The 3rd P of Plugging into the Prairie

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by Brian Devore, 10/3/08 • In July, I reported on the possibilities and problems associated with making diverse native prairie systems part of our bioenergy mix on Midwestern farms. Two weeks ago, I had a chance to get a farmer’s eye view of yet another prairie energy “P”: practicality.

Loon Commons is a blog of the Land Stewardship Project. Contact Loon Commons at bdevore@landstewardshipproject.org

This lesson in real world economics/agronomics came by way of Eric Kreidermacher, who farms in southeast Minnesota near the Whitewater River. Over the years, Kreidermacher’s extended family has developed two seemingly unrelated enterprises on the same small farm: greenhouse plants and swine production—hence the name of their overall operation, Pork and Plants. Like most farmers, high energy prices have hit the Kreidermachers hard in recent years. But heating 65,000 square-feet of greenhouse space throughout the winter is particularly pricey. The farm can go through 80,000 to 100,000 gallons of liquid propane in a year. Ouch.

That’s why five years ago the Kreidermachers bought their first stoker boiler furnace and began burning biomass such as waste wood and shelled corn in it. Today, the steam heat created by the furnaces (they now have five) warms their greenhouse and hog facilities, as well as their home.

It’s been a good move, Eric says. Even with high commodity prices, burning shelled corn is (so far) cheaper than LP and oveall he’s been able to cut his heating costs by about half. But something’s been bothering this innovator. Kreidermacher’s area of southeast Minnesota is dominated by steep hills—hills that can be highly erosive when perennial plants such as grass and trees are removed, and annual row crops like corn and soybeans are planted in their place. Eric feels there’s a place for row crops like corn in his area, but he’s alarmed at how much marginal land has been plowed up in recent years to fuel the corn ethanol boom, among other things.

So a two years ago he planted 20 acres of native prairie on some former row crop land. Once the prairie is established, Eric hopes to use it as a source of biomass for his furnaces. We rode a 4-wheeler out to look at the prairie, which contains seven species of natives (big bluestem, Indian grass, forbs, etc.). It was well on its way to getting established, and Eric is considering cutting it yet this fall to do a test burn, but it won’t be a full grown prairie until next year. It was good to see land with a pretty good roll to it covered in something that will provide ground cover year-round. The Whitewater is just downhill from the farm, and lord knows it’s experienced the negative effects of intense row-cropping in recent years.

Soil, wildlife, water quality and even our climate could benefit from something like 20 acres of native prairie. Better yet, Eric’s move into biomass has prompted some neighbors to put in their own prairie plantings as future sources of energy. Now we’re talking about some watershed-wide environmental benefits taking root.

But will it make an economical source of heat?

That’s the question Eric is grappling with. And he’s invested a lot in trying to pin it down. For one thing, he’s set aside crop land for grass, sacrificing at least two years of productivity in the process. “My neighbors are wondering what I’m doing with this crop land and if I’m crazy,” Eric conceded with a laugh.

And besides the stoker boilers, Kreidermacher has invested in two pelleting mills to make biomass into dense material that can be stored, transported and burned efficiently. He’s also spent a lot of time asking questions about everything from production of prairie grass and how (and how often) to harvest it to the best ways to make pellets and the amount of BTUs he can expect to derive from native grasses.

In some cases, he’s gotten some good expert advice. For example, Minnesota’s Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) helped him develop his pelleting system. But Eric’s found there is frustratingly little information available on such things as how much tonnage he can expect from an acre of prairie. Unfortunately, figuring out ways to amp up corn and soybean yields seems to have soaked up the majority of research and development resources at our land grant institutions in recent decades.

For example, always mindful of reducing waste and closing the nutrient cycle on his farm, Kreidermacher asked experts if it was a good idea to spread manure from his hog operation onto the prairie in order to boost production.

“They flat out said they didn’t know,” Eric told me. “Unfortunately, I’m pretty much on my own.”

Out there on the windswept, ridge-top prairie, we had a good chat about all those questions this farmer is trying to nail down; it’s clear Eric’s feeling the loneliness that comes with being an innovative pioneer. (To listen to a podcast of our conversation, click here; it’s episode 56).

When one thinks about the amount of technological, financial and even moral support given to corn-based ethanol in recent years, it’s a little difficult to grasp why an innovator like Eric Kreidermacher can’t get at least a fraction of that. It should be noted that his boilers can burn just about any kind of biomass, including corn stalks and shelled corn. For environmental reasons, he’d like to make use of prairie plants, but in the end whatever Eric generates heat with has got to pay its own way.

So if society decides that having perennial plants on the land is a public good, it’s going to have to find a way to promote and support the kinds of things farmers like Eric are doing.

The Kreidermachers have good business sense. Eric and his brother Paul market boilers on the side, and have sold some to their neighbors. As I mentioned before, some of these neighbors are already experimenting with growing their own biomass such as prairie plants. Eric foresees a day when the neighbors bring their baled material to him for pelletizing, and then take it back home to burn, creating a local energy system, so to speak.

Such a system could not only put more perennial plant cover on the land, but would help the Kreidermachers cover the cost of owning and operating their own pelletizers, something the average farm that doesn’t have 65,000 square-feet of greenhouse space couldn’t justify. Indeed, the day I was there a wagon-load of a neighbor’s grass hay was waiting to take a run through one of the pellet mills.

The Minnesota Legislature missed its chance to support this kind of innovative thinking when it passed on funding RIM-Clean Energy earlier this year. Too bad, because I’m betting there are more Eric Kreidermachers out there, and a whole lot of land that would benefit from them succeeding.