The Suitability of Flexible Fuel Biomass Heating for the Greenhouse Crop Environment and the Effect of Crop Profitability When Compared to Propane Heating

2007 Annual Report for FNC06-629

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2006: $5,560.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:

The Suitability of Flexible Fuel Biomass Heating for the Greenhouse Crop Environment and the Effect of Crop Profitability When Compared to Propane Heating


Upon notification of receiving the farmer-rancher grant, I contacted the professor I knew at the University of Nebraska, George Meyer, who has worked on greenhouse energy use. We interacted about what data collection he could do for me to make this be a meaningful study.

I completed an extensive search of biomass furnaces that we could potentially use in the greenhouse. There were three that looked of particular interest, a fourth was also of interest but definitely cost prohibitive. I contacted the manufacturers of these units and received detailed information from them. I traveled to Eagle Manufacturing in Webster City, IA to see a manufacturer. I toured their facility, received a live demonstration and interacted about my project. On another occasion, I traveled to Mankato, MN to visit with Year-A-Round Corporation about their biomass furnace. I also was able to tour and see a demonstration of the unit. I had a long visit with the owner and discussed my interest in their product and what my project was. I traveled to St. Peter, Minneapolis and on to Stillwater, MN looking at greenhouses using corn burning furnaces for their operations in an effort to better understand how growers are using this heating method.

In discussions with Dr. Meyer, I decided to get the furnace from Eagle Manufacturing. They supplied us with a somewhat larger biomass furnace given the efficiencies of these furnaces are uncertain. We installed the furnace; purchased a chimney and installed; completed electrical wiring; purchased and installed a used bulk bin for holding the fuel; purchased and installed a 4” x 12’ new auger and made a collection transfer funnel; and purchased and loaded the bin with corn biomass.

I have identified potential biomass that would be feasible for operation in our flexible fuel biomass system. These fuels are bin corn, walnut shells, wood pellets, pecan shells and distillers dried and pelletized grain.

Dr. Meyer and his technicians have created sensors and a data collection system which will be installed in the greenhouse to monitor the environment. I’ve completed some test “burns” on the new system to explore timing and sensor locations. I’ve explored comparable energy data, created a descriptive poster and have given a presentation on our project at the "Small Farm Today" Farmers Forum. I have made arrangements to develop a news story relating to this project which will go into our regional newspaper.

Given the future expense of fossil fuels are unpredictable, we’ve had to estimate what the energy costs would be based upon historical trends. From our test burns, I was able to project our operational labor for the 15 week heating season would be roughly 3 hours per week or a total of 45 labor hours. At a pay rate of $10 and hour, the labor cost for the biomass system would be $450 on top of the fuel being burnt. Our estimated fuel use will be roughly 350 bushels of bin corn based upon previous years propane usage for the same amount of time. This could be different as we progress through the project as I found out the furnace will run continually, varying the amount of fuel being burnt to adjust for heat demand.

A comparison of the investment of the typical forced air heating unit of $1,500 to the investment of a biomass system of $5,950 (furnace and handling equipment), shows there is $3,600 of additional equipment expense using biomass, as well as, an increase in operational labor. From a projection of continual increase of 10% in propane costs and the slow increase in corn bushel prices, we project a return on investment within 44 months. This doesn’t account for our ability to produce a more saleable crop as it appears the greenhouse environment will be better for crop production. Our previous production methods held temperatures tightly at the lowest possible level to produce a good crop, however, we would loose a certain amount of plant material due to increased plant diseases.

We are ready to do the actual live application of the project. The environmental sensing equipment has been tested and will be installed in January. All equipment is in operational order and the fuel is loaded and ready to go. The preliminary testing of the equipment is completed. At this point, we will begin our annual production operation ornamental plants for the 2008 spring season. Given the purpose of this grant was to do an actual commercial production utilizing the biomass system, I’ll be maintaining true records of the amount of time required for the operation of the unit. I’ll also be noting any production issues, positive and negative, that become apparent as we produce our crop. The University will be monitoring the temperature stability and the general greenhouse environment. Of particular interest is the incidence of free water collecting on the greenhouse roof and the amount of humidity. I’ll be monitoring the amount of labor required for the general operation and monitor the fuel use. Our goal is to complete all of this information so the results can be displayed at our Farmer’s Market booths in the spring.

I had a professional poster made that has been sent to the manufacturer of the furnace system which will be displayed at the trade shows they attend. As I will not be presenting the information directly, I’m not sure of the amount of contacts that will be made regarding the project. The poster clearly states this is a SARE project and describes the project in detail with the current results given.

I attended the National Small Farm Today Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, MO and presented my project to roughly 40 individuals. I’ve been scheduled for two talks in St. Joseph, MO on January 10 and 12 to cut flower growers using high tunnels and greenhouses in the Midwest.
We will have the results displayed at our farmer’s market booths in April and May 2008 with a news article in the regional paper sometime in March.