Alternative Fuels Are Gaining Momentum With Growers

Slideshow: Alternative Fuels

Fuel oil prices were becoming too expensive and natural gas wasn’t an option because it was not being piped into the area. So Grower Direct Farms, a wholesale greenhouse operation in Somers, Conn., began looking seriously at alternative energy sources for its facilities more than a year ago.

Wind. Solar. Geothermal. The list of energy source options available stretched beyond the fossil fuels growers historically had used. Renewable resources were becoming more viable, Grower Direct Farms found, and the more growers were gravitating toward them the closer newer options were to becoming mainstream.

For Grower Direct Farms, biomass was the renewable resource of choice and wood chips became its fuel. Now, the operation primarily uses wood chips to heat its greenhouses, and fuel oil is its secondary source. And like most growers who’ve moved to alternative energy systems, Grower Direct Farms largely made the transition because of rising fuel costs.

“Energy is one of the most important areas of our business in terms of the cost of our product,” says Sam Smith, sales manager at Grower Direct Farms. “Not just in the way we heat our greenhouses, but the fuel we put in our trucks to move our product, the electricity we consume to light the product we grow and just to do basic things like run our offices and computers.”

Heating greenhouses is one of a grower’s most costly expenses, though. And the more burdensome fossil fuel costs get, the more growers are turning to alternative energy solutions.

“Energy usage has been and will continue to be an area of concern for growers,” says Randy Monhemius, an Ohio-based business program specialist for USDA’s Rural Development program. “I believe growers are looking to save money, or at least manage costs better through the installation of energy-efficient improvements or renewable energy.”

From Propane To Wood

Rick Webb, owner of Webb Perennials in Logan, Ohio, was one grower looking for cost savings when propane approached $2.50 a gallon last year. Propane simply isn’t affordable for his small operation when it’s over $2 a gallon, Webb says, so he sought relief in the form of biomass.

Nearby Hocking College hosted a biomass workshop that introduced different systems to him. Webb got a few ideas, did some research on his own and tried to determine which wood form would produce the best, most-efficient heat for Webb Perennials.

“I’ve done a fair amount of research looking at different options,” Webb says. “The (wood) chip system would have been nice if my operation was a little bigger. I was looking at a system but then we got up to like $120,000 potentially and I still didn’t have a front-end loader to handle them.”

Eventually, Webb settled on logs and he installed a wood gasification boiler to accommodate them. His system is not automated–he loads logs into the boiler by hand–but automation did not make financial sense for Webb because he only needed to heat a facility that’s less than a half-acre.

“I live in an area where there’s a lot of firewood,” he says. “It’s Southeast Ohio–90 percent forested area. There is a lot of firewood available. By the time I finished and built a barn to store wood, I only put $32,000 into it.”
Midway through the process, Webb Perennials was awarded an $8,000 USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant. It ultimately paid for one-fourth of Webb’s system.

Now that Webb’s system is up and running, he’s using wood as his primary fuel with propane as the backup.

“If I don’t get out in time to stoke the wood boiler, the propane kicks in,” Webb says. “I’ve used 300 gallons of propane (as of January 5) and I probably would have used 3,000 gallons so far. I have my wood delivered and split. We stack it here. And I’ve figured the equivalent to 3,000 gallons in propane costs $1,000 in wood.”

Sold On Solar

Ron Marlin, like Webb, used propane to heat his 21,000-square-foot greenhouse facility at Marlin Plant Kingdom in Greenfield, Ind. But a $39,000 heating bill last winter was enough to motivate Marlin to explore alternative heating options. Solar energy had always intrigued him, so he began devising a plan to put solar panels on his property.

Check out photos from Webb Perennials and Marlin Plant Kingdom at GreenhouseGrower.com.

“I started out with engineers from Purdue (University) and explained my theory,” Marlin says. “I wanted to heat water, store it in tanks and then run it back through hot water exchangers at night. I was merely looking to cut my heat bill 10 percent. That was my goal.”

Marlin found solar panels in California through a Northern Indiana company, and he determined he wanted to heat about 5,000 gallons of water for his system. Then, he called a septic tank company about storing his water. And Marlin Plant Kingdom now has two 2,300-gallon above-ground tanks with stone insulation that keeps Marlin’s water warm.

“I plumbed the system so I can turn on two valves, pump the water from the tanks through the (solar) panels and back into the tanks,” Marlin says. “Then, through the valving system, I can shut that off. I can also pump the water through my heat exchangers at night. I was told when the panels were sized to the tank, I could get water as hot as 140 degrees. I haven’t done that yet, but I have had water as high as 130 degrees coming back out of the panels.
“Solar seemed like the best way to go because we were just looking for an offset, not total heat,” Marlin says.

Back To Biomass

Biomass is a popular choice today, but growers have had varying experiences with biomass systems regarding their maintenance and reliability. Grower Direct Farms’ Smith says his operation has had a positive experience with its system so far. But he’s heard varying accounts on biomass based on the source used and the level of investment made.

“We probably would have a lot of trouble here if we didn’t commit to burning high-quality fuel that’s consistent in size, moisture content and ratio between hard wood and soft wood,” Smith says. “Those things contribute to the efficient and predictable operation of a boiler.”

The biomass equipment Grower Direct Farms ultimately purchased was more expensive than competing equipment the operation had priced. And that concerned Grower Direct Farms at first. But once its system got up and running, Smith and others realized they had made a good choice.

“Our chief concern now is having a consistent, reliable, quality fuel source,” Smith says. “Sometimes, I think some of these [systems] are causing more trouble than they need to. Sometimes, less-than-ideal equipment is selected to begin with, and sometimes growers compound the problem by attempting to burn low-quality fuel.”

If wood chips, pellets, logs or another renewable resource separates itself as the highest-quality fuel, Smith expects to see significant market shifts.

“These projects are going to exert market forces we haven’t experienced before,” he says. “At a certain point, when you put up enough facilities that are burning wood chips, the price of wood chips is going to change.”

Leave a Reply

More From Plant Culture...
Sheridan Nurseries

September 3, 2015

Greenhouse Grower’s 2015 Operation Of The Year Sheridan Nurseries Raises The Bar

Ontario-based Sheridan Nurseries has long been an innovator in the Canadian market, but during the economic downturn, CEO Karl Stensson says the company decided to take things a step further. “We have survived the Great Depression, two World Wars and many other downturns in the economy,” he says. “During this last recession, our staff set out at being the best at what we do.” The company’s efforts have paid off. Sheridan Nurseries was named Operation of the Year at Greenhouse Grower’s Evening of Excellence, held July 13, at Cultivate’15 in Columbus, Ohio. The company was also awarded for Excellence In Perennials Production, based on its reputation for plant quality and the activities the nursery has led and been a part of, both within its company and in the industry at large. “We are elated and proud of our staff accomplishments,” says CEO Karl Stensson. “Over the last five years, we […]

Read More

September 3, 2015

Legalization Of Marijuana In California A Strong Possibility

The push for the legalization of recreational marijuana intensifies in California as proponents promote the crop’s agricultural and economical benefits.

Read More
More and more people are employing a landscape service, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still garden

September 2, 2015

Under Siege? Not Really, Just Go For A Walk

I have no trouble with people buying chocolates or wine instead of flowers to celebrate anniversaries, birthdays or peoples’ lives. We should all have choices. However, the other night I felt like I was entering the Republican caucus. I was minding my own business by the television set and became more than a little upset. A website called insteadofflowers.com came on the screen. It provided serene music and wholesome images of busy women doing busy things. It turns out that such busy women enjoy a small token of appreciation, but apparently their enjoyment, according to the voice-over, does not include flowers. This website delivers meals to the house, anything from beef brisket to beef bourguignon. It is a fine website with a good idea. But why pick on us? Why not use “insteadofbaloneysandwiches.com” or “insteadofgrilledcheeseandsoup.com,” “insteadofburgerdoodle.com,” or a dozen other things. When did flowers get to be the whipping boy? […]

Read More
Latest Stories

August 19, 2015

Greenhouse Growing Recommendations For Lobularia

Modern-day Lobularias are garden classics with good vigor and long bloom times. These growing recommendations will help keep your crop in prime condition.

Read More
Mike McGroarty, owner of Mike’s Backyard Nursery

July 29, 2015

Backyard Success: Mike McGroarty Educates Aspiring Grow…

Mike’s Backyard Nursery sits on a long, narrow, 5-acre property located in Perry, Ohio. There, customers can find a variety of flowering shrubs available, all in 2-quart pots, and all for sale for $5.97 each. Owner Mike McGroarty, a lifelong resident of Perry, says the town has a lot of plant nurseries, including 100 wholesale growers within a 10-mile radius of his house. That doesn’t discourage McGroarty, because he knows that while there are a lot of nurseries in his area, no one else is doing what he is doing. McGroarty has learned about plants — and marketing them to his audience — through decades of experience. He has never hesitated to pass along his knowledge to other growers looking to start their own backyard operations, and has created an entire program to educate aspiring growers. McGroarty Likes To Practice What He Preaches McGroarty’s operation serves as the laboratory for […]

Read More
cannabis, marijuana plant

June 27, 2015

Concern Grows Over Unregulated Pesticide Use On Cannabi…

As most growers know well, the federal government regulates all insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and other commercial chemicals used on agricultural crops. Therein lies the problem with use of chemicals on cannabis crops – so far, the feds want nothing to do with legalized marijuana. According to “Concern Grows Over Unregulated Pesticide Use On Cannabis,” a June 17 article on the National Public Radio (NPR) network by Agribusiness Reporter Luke Runyon, the lack of regulated chemicals for cannabis has left growers to experiment on their own. “In the absence of any direction the subject of pesticide use on the crop has just devolved to whatever people think is working or they think is appropriate,” said Colorado State University Entomologist Whitney Cranshaw in the NPR report. “Sometimes they’ve used some things that are appropriate, sometimes unsafe.” Denver officials held tens of thousands of marijuana plants earlier this year due to safety concerns, but […]

Read More
Great-spangledFritillary

June 16, 2015

The Butterfly Effect: Insect’s Wings Key To Azalea Poll…

A researcher from North Carolina State University (NC State) has found that in the case of the flame azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum), all pollinators are not created equal. In fact, due to the flower’s unique reproductive structure, butterflies — and specifically, their wings — are the key to pollination. The flame azalea is commonly found in the Appalachian Mountains, ranging from as far north as New York to Georgia in the south. Like most azaleas, the flowers are large, and have an unusual structure: both the anther (male) and stigma (female) parts are very elongated and separated from one another. NC State biologist Mary Jane Epps was interested in how the azalea’s flower structure affected its pollination. “In order for a plant to reproduce, a pollinator — usually an insect — has to spread the pollen from the anther to the stigma,” Epps says. “In the case of the flame azalea, […]

Read More
Bee on a Sedum

March 17, 2015

4 Key Pollinator Research Projects To Be Funded By Hort…

The Horticultural Research Institute will grant $125,000 in financial support for four key projects as part of the Horticultural Industry Bee & Pollinator Stewardship Initiative. The Initiative has three primary goals. First, to convene a task force to develop a bee and pollinator stewardship program, including creation of best management practices for plant production. Second, to identify and fund research that will help answer key science questions and fill gaps needed to design and refine the stewardship program. Third, to seek to positively position the horticultural community and its customers by collaborating with other compatible groups interested in augmenting pollinator habitat and protection.

Read More

March 11, 2015

Pollinator Initiative Promotes Bee-Friendly Talking Poi…

AmericanHort and the Society of American Florists are working tirelessly with the ornamental industry's Pollinator Stewardship Initiative on a number of new projects.

Read More

February 11, 2015

Infusion Technology Boosts Seed Performance, Study Sugg…

Seven-year-old wheat seed germination can increase by as much as 83 percent, according to a Vital Force Technology Study that looks at the effects of energy infusion technology on plant vitality.

Read More

February 3, 2015

American Floral Endowment Accepting Research Pre-Propos…

If you are pursuing a floriculture research project, now is the time to apply for funding through the American Floral Endowment. Research pre-proposal applications for 2015-2016 funding are due to AFE by June 1, 2015.

Read More

January 27, 2015

Marijuana’s Trajectory And Ascent To Horticultural Cr…

Marijuana growing is poised for change as growers and researchers focus on improving production practices.

Read More

December 9, 2014

Greenhouse Production: Two Years Of Basics & Beyond…

Greenhouse Grower's Basics & Beyond articles cover some of the latest news and research going on in greenhouse production. Here are article links for the last two years.

Read More
GrowIt! App Wins Gold At Design100 2014 US Mobile & App Design Awards

November 24, 2014

GrowIt! App Wins Gold At Design100 2014 US Mobile &…

The social garden app GrowIt! takes the Gold Winner award at the design100 2014 Mobile & App Design Awards.

Read More

November 10, 2014

The Perennial Farm Joins HGTV HOME Plant Collection

The Perennial Farm joins the HGTV HOME Plant Collection growers' network for 2015.

Read More
AmericanHort

November 4, 2014

AmericanHort Publishes Revised American Standard For Nu…

AmericanHort announces the revised American Standard for Nursery Stock (ANSI Z60.1) is now available for industry use. The Standard reflects the consensus of the industry regarding how nursery stock — living plants other than annuals — should be specified and sold within the trade.

Read More

September 26, 2014

Master The Art Of Watering

Watering is elemental to healthy plants, but one of the hardest concepts for new employees to master in the greenhouse. Recommend these tips to start them off right.

Read More

September 16, 2014

Ball FloraPlant’s Las Limas Facility Provides Gro…

Ball FloraPlant’s Las Limas farm in Esteli, Nicaragua, is one year away from full production, but sales and quality from the two-year-old facility are right on track.

Read More
Erysimum 'Cheers' from Darwin Perennials

September 15, 2014

Darwin Perennials Takes Production Offshore In Bogota, …

With its recent purchase of a farm in Colombia, Darwin Perennials is ready to amp up supply of its perennial genetics, to provide growers with tried-and-true varieties and comprehensive production specifications.

Read More

July 23, 2014

Plan Now To Prevent Bract Edge Burn On Poinsettias

Reduce fertilizer and water, and allow your poinsettias to develop slowly during the final four weeks of production to avoid bract edge burn.

Read More

July 11, 2014

Growing Your Crops Above Their Base Temperature

Lowering temperature set points in the greenhouse may help you combat rising heating costs.

Read More