by Betty Adams, staff writer
LITCHFIELD — Nothing interferes with the milking of cows.
Not a news conference, not the presence of a congressman, not even other farmers.
The noise from the milking equipment, the unmistakable tang of manure sweetened with a cover of fresh wood chips and the rumble of earthmoving equipment from a field near the barns left no doubt that Weston Acres on Stevenstown Road was a working farm.
After the 52 Holsteins were milked, about three dozen people learned recently how farmers Lance Gatcomb and Ann Weston slashed their energy costs with the help of solar tubes, a more efficient hot water heater and a vacuum pump.
Their farm is a demonstration project for groups promoting energy efficiency, including the Kennebec County Soil & Water Conservation District, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Risk Management Agency, and Efficiency Maine.
The numbers leave no doubt about the improvement: the farmers will save more than 13,081 kilowatts a year, which translates to almost $2,100, according to chart assembled by Farm Energy Partners, which helped assemble the team.
Weston and Gatcomb said they had to find ways to cut operating costs in order to remain in business.
“The biggest cost is feeding the cows,” Gatcomb said. “We couldn’t cut back on that.”>/p>
They agreed to an energy audit, which was completed in February 2008. The three biggest, greediest electricity consumers were a 40-year-old electric hot-water heater, a 5-horsepower vacuum pump and a condensing unit that cools the milk.
“We were absolutely shocked with the results, so much energy was going to heat the water and milk the cows,” he said, standing in the dirt driveway between the red and white barns and house.
The Westons got a new, energy efficient water heater and a 7.5-hp variable speed vacuum pump by January 2008. The farmers would save a little over $1,360 per year.
Then Farm Energy Partners, a network of Maine Rural Partners, decided Weston Acres would be the solar thermal demonstration unit.
John Tyler, from Augusta Fuel Co., explained how three panels of evacuated tubes attract heat from the sun that helps heat water to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature required to sanitize the milking equipment.
He put in the first panel, he said, and guided Gatcomb and the others with the installation of the remaining ones in late August.
This solar thermal system will save the farmers an additional $730 a year.
“We’re so enthused about the program and trying to reduce our carbon footprint,” Gatcomb said.
After recognition of other farmers and small business owners who participate in energy efficiency programs, and hearing from U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, about the need to increase energy efficiency, the crowd donned knee-high clear plastic booties.
Then they traipsed through the barn where the cows are milked, and Gatcomb showed off the new equipment.
“Our hot water costs went from $150 a month to $25 a month,” Gatcomb said. “It made a believer out of me.”>/p>