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Agroecological Symbiosis in Palopuro

  • Published on November 10, 2017
The agroecological symbiosis (later “AES”) in Palopuro (Hyvinkää, Finland) is a model for a multi-enterprise community producing local organic food while recycling nutrients and being a net energy producer. Palopuro is a pioneering model of symbiotic cooperation between different producers (cereal farm, henhouse, vegetable farm), food processing (bakery) and a biogas plant generating both fuel and fertiliser. A farm market and other events build on the communality of the cooperation model.
Palopuro AES is a pilot model for sustainable food and energy production, answering the globally accelerating demand for sustainable nutrition and energy. It is a producer and processor community aiming for energy and nutrient self-sufficiency. Each partner of the AES gains benefits they would not achieve alone. It creates and maintains environmentally friendly but economically feasible production, using local solutions to tackle global challenges, in particular population growth and climate change. Closing the biomass and nutrient cycles makes the production sustainable, while organic farming prevents pesticide residues from accumulating. Future goals are to create interest in replicating the AES, and to support continued rural vitality, communal connectivity and social capital. Conventional farming interrupts natural nutrient cycles, which leads to resource degradation and nutrient depletion of arable land, while causing eutrophication and pollution elsewhere, e.g., in surface waters. AES’s represent one solution to restructuring the food system and solving problems that the currently prevailing linear resource flow and globalisation of markets have caused. One central goal is to enhance the nutrient use efficiency of farms without cattle. This integrated food system is based on the concepts of industrial ecology (= energy and material flows resemble natural ecosystem cycles) and industrial symbiosis (= industrial partners are located close to each other and mutually benefit from each other), applied to food production, processing and consumption. The AES reconnects farmers and customers, integrating food production back into the local community. It enhances transparency of food production, as consumers will be able to see the whole production chain. The AES also boosts job opportunities in rural areas, in particular linked to energy production and food processing. Research investigates changes from cultural, social, political, ecological and spatial points of view. The material and energy flows of the AES are quantified: produced, used and sold products, biomasses and energy, plus any flows from outside the AES. Research also covers studying the interests of villagers, customers, visitors, and participants; social acceptance and support from the wider community; issues such as funding, legislation, certification and administration; product demand; business and industry partners with shared interest; distribution channels and many more. The centre of the AES is the Knehtilä organic cereal farm, winner of the 2015 WWF Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award. Knehtilä farm (385 ha of fields) combined their ideology and business by collaborating with other local organic producers (5500 hen Mäntymäki henhouse, 3 ha Lehtokumpu vegetable farm) and processors (Samsara organic bakery). A biogas company has been created to bring together the abovementioned parties, an energy company (Nivos) and a technology provider (Metener). The AES model was developed during 2015-2017, in a project funded by the Ministry of Environment’s nutrient recycling programme (RAKI), led by the University of Helsinki and supported by LUKE Natural Resources Institute Finland, the farms and the bakery. The AES utilises and recycles local resources. Organic farming uses green manure fallows for fertilisation and soil conditioning. Leguminous plants bind nitrogen from the atmosphere. In stockless farming the biomass is not needed as fodder and is normally worked into the soil. In the AES, the biomass, together with hen and horse manure, is fed into the biogas plant, which will be in use for the growth season 2018. Knehtilä and Lehtokumpu farms can use the digestate as organic fertiliser and soil conditioner. Samsara bakery plans to invest in local facilities, which would use flour from Knehtilä. The henhouse can utilise losses from milling (and in the future from baking) as feed. Biogas will be used to dry and mill grain, run farm machinery and vehicles, and for the bakery’s ovens. More than half of the gas is to be sold as fuel for passenger cars. Hence, the AES is more than energy self-sufficient, it is a net producer of renewable energy. The selected biogas technology is dry anaerobic digestion that runs in batches (3-4 batches/year). Establishing a new biogas company together with Nivos was a financially feasible solution to build a plant. This was a way to access starting capital and multiply the possibilities to sell biogas as car fuel. Interaction between producers and customers is enhanced via direct sales by all three farms (and Samsara in the future). Additionally, products from other producers and handcrafts are sold at Knehtilä’s farm shop and on market days. The market days have become a central part of the village’s social life bringing together producers, the village association, local hunters, artisans and customers. Also Icelandic horses, restaurant Salonkiravintola Neilikka and a hostel enliven the village. Success Indicators Over 10 000 people visit the farms, market days and other events annually. This is significant in comparison to the 600 inhabitants of Palopuro village, and visitor numbers are increasing. Novelty The Palopuro AES is worldwide the first known full application of industrial symbiosis to farming & food production. Neither food processing at farms nor farm-scale biogas production are new ideas. The novelty of AES is in combining both concepts with several farms, creating a mutually beneficial, locally integrated, agro-food industrial complex that minimises waste and emissions, relies on renewable energy, maintains fertility of the soils and recycles nutrients. An energy company participating in biogas production from only agricultural biomasses is new in Finland. Decentralised production of biogas car fuel also remains rare. The biogas plant pioneers in utilising the selected technology and being based on such a collaboration. Sustainability Impacts In green manuring, nutrients may either leach during winter or not be available to next season’s crop at right times. The digestate can be used as fertiliser more precisely: in right amounts, at the right time, where needed. This reduces leaching of nutrients and tackles lack of available nitrogen in spring. Fermentation destroys seeds of unwanted plants, helping organic farming to keep weeds away. Biogas production also helps to utilise the not-easily-usable chicken and horse manure. The amount of horse manure fed into the biogas plant is not large, but significant to the stable owner. Wider cultivation of nitrogen fixing fallows in crop rotation increases soil quality (structure and organic matter), and increases diversity in cultivated species, farmland wildlife (including beneficials such as pollinators), and habitats at landscape level. Gross energy production of Palopuro AES is ~2500 MWh/a, of which roughly half will be used locally, and ~1500 MWh/a can be sold as car fuel (corresponding annually to the consumption of 120 cars, each driving 20 000 km/a). Utilising biogas instead of fossil energy (at Palopuro and as car fuel) replaces 770 t CO2-equivalent/a of fossil carbon emissions. Net energy production is ~1300 MWh/a, whereas ~600 MWh/a is bought from outside. Cost-effectiveness The AES is profitable to its members. Organic crop farms can significantly increase yields through improved fertilization. The AES boosts job opportunities in rural areas (energy production, food processing. The AES members continue developing the AES from concept towards actual implementation. The biogas plant is being built and starts operating in 2018. The AES members will set up a real estate company to build the facilities for the bakery. There are options to introduce more horticultural production, such as strawberry farming. Challenges and further development Further co-development and research is needed. Research on AES continues, with a new project focusing on building AES networks for localised, sustainable food procurement at regional level. Regional ecological potential, social sustainability, regional economy and local biogas use will be assessed. Municipal food services participate as public stakeholders. SME sized food processors’ interest and potential to join in the AESs is mapped. Business models may need further consideration, e.g., a real estate company owning the bakery building makes it easier to change ownership. As a bakery is seen as industry, not agricultural activity, it causes dilemmas when applying for financial support and building permits, among other bureaucracy. The costs of use and maintenance, the actual output and long-term feasibility of the biogas plant are still unknown. A similar plant at another location could utilise e.g. gardening waste or industrial side streams. The best way to utilise the produced biogas depends on the surroundings and circumstances. If there would be, e.g., an industrial facility with a large need for electricity and warmth, combined heat and power production might be feasible. In this case, utilisation as car fuel could be the most feasible use purpose. As biogas plant investments are not possible for farmers acting alone, a crucial challenge is to get energy companies and similar larger parties to invest. The bakery’s logistics costs might need to be shared with other processors in order for the bakery to be profitable. Generally, an active local spirit and engagement is needed for an AES to form and exist. The digestate of a biogas plant has to be applied to fields in a specific way and has to be covered when stored, which also needs some investments. Ecological impacts (including reduction in GHG emissions and nutrient load to waters, increase in soil carbon storage and biodiversity) deserve further assessment and monitoring. Contact persons: Kari Koppelmäki, vegetable farmer & PhD at University of Helsinki, Markus Eerola, Knehtilä farm,
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