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Farm Energy Auditor Trainees Go on Second Site Visit

February 1, 2012

Last week participants in our Farm Energy Auditor Training Program ventured out to Gardenview Greenhouse near Farmington. Gardenview is a wholesale florist greenhouse and boasts an impressive facility with about 26 structures and over 43,000 square feet of greenhouse space. Now in their ninth week of the program, the trainees had just wrapped up a session on energy use in greenhouses the week prior and the site visit gave them a chance to see one up close and in person.

As with the previous site visit to Glen and Sadie Frericks’ Blue Diamond Dairy, the students first heard a description of how the business operated from owner Mark Voelker and had a chance to ask questions. They then paired up to complete an audit of the energy use in several greenhouses to which they were assigned and will ultimately offer recommendations and an estimate of savings.

The Farm Energy Auditor Training Program students meet owner Mark Voelker, who talks about how the business operates.Mark expertly answered all manner of questions over the course of the three hours we were there. He touched on everything from heating the greenhouses in winter to fan types and maintenance, from poly film coverings to the schedule for opening up different sections of the facility as winter turns to spring. Mark was a generous host and we greatly appreciate his help with the program. His passion and enthusiasm for his work was catching. It was also a nice feeling to walk into one of the open greenhouses and see it full of plant starts, a sea of green to contrast with the white and brown outside.

Jake Fischer and instructor Jennifer Barker from GDS Associates were on hand to help coordinate the site visit. And the students themselves were impressive in their curiosity and attention to detail, asking good questions that will no doubt help them formulate a useful energy audit that Mark can use to further improve his business.

The 30,000 gallon propane tank with me standing by for size comparison.As Mark explained to the students, “Energy is the number one cost after labor.” For example, he recently upgraded from an 18,000 gallon propane tank to a 30,000 gallon tank for heating. He doesn’t use all of that capacity in a season, but he does purchase up to 9,600 gallon deliveries at a time whenever the price of propane is low. And he does what he can to cut down on heating costs, blowing out all waterlines and pipes in the fall and sealing up any greenhouses not in use for several months. Likewise, he tries to use natural airflow for ventilation, especially as the main growing season comes on, when he opens up the greenhouses in early morning, turns off the heaters and lets the temperature come down until people come in. This approach saves energy. But at present it can be labor intensive, too, since many of the vents are manual and Mark Ahhh, some greenery...takes it upon himself to make sure they are opened and shut at the right times day and night. This is something he hopes he may be able to upgrade in the future. Electricity is the other energy cost in the business; running any lights inside, a few circulation fans, as well as the blower fans that keep the poly-layered greenhouses inflated with a layer of insulating air. These fans run constantly and the trainees hoped they might be able to find some energy savings possibilities there.

After being reminded that it was still nippy outside as the group walked to a few of the offset greenhouses, we appreciated the passive solar warmth of the greenhouses all the more as the students wrapped up their assessments of the property’s energy use and thanked Mark for his time. They’ll be sharing their notes and findings with one another at this week’s class session and will pass them along to Mark. (You can see a collection of photos from the site visit on The Minnesota Project’s Facebook page.)

The class moves along to look at the last few greenhouses.

This first round of the Farm Energy Auditor Training Program will be drawing to a close before long. Students have two more online classes and another site visit, as well as a chance to do any needed make-ups. They’ll also each be completing a free farm energy audit for their final projects. The program is designed to give participants the tools and knowledge necessary to help farmers in saving money and becoming more energy efficient, along with meeting the energy audit requirements of several federal funding programs.

The training program, the first of its kind in the state and also one of the first in the country to focus on farm energy audits, was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Minnesota Department of Commerce through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

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