Normally Mike Holmgren's huge 27,000 square foot turkey barn would be a white sea of noisy clucking and gobbling. But on this day, it's empty. Gone are the 50,000 young turkeys that were here a few days ago, sent off to another barn to grow larger before being shipped to a processing plant. Also gone is the bed of wood chips where they spent two months eating, scratching, sleeping and pooping.
There was 100 tons of it. Holmgren sells much of his turkey litter to the newly-constructed Fibrominn power plant 80 miles south of his central Minnesota farm.
"I talk with a trucker, we set up the time. He comes, we load it out, they're gone. I'm happy," Holmgren says.
Holmgren saved five tons of turkey litter to sell to a local farmer for fertilizer, but he was more than happy to get the rest off his property.
"We don't have to stockpile it, it's being turned into green energy. It's good for all of us," Holmgren says.
Turkey litter from hundreds of farms makes its way to a newly constructed $200 million dollar power plant just outside the western Minnesota town of Benson. The plant makes enough electricity to power 50,000 homes.
Inside a huge storage building the acrid smelling litter coughs up a dry fog of yellow dust as it's emptied from trucks. But there's no trace of that smell once the turkey litter is burned in the plant's 1,500 degree furnace and company officials say turkey manure is a cleaner-burning fuel source than coal and won't contribute to global warming.
Fibrominn's Greg Langmoe says in this case it's the fuel that's new, not the power making process
"We burn the material in a large furnace that's made out of water pipes. The water then turns to steam, the steam is run through a turbine which runs a generator that makes the power," Langmoe says.
“Here we have the finest organic fertilizer available and we're paying a premium, a subsidy, to destroy it to make electricity.”David Morris
This plant can also make power from other renewable biomass fuels, like switch grass or corn stalks. The plan now is for the plant to consume about half-a-million tons of turkey litter per year; 40 percent of the litter produced by Minnesota turkeys. Langmoe says getting rid of it is a good thing. It means less manure piled up on a farmland creating nitrogen heavy runoff that's harmful for rivers and streams.
But burning turkey waste is a waste according to David Morris with the Institute for Self Reliance in Minneapolis.
"Here we have the finest organic fertilizer that's available and we're paying a premium, a subsidy, a handsome subsidy to destroy it to make electricity," Morris says.
In a 21-year contract, Xcel Energy will pay Fibrominn a premium for it's electricity. It's few cents more a kilowatt hour than electricity from coal, natural gas or wind turbines. And Morris says burning the litter means farmers who could use the organic fertilizer will instead need to turn to more expensive chemical fertilizers.
Fibrominn officials acknowledge that once the turkey litter is burned, it loses its nitrogen. But they say what's left is actually a phosphorous-rich ash that can still be used as fertilizer.
Fibrominn's Greg Langmoe says what they offer to farmers is another option to get rid of their turkey litter. He says the company pays about $4 a ton, similar to what farmers would get by selling it for fertilizer.
Minnesota is the largest turkey-producing state in the nation and is the first to make electricity this way. But Langmoe says other parts of the country are looking at similar power plants.
"It's a pretty safe bet that this is not just one of a kind, there will be more," Langmoe says.
The parent company of Fibrominn is hoping to build other facilities where there's a lot of manure available from turkeys, and chickens too. The company wants to build plants on the east coast and in the southern U.S.