Enhancing Year-Round Sales of Quality Farm Product through the Use of On-Farm Geothermal Climate Controlled Storage Facilities

Project Overview

FNC07-655
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2007: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Agronomic: general grain crops

Practices

  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures, quality of life

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    Fields of Agape, LLC is a grain, seed, and bean cooperative. There have been four farms participating in cooperative growing of golden flax seed, hard red and hard white wheat, non-GMO food grade soybeans, black beans, and pinto beans. The SARE project began in 2008, in which there was 22.5 acres of golden flax grown cooperatively among three farms. In 2009, soybeans, white wheat and red wheat were added in addition to flax for a total of 42.5 acres, and in 2010 an additional 24 acres was added to expand flax, wheat, and soybean fields. In 2010, test fields of black beans and pinto beans were added. Black and pinto beans will be expanded to 10 acres of each for the 2011 growing season, and barley will be added to the small grain crop list.

    Fields of Agape, LLC uses Organi-Gro products, which are produced and sold in New Castle, Indiana. We incorporate crop rotation in each year’s growing plan, and will row crop and cultivate bean crops. Organi-Gro offers soil testing and analysis to ensure healthy soil. In 2011, we will test cover crops with flax and beans.

    As a result of the expansion of crops and limited grain wagons, Fields of Agape, LLC purchased a Clipper grain cleaner and packaging equipment for cleaning and packaging the seeds and grains. As a result of the completion of the cold storage project, the cooperative can now clean, package, and cold store all food grade grains, beans and seeds with minimal transport.

    Fields of Agape, LLC is now certified to clean, package, grind, and cold store food grade grains, beans, and seeds. Vendors include food cooperatives throughout the state of Indiana. See www.fieldsofagape.com for a complete list of food cooperatives, with an estimated 2010 annual revenue of $8,000-plus, up from $1,300 in 2007.

    Fields of Agape, LLC was formed in November 2005 resulting from the desire to transition our 100-plus-year-old family farm from traditional farming to all-natural/chemical-free farming. We started with herb gardens, and expanded into the fields in the spring of 2006. We used my Father’s 1952 Super C, and purchased a John Deere wheat drill for $200 at auction and a 1964 Harvester for $500 from a neighbor. We planted one acre of brown flax and one acre of barley, harvested successfully with the Harvester, and expanded into five acres of winter wheat in the fall of 2006. We used the flax fiber and straw after harvest for mulching, and began our journey of sharing our passion of sustainable farming practices with friends and neighbors.

    Since 2005, we have learned so much about sustainable practices and how important is it to plan what you grow around what resources exist. Our desire is to teach others about the importance of stewardship, sustainability, partnering, and expanding varieties of field crops to benefit life and health within a community.

    The SARE grant we were awarded for the cold storage helped us build the cornerstone of Fields of Agape, LLC, and opened the door to finding the market niche that will provide the revenues for sustainability. We have learned patience, and how to nurture the growth of a thriving farm by maximizing the use of existing farm assets.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    Goals: We began growing small grains in 2006, and after the first hot, humid summer of dealing with grains, we quickly realized a need for dry, cold storage if we were to continue growing food grade field crops. After extensive research through multiple educational resources and a failed SARE grant attempt, we identified our core goal based on existing farm resources, and identified partners who would help in completing our goal. That goal was to create a model storage room for regulating the temperature and humidity of a community-based cold storage; a facility that utilizes sustainable energy and minimizes storage costs and crop waste, with the result of healthy, local food and resulting revenues that can attain the ultimate goal of farm sustainability.

    PROCESS
    Many small farms can’t afford to build additional on-farm structures, especially structures that require insulation, heating, and cooling. We were in that same situation, but identified an area in our existing barn that had a cement floor, and would be a large enough area to store up to 40,000 pounds of grains, beans, and seeds. We researched materials that would be moisture resistant and rodent-proof. Rodents can’t chew through cement, so we went with cement block walls that created a room within the existing barn room.

    We began working in March 2008 with project consultants to confirm all costs. A timeline was established with D.O. Corn & Sons to complete block work in the existing barn area that is the framework for the geothermal unit housing and storage room. D.O. Corn also worked with Randy Overman, geothermal consultant, on room size, insulation needs, and ceiling materials. D.O. Corn completed all block work mid-October, 2008. We pushed the insulation and geothermal installation to 2009 to generate additional matching funds from specialty crop sales.

    We requested a second quote from a local Rush County company for a spray on insulation, GreenZero. We selected the GreenZero insulation, and the insulation was applied to the cement block for both the cold storage room and geothermal room in August, 2009. Fields of Agape, LLC partners completed the ceiling construction and doors. The project completion only cost $4,000 rather than the $10,000 quoted initially by D.O. Corn.

    The geothermal installation was delayed as a result of an on-the-job injury of Randy Overman, owner of Overman Plumbing and Heating. We temporarily installed a large air conditioning unit in one of the double doors of the cold storage, and the cold storage room maintained a 55 degree temperature. We passed inspection by the Indiana State Department of Health/Food Safety Division and were certified to sell bulk seeds, beans, and grains to local food cooperatives as of September 2009.

    Since the geothermal installation was delayed, we requested a no-cost 12 month extension on the SARE grant to research and find a new partner in the Geo-thermal portion of the project. We contacted Green Way Supply and made plans for an on-site visit, but they did not respond.

    We contacted Top Shelf Heating and Cooling, who sold us the geothermal unit and did the install in June 2010. Top Shelf suggested a one-ton unit rather than a three-ton unit due to the size of the room and effectiveness of the insulation. The cold storage is at 50 degrees. The humidity is not a problem, as cold air depletes moisture. We have not needed any other humidity control, nor do we need to run the geothermal unit during cold months. This has proven to be an additional cost savings. We run the open loop geothermal water output to a small grape arbor and a pumpkin/squash/melon patch during the summer months, and then drain and roll up the water line during winter months for storage since the geothermal unit is off and therefore has no water output. We had no trenching expense for the water line by making this sustainable decision.

    We purchased an Eden Pure electric heater for testing the windmill power. The existing windmill will power the geothermal unit for about one hour in the case of an emergency power outage. We wanted to test the cost savings of incorporating wind energy with geothermal for on-farm cold storage in this project. However, since the room is enclosed within an existing barn structure, and we used cement block with a three-inch non-porous insulation, these materials have proven quite effective in cost savings. The electric bill is an average of $75 from May through November. As a result of the open loop system, we have an increase in potential revenue with melons, pumpkins, squash, and grapes to offset the electric costs during summer months, and don’t have any electrical cost in the winter months since the non-porous insulation and cold temperatures are a natural coolant and moisture preventative. We find that our decisions in the materials and construction of the cold storage room are quite sustainable even without the added benefit of wind energy. The benefit of a small windmill for supplemental energy is that we have the wind energy as backup in the case of power outage in the hot summer months. Through our most recent research, a windmill large enough to power on-farm processes and our home would require at least a $30,000 investment with grant supplement. Our current production levels do not justify this cost. We will continue to research wind and solar energy, as we would at some point like to be off the grid.

    We are currently storing over 30,000 pounds of grains, seeds, and beans in the cold storage. These specialty crops are in 25 pound bags, ready to deliver to food cooperatives and bulk buyers. We are storing for a total of four farms, and we feel so blessed to have been given this opportunity to test a theory and see the fruits of our labors and goals!

    PEOPLE
    Marc and Evelyn Ellis – are my parents. My Mom and Dad have lived on the farm that Keith and I tend for 60 years, and my Grandparents also tended this land. They are consultants and teachers to us, and invested in the equipment and tools in the 1950s that we use today. They maintained the original barn on our property by covering the barn with metal siding in the 1970’s, and kept it painted and maintained up to the point that we built our house on a wooded portion of the farm in 1996. What is now the completed Cold Storage facility was converted from a Boy Scout meeting room, in which my son Marc and many other Boy Scouts received Scouting badges that were applied toward the ultimate honor of Eagle Scout, through the guidance of Mom and Dad as Scout Masters. My Mom and Dad both grew up working on farms nearby, and my Dad has farmed everything from grains to tomatoes to sheep. I grew up living sustainably through their guidance, and have continued to learn from them in my adult life. There are no better teachers than those who have lived it for 88 years. They have provided moral support, financial support, warm meals, and encouragement to us throughout this farming project. At 88, my Father still helps Keith repair equipment, labor over the building projects, and tend to the grape arbors and other specialty crops throughout the farm. We couldn’t have done all of this without the giving of their labors throughout their entire lives. Every visitor who has come to the farm to hear about the cold storage project always walks away with an appreciation of their lives and work as farmers and teachers. We are blessed to have them.

    Roy Ballard – Hancock County Extension Service
    Roy has been strategic in his guidance to resources at Purdue University which provided guidance on this project. Roy has been a consultant to the Hancock Harvest Council (HHC), which is the local farmer group of which we are a member. We hope to continue collaboration in grant writing and partnering under Roy’s guidance with other regional farmers/ranchers and farmer groups such as HHC to develop educational curriculum, outreach, and collaboration through internships with University students.

    Marc Harris – Son, Grant Writer, Web Designer
    Marc is a very talented writer, and is a grant writer by occupation. He coached me through the grant process, and interjected his talents into the final grant proposal. Marc is also helping us with the website, www.fieldsofagape.com. He will update the site with a link to our NCR-SARE project, as well as photos from the past three-year journey. We appreciate his talents!

    Top Shelf Heating and Cooling – Indianapolis, Indiana
    They stepped in this summer and provided some important guidance on the proper geothermal unit to install for this project. Their work was excellent, and the results have been all that we’d hoped. We had other companies talk with us; we found Top Shelf truly believed in the project and in the importance of what we believe in, which is a sustainable community and local food system.

    D.O. Corn & Sons
    Did a great job on the block work!

    Fields of Agape, LLC Cooperative Partners – Rush and Henry Counties, Indiana
    Thanks to the Partners!

    Judy Avery – signed the dotted line for the Clipper Grain Cleaner and Packaging equipment, purchased the table top stone grinder, paid for branding that is used for business cards, labels, and signage for special events and winter markets, cooks for and hosts all field events, helps fund seed and field treatments when funds are low, and researches new recipes and uses for our specialty crops.

    Michael Smallwood – helped with completion of the ceiling and doors to the cold storage, helped Keith with field work, grain cleaning, packaging, and winter markets.

    Tony Mittendorf – helped in the fields in 2008, worked on equipment, helped with grain transport when we didn’t have our own grain cleaner. Tony opted out in 2010.

    David Johnson and Dawn and Craig Trent – provided acreage for flax to determine if they were interested in a cooperative approach for small acreage. They opted out in 2010.

    RESULTS
    Keith and I started out with 12 herb gardens in 2005, and expanded into 60 plus acres five years later, all a result of the SARE journey!

    Our goal was to find a way to develop a local grain, bean, and seed cooperative that could provide pest-free, healthy whole foods to our region. We quickly learned that you cannot simply grow and package grains in the heat and humidity of Indiana. In 2007, we packaged our small lots of grains and seeds in one-pound vacuum-sealed packages and sold at farmer’s markets, which did solve the pest and moisture problem. However, this was time consuming, expensive, and unrealistic if we wanted to expand the number of acres that we grew.

    Through our journey of research and education of handling specialty crops in our region, we learned patience, ingenuity, outreach, and true sustainable practices. I don’t think that Keith and I really understood the term sustainability until we really immersed ourselves into small grain and seed farming. You re-use instead of buy new. If plan A fails, don’t get discouraged – there is always Plan B, C, D, etc. Perseverance and passion have kept us going. We really believe in what we are doing.
    Through the help of many people in our lives, we have seen a vision come to reality. We started with 100 pounds of weevil-ridden barley and wheat to a cold storage that protects over 30,000 pounds of grains, beans, and seed that would otherwise be lost to the local food markets.

    In 2007 we had $1,300 of revenue from herbs and plants; in 2008, $1,400 in revenue from one-pound packages at Farmer’s markets, in 2009 over $5,000 from bulk sales, and in 2010 we are projecting over $8,000 in revenue from our own specialty crops in addition to a small profit margin on specialty crops that we store and deliver for associate growers.

    Through completion of the cold storage and certification by the state of Indiana, we have found our market niche. We are now certified to clean and package our own grains, which has opened the door to grinding. We partner with food cooperatives throughout the state of Indiana. See www.fieldsofagape.com for a complete list of partners.

    We and other partners are submitting a SARE group grant for $18,000 to lease space for community gardens and a community kitchen in which we can grind, package, develop recipes, offer cooking classes, sell artisan products from the farm, run a Green Market and farmer’s market, and develop educational curriculum on food safety and other food topics with regional farmers/ranchers including Hancock Harvest Council, Roy Ballard with Purdue Extension, and interns from Universities including Butler, Earlham, and Anderson. We have partnered with Community Harvest Marketplace, www.coharvestmart.com, to utilize space in a historic lumber mill to clean and package our grains. There is commercial kitchen equipment, garden space, coffee shop equipment, stainless steel tables, and a handwashing station available for us to lease, and we are ready to move into the next phase of development.

    Our growth is a direct result of the cornerstone project, the Cold Storage. Our journey has given us the passion to teach what we’ve learned, and to share our experiences to assist others with the growth, development, and direct marketing of their specialty crops.

    DISCUSSION
    It has been interesting to read our original proposal, and see the many modifications that we had to make throughout the project. Nature has a way of simplifying processes. For example, our concerns relative to supplemental heating and cooling and humidity controls were not warranted, as the triple protection of the barn structure of metal over wood, the 2nd layer of eight-inch cement block, and the 3rd layer of non-porous insulation proved to be adequate sustainable construction for the size of the room. If we expand into a new structure where electrical requirements would substantially increase, then an investment for a large windmill of $30,000 with supplemental grants would be warranted. As is, our small windmill can provide protection in hot, humid summer months in the event of power outage – we can intermittently power the geothermal with wind energy. Otherwise, due to rising costs of windmills, battery banks, and labor that would provide sufficient energy for substantial cost savings are not beneficial in a project of this size. If we determine in the future that we want to expand operations to become an organic grain, bean, and seed distributor through a large whole food distribution center, we would consider wind and/or solar energy to power a larger geothermal unit for larger storage capacity. We have considered adding feed to our line of value-added products, and would revisit alternative energy during that evaluation.

    The most important message I could give someone who is considering any grant project is to be willing to work hard (night and day), be flexible, open-minded, re-use or re-purpose existing assets (or your budget will exceed the project gain), and seek out those who have years of experience in sustainability. There is no better teacher than experience. It is also important to have a few key partners who can invest capital in the event of crop failure or unforeseen expenses that take away from $’s that you hoped to invest in the project. Our own capital input and having partners with capital have been key to our survival.

    We’ve also learned that this is our passion. We want to be not only a voice for sustainable agriculture, but to show our passion through action. We see the importance to our community. Sustainable agriculture connects people. It is common and approachable, and removes the cultural barriers that separate classes of people. We want to do this for our community – to provide employment, to teach men, women and children ‘how to fish’, that sustainable practices nurture creativity and bring life, health and hope to a community and its residents.

    PROJECT IMPACTS
    Through this project, we have gained market presence because of the sustainable and cooperative focus of our farming operations, and have increased our revenues by 600 percent by expansion into bulk markets – all made possible by the cold storage!

    I am including pictures, articles, and links to our website that provide the outreach that has happened through the observation of neighbors, connections at farmers markets, and meeting people through the food cooperative network. We have employed people who were in need. We hope to donate food to Carthage food pantries, which is in the same small town where we will lease space for expansion of a community kitchen, community garden, and green market where local farmers can direct market their farm product. We hope to provide more jobs as we expand our specialty crops.

    Our farm ground is healthier, and the insect, bird, and animal life is vibrant. To drive down the road and see a beautiful flax field in bloom in the middle of Central Indiana is a welcomed change. It is exciting to be a part of developing a local food system, and we have only just begun. We are beginning to see the birth of more interest in field crops within our region, which is steeped in traditional agriculture. I am excited to talk with neighbors and see the connections that are forming, and we will continue to do our part to develop a totally sustainable farm. We have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way, and I now know it’s possible when we seek out partners.

    Our future is to focus on cover crops, legumes, wind and solar energy, feed, and development of related curriculum. We have a passion for high school, college, and young adult age groups, which are our future, so we are open to developing an internship program.

    We will continue to develop relationships with community partners and farmer/ranchers to review additional urban development grant opportunities for the community. Sustainability isn’t for individual farms, but rather for the forming of a cooperative of regional sustainable farms who can feed the surrounding communities.

    OUTREACH
    I have included pictures of the cold storage and articles in which we have been featured in various venues throughout Indiana. We developed a website, www.fieldsofagape.com, which will be updated with the link to our completed NCR-SARE project.

    We have had many visitors come to the farm to see our operations, and everyone is amazed when they walk in the cold storage! I’m still thankful and amazed every time I open the door.

    The Ball State Telecommunications class visited in 2008 and 2009 (2009 CD of pictures included). Anderson University’s Sustainable Agriculture class visited in 2009.

    Graduate students from Earlham College are currently working as interns in exchange for beans, flour and cornmeal. Two of those students are going to develop community gardens at Carthage.

    Bloomingfoods Food Cooperative staff visited in June of 2010 and toured all of our fields and operations. They enjoyed seeing where their bulk bags came from!

    The Good Earth Staff visited and toured our operations in 2009, and we will invite them back next summer to see the added operations.

    Journalists from Indianapolis Dine toured and wrote an article with pictures of the cold storage included. We were also featured in Indiana Living Green, Bloomingnews, featured speakers at Laughery Valley & Environs Food & Growers Association, and our Flax harvest was featured on PBS (Public Broadcasting Station) Across Indiana, Episode 1903, which can be viewed from the PBS website.

    We will plan more outreach at Carthage as we incorporate value-added processes.

    PROGRAM EVALUATION
    I hope to attend a SARE conference next year. Our finances and workload don’t allow for travel yet, but I hope to be more actively involved in the future. THANKS for the funding that you provide to the farmers/ranchers who are working to restore sustainable farms!

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.