food Waste Customers

When Steve and Regina Reinford moved to Juniata County from Steve’s Montgomery County family farm, they had 57 cows, a tractor, plow and a TMR Mixer.

“Development pushed dad out of the Philadelphia area in 1991,” said his son Brett. “He bought a farm where he saw potential for growth

Fast-forward 27 years. Steve and his children continue to dairy (with a few more cows), embracing technology to diversify their business.

Powering Reinford Farms with Manure and Food Waste

By 1998, Steve grew his herd to 300 cows and built the first Westfalia carousel parlor east of the Mississippi River. He also hired his first herdsman, who continues with the business today.

As Steve’s three sons, Chad, Drew and Brett, showed interest in farming, herd expansion continued with additional facilities and employees. At the same time, Steve encouraged his sons to leave the farm and explore other professions. Each son did just that, and then brought their experiences back to the family farm.

Chad went on to Midwest wheat harvests, later becoming the farm’s crop manager. Drew worked locally, building and installing high-end cabinets in New York City, using his skills as the farm’s go-to mechanic and construction oversight. He also serves as the farm feed manager. Brett studied business in college, assuming office manager responsibilities focusing on employees, finance and food waste.

In 2006, Brett’s college class assignment inadvertently led the family to a significant technology investment.

A biology professor challenged Brett’s class to research how each student could be more sustainable. Brett decided to take the assignment one step further by exploring how the family farm could be more sustainable.

“I did a Google search and began reading articles about anaerobic digesters,” Brett remembered. Anaerobic digestion is a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material, such as manure and food waste, in the absence of oxygen. The process produces biogas, which is combusted to generate electricity and heat.

Brett liked the digester concept and decided to present it to his dad that Christmas break.  

For Steve, the digester’s odor management capabilities were compelling. “We had a few complaints about odor from neighbors,” said Brett. “and Dad thought this would be a great way to improve neighbor relations.

“Before we made the decision to move forward, we did a lot of homework,” Brett shared. “We went to Washington to see operating digesters; some worked and some did not,” he noted. “When it comes to technology, we prefer to wait and let other people work out the kinks.”

Two years later, after the planning, permitting and building process, the Reinfords’ digester, financed by grants and AgChoice, went online. Fueled by the manure of their 450 cows and food waste, the first digester provided electricity for the farm and 100 local homes. “We haven’t had an electricity bill since 2008,” recalled Brett.

In 2012, the Reinfords built a second digester at Chad’s farm, home to 600 heifers. Electricity powers that farm and 200 local homes.

Today, the family is beginning construction on a third digester that will be four times the size of the original digester. Spurred by a need to right size a digester to their 720-cow herd and growing food waste business, Brett anticipates this digester will go online later this year.

For the first 10 years of digester use, the Reinfords only accepted presorted food waste from retailers, distribution centers and food manufacturers. With the addition of a food depackager in 2017, one of only a handful on farms in the country, they now also accept packaged food. Canned food, frozen food, bagged produce and cheese, for example, are acceptable for the machine as it separates food from packaging.

As Reinford Farm’s food waste champion, Brett is the salesman. “We’re providing a service to food partners, and people want the best price,” he said. “The customer is king. I need to convince them of why they should do business with us.”

Brett’s off-farm business experience helps him manage customer communication. He also credits AgChoice’s AgBiz Masters program with helping him and his brother Chad understand farm finance.

“It was the best education course I’ve taken, in or out of college,” remembers Brett. “It was such a practical course because you apply the principles to your business. It opened my eyes to farm finance, and I encourage my friends to take it.”

Advice for Other Farmers

Steve and his sons agree that, before investing in technology enhancements, homework is critical. “We spend a lot of time researching,” explained Brett. “We trust but verify and visit other people using the technology.”

The family also reads farm publications. “We like to talk through articles, bouncing ideas off each other,” noted Brett. “Dad also encourages us to attend educational meetings. We learn a lot from talking to other farmers.”

In reflecting on their family relationships in the business, Brett thinks it works well because each family member has their own role. “We all have different gifts and interests, managing our own area of expertise,” he said.

“If you’re exploring technology, know your skill sets and identify a champion for the technology,” explained Brett. “My dad is the digester champion. If no one cared about it, the digester would be our biggest liability.”

While the Reinford family is in the food waste business, “we’re still dairy farmers,” said Brett. “It’s just given us a new platform to talk dairy.”

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