To Tom and Irene Frantzen, the mountain of corn cobs sitting in their hoop building are a valuable commodity.
For most farmers, cobs are mostly a waste product, providing organic material for soil. The Frantzens, of rural New Hampton, envision a more sustainable purpose.
With assistance from the Farm Energy Working Group, facilitated by the Center for Energy & Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, the organic farmers are developing a plan to burn corn cobs to help heat their house. The couple has already installed a geothermal heating and cooling system, solar panels and had an energy audit done to make their home more energy efficient. All of this has drastically reduced energy bills, they said, though a specific number wasn't available since the project is ongoing.
Without thousands of acres to generate revenue, the Frantzens, who operate a nearly 400-acre organic grain and livestock farm, said controlling costs is essential to their success. The couple gives the working group a lot of the credit.
The organization recently developed a new online resource to help small and mid-sized operations identify energy reduction opportunities on their farms. The website is www.uni.edu/farmenergy/onestopshop.
The site helps farmers save on energy and find resources for farm energy audits, utility rebates and funding opportunities.
"I can't say enough about the good things at UNI," Tom Frantzen said. "The group helps us understand the complexity of issues, like the corn cob thing. If it wasn't for the group, maybe we would have never learned about that."
The working group is funded by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Expert advice is available on the use of wind energy, solar hot water and electric and corn- and wood-burning boilers for heat, among other things. Small demonstration grants are available, typically ranging from $1,500 to $2,000, to help fund projects.
Carol Yates, group coordinator, said farmers asked for a one-stop shop for energy-saving tips. She said one important component of the website is videos describing success stories. Tom Frantzen is featured in a video about energy efficiency.
"Farmers listen to other farmers. We think it's been an important resource," Yates said.
More than a dozen grants have been awarded through the years, several to Northeast Iowa producers. Rob Faux of rural Tripoli hired an energy consultant last year with grant money to find ways to save money on his vegetable and poultry farm.
One solution is multiple solar panels to make electricity and to use as many electric tools as possible. He hopes to install the first phase next year, which will initially cost about $20,000, and to add to it as finances allow. Faux will also seek grants and apply for tax credits, which can be found on the website.
Payback is estimated at eight to 10 years.
"We're pretty sold on how to reduce fossil fuels," Faux said. "It's scary because it's a big number and we're not a large farm. But electricity will just get more expensive, and I'd rather get it from a renewable source."
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