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How a farmer grows citrus year-round on the Nebraska plains

Lemons and oranges from the Midwest? If Russ Finch’s “Greenhouse in the Snow” takes off, that might not be a strange notion for much longer.

For decades, the expense (and carbon footprint) of heating greenhouses during harsh Midwest winters made the notion of maintaining one year-round borderline preposterous. No longer.

Meet Russ Finch, the former farmer and mail carrier who designed Greenhouse in the Snow—Nebraska’s first twelve-month system, which costs $1 a day to heat. How did Finch manage to keep the cost so low? By ditching propane and electric heaters for a much more natural source of warmth: geothermal energy. Captured from beneath the earth, the heat used to keep Greenhouse in the Snow’s trees happy and healthy is distributed throughout the greenhouse by an elaborate system of underground tubes.

To get the full story, Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media took a step inside Finch’s geothermal greenhouse in Alliance, Nebraska:

“We have no backup system,” Finch explains. “The only heat source is the Earth’s heat: 52 degrees at eight feet deep.” A second series of perforated tubes is placed in a trench outside, also eight feet deep. If the greenhouse gets too hot or too cold, a small fan blows in air from these outside tubes—the only form of energy that costs money to maintain. The small motor that runs the fan is the source of the dollar-a-day energy bill, drastically reducing the amount of fossil fuels required to control the indoor climate.

Finch originally started out growing flowers and other types of greenery, but soon realized that if people were going to start take Greenhouse in the Snow seriously, he needed to prove he could grow a marketable crop. Citrus become the ultimate litmus test. With greening disease threatening groves in Florida and Texas (and California farmers desperately searching for more water supplies), the opportunity to grow the fruit in a place like Nebraska could potentially make Finch’s invention more than just a novelty to the struggling citrus industry.

“Not only can we grow [the fruit] cheaper on cheaper land, we’ve got the water, abundant sunshine, and you don’t have the transportation cost,” says Finch. “We can grow the best citrus in the world right here on the High Plains.”

The one setback that remains is the cost to build a new greenhouse—at $22,000, it’s certainly not cheap. But the ability to grow a few hundred pounds of fruit each year in harsh winter climates could be a game-changer for middle America. So far, seventeen of the greenhouses have been built in six states, including one at the nearby high school in Finch's own Alliance, Nebraska, where students grow veggies to serve in school lunches.

To learn more about Greenhouse in the Snow, visit greenhouseinthesnow.com.


Could geothermal greenhouses make access to fresh, sustainably-produced food easier in the Midwest?

 

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