With missionary zeal, Kevin Mass and his brother Daryl build modest electricity-producing projects that help family-owned dairy farms preserve their key role in the agricultural ecosystem.
Their company, Farm Power, turns manure into electricity, fertilizer and bacteria-free animal bedding in Mount Vernon and Lynden. Another plant is slated to break ground this summer in Enumclaw, Wash., and two are planned in Tillamook, Ore.
The technology is fairly simple. What’s hard about a manure digester is linking farmers, bankers, regulators, environmentalists and utilities.
“An urban liberal would get laughed off the farm” for trying to convince risk-averse dairymen they can save money while benefiting the environment, said the lanky, bearded 35-year-old.
But with rural roots, as well as an MBA, Maas seems uniquely suited to the task.
“Whether anyone else could have carried this off I don’t know,” said Don Wick, executive director of the Skagit County Economic Development Association in Mount Vernon. “I had to admire their tenacity and boldness. They really believed in this.”
Maas’ fervent push for digesters grew from seeing family dairies slowly disappearing, despite their central place in the farm economy as sources of year-round jobs, natural local fertilizer and, of course, milk. His uncle in Minnesota recently gave up on dairy farming.
“It’s tragic,” Maas said.
He himself has never milked a cow, though he raised a calf as a 4-H project. Still, growing up in Mount Vernon, both he and his younger brother worked summers for nearby farmers who grew everything from tulips and blueberries to spinach and hay. Their parents came from farm families, as did many friends at Mount Vernon Christian School.
“There were a lot more farms and a lot more cows” in Skagit County back then, Maas said. “At that point everybody milked 30, 40, 50 cows. … Now you can’t make a middle-class income with that.”
Even dairies with several hundred cows are being squeezed by urban sprawl, environmental regulations and spiking feed costs. Adding electricity to the mix of farm products can help them survive, Maas said.
Yet Washington, with nearly 500 dairy farms, has only five digesters.
Maas was teaching high-school history in southwest Minnesota when he saw farmers setting up wind turbines on their land to generate electricity and supplement their income.
“It was really exciting to see these $2 million projects going in, and local guys owned them,” Maas said.
He and his brother tried to get a wind project going on their uncle’s farm but lacked the financial savvy, Maas said.
So he enrolled at Bainbridge Graduate Institute on Bainbridge Island, which calls itself the first MBA program in sustainable business.
Farm Power’s business plan was his final project at the school. Daryl, after finishing a tour in the Air Force, joined him in 2007 to form Farm Power. That first digester wasn’t easy. “It took us two and a half years from when we started the company to when we made the first kilowatt-hour,” said Maas, who is Farm Power’s president.