Despite the recent hiatus in anaerobic digestion (AD) expansion caused by delays at Government level, one enterprising farmer has bucked the trend. Olivia Midgley reports...
Farmer Rob Greenow has expanded his business in just two years to include five AD plants, all while running his five hectare (162-acre) farm.
Mr Greenow, based on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, started his career in AD after studying agricultural business management at Reading University, where his passion for the technology began.
“After graduation, I sought a position in the AD industry as I saw it as an exciting opportunity with great potential. Two years later I set up my own AD consultancy firm, BioG UK,” says the 30-year-old.
“As well as supporting existing plant owners, my ambition was always to own an AD plant, and in 2016 this became a reality. We bought our arable farm around the same time, so it was a very busy year for us.”
Since building the initial plant, Mr Greenow has developed the scope of his business to provide AD development and operating services alongside the consultancy.
“After building my first plant, Agrogen, I noticed a gap in the market, just as the industry began to slow down.
“Shortly after completing it, I got the opportunity to develop another and buy an existing project. We had to move quickly to secure the deals, but my existing relationship with specialist AD funder Privilege Finance made this simple.
“Their approach to financing a ‘special purpose vehicle’, in place of physical assets meant I did not have to give up land as security, allowing me to quickly expand my business. This was a big benefit for me, as having only recently secured my own farmland I was reluctant to use it as security.”
Mr Greenow’s business is now booming, with two new plants in construction in Scunthorpe and the Thames Valley, plus a major revamp of the seven-year-old food waste plant.
He adds: “It was a natural progression for me to move to a more national scale. The new plants have great green credentials as they are both using a large quantity of industrial and kitchen food waste.”
The expansion of the business has also allowed him to increase his workforce, and he now has a team of 15 staff working across the AD business.
Timeline of expansion
July 2012 – BioGUK was launched
Spring 2016 – Completed the purchase of 162-acre farm
Spring 2016 – Planning was passed for the first AD plant, Agrogen
Mid 2017 - First AD plant, 250kW Agrogen, was operational
Late 2017 – Second AD plant, 800kW Abertanat was completed
Dec 2017 – Completed the purchase of the 1.4MW Lower Reule, an AD plant and food-depackaging site
Early 2018 – Construction started in Scunthorpe
Mid 2018 – Complete the acquisition of a half-built plant in the Thames Valley
“Without my team, I would not have been able to expand the businesses as quickly as I have.
“Their expertise in compliance, maintenance, depackaging and optimisation have been essential in pushing our projects forward.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, the young farmer is now exploring the option of variable rate digestate spreading.
“I started my contracting businesses to generate extra cash, while also making the most out of the machinery we needed on-farm,” he says.
“We have focused predominately on slurry spreading and silage harvesting and we are now able to offer our own digestate spreading, which is a great way of making the most of AD.
“We are investing in an umbilical cord system and specialist tanker with dribble bar, which will provide the most efficient application of digestate, while also reducing compaction.
“We have seen some great results from digestate spreading on-farm and have been able to reduce our own use of artificial fertiliser by 80 per cent.
“We have more than 90,000cu.m of digestate to spread in-house and, with another 60,000cu.m on the books for 2019, we can quickly justify our own equipment.”
The next step is to offer variable rate spreading linked to NIR sensors which measure the nutrient content of the digestate and spread it in the same way as artificial fertiliser.
“This is a niche market, but the benefits of variable rate spreading on crop production is undeniable and I have been supported by my local dealer Rob Clarke at Rea Valley Tractors,” adds Mr Greenow.
“My business philosophy has always been to be as efficient as possible in whatever I turn my hand to, and variable rate spreading is the next step. Although it comes with a significant start-up cost, with the volumes of digestate we have going forward, we can justify it.”
In addition to investing in new technology for his contracting business, he has no plans to slow down the expansion of the farm business.
He adds: “We have expanded the AD business quite rapidly over the past two years and I would now like to buy more land to expand our farm and livery yard.
“Farming will always be a big part of my business. We have a great source of fertiliser in the form of digestate we can use, which should help us keep production costs down in the current uncertain market.”
Mr Greenow also has big aspirations for the AD side of the business.
“My long-term goal is to own 10 AD plants, which all operate as sustainable, profitable, stand-alone businesses,” he adds.
“My business is testimony to the fact AD can be a sustainable and profitable diversification when farmers consider the plant as a business in itself, ensuring efficient production, rather than a way of generating additional income through subsidies.
“The UK agricultural industry is facing an uncertain period over the future of subsidies and I truly believe an AD diversification can provide a steady income for many, providing they spend the time to understand the technology and ensure the plant is running as efficiently as possible.”