This Butter Sculpture Could Power A Farm For 3 Days : The Salt The biggest attraction at the annual Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., is always a giant, 1,000-pound sculpture crafted from butter. Once this year's show wraps up, all that beautiful butter will go right into a manure pit to become methane gas.
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This Butter Sculpture Could Power A Farm For 3 Days

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This Butter Sculpture Could Power A Farm For 3 Days

This Butter Sculpture Could Power A Farm For 3 Days

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The aftermath of another show suggests a way to power all those new gadgets. The annual Pennsylvania Farm Show comes to a close this weekend, which means cows and roosters are heading home and vendors are packing up their hot sauce and mustards, which leaves one vital question. What happens to the farm show's biggest attraction - a giant sculpture made from 1,000 pounds of butter? NPR's Scott Detrow investigates.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Each year's butter sculpture has a different theme. Last year it was a kid with his cow. This year's masterpiece took 10 days to complete, and the theme is a bit complicated.

SASHA MACLEAN: It kind of looks like there's a Thanksgiving feast on the table in front and then, like, some trees out in back. And there's a guy putting the star on the tree.

DETROW: Sasha MacLean is just one of the thousands who swarmed to the sculpture's eight-sided refrigerated display case during this week's show. But what happens after the lights go off, after the crowds drift away? Like Frosty the Snowman, a butter sculpture isn't meant to live forever.


DETROW: The butter sculpture's fate isn't pretty. Brett Reinford and I are looking at it. We're on his farm near Mifflintown, Pennsylvania. There's a cement pad next to the cattle barn. A truck has dumped a big pile of rotting fruit, vegetables and other food from Wal-Mart.

BRETT REINFORD: Dogs out here every day - both of them - looking for cheese mostly.

DETROW: Brett Reinford says all of this food waste is going to be turned into energy in a methane digester. Next week that beautiful butter sculpture will be dumped here as well, along with the key ingredient, manure.

REINFORD: It runs our whole entire farm and enough for about 80 houses. So there's a lot of excess that we sell back to the grid.

DETROW: Here's how it works: Reinford and his father Steve grind up the food and dump it into the deep covered tank of cow manure, where everything is heated up and stored for 20 days. Yeah, it smells exactly how you'd think, but that smell means the pit is generating methane gas, as bacteria inside feast on the manure and produce.


DETROW: And the digester collects the methane gas and pipes it to a nearby generator, which powers the Reinford farm. Since butter is essentially fat and fat contains a lot of concentrated energy, the sculpture will be a powerful fuel for the digester. Last year's sculpture provided Reinford's farm with about three days worth of electricity.

REINFORD: Yeah, they brought it down here in one of our trucks. And then we sent it through the grinder there, turned it into a mush. And then eventually it went into the digester. And of course it's 100 degrees in there, so it just turns into a nice liquid.

DETROW: The methane digester solves a lot of problems for the Reinfords, and the increasing number of dairy farmers across the country who have installed similar systems. It gives them free electricity and heat and some extra income from selling excess power back to the utilities. And Brett figures since the 500-cow dairy farm is producing all that manure anyway, they might as well get some income from it. The digester has a big up-front cost - around a million dollars. But once you factor in all the state and federal grants the Reinford farm used to purchase it, they'll earn that money back within three years. I ask him, though, if he's worried his family will get pegged as those methane people, especially now that they're taking in the butter sculpture.

REINFORD: Sometimes, but I don't know. It's such a good thing. We're not too concerned about that.

DETROW: Scott Detrow, NPR News.

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