Documentary — Nebraska Retiree Uses Earth’s Heat to Grow Oranges in Snow
Winter temperatures in Alliance, Nebraska can drop to -20°F (the record low is -40°F/C), but retired mailman Russ Finch grows oranges in his backyard greenhouse without paying for heat. Instead, he draws on the earth's stable temperature (around 52 degrees in his region) to grow warm weather produce- citrus, figs, pomegranates - in the snow.
Finch first discovered geothermal heating in 1979 when he and his wife built it into their 4400-square-foot dream home to cut energy costs. Eighteen years later they decided to add a 16'x80' greenhouse in the backyard. The greenhouse resembles a pit greenhouse (walipini) in that the floor is dug down 4 feet below the surface and the roof is slanted to catch the southern sun.
To avoid using heaters for the cold Nebraska winter nights, Finch relies on the warm underground air fed into the greenhouse via plastic tubing under the yard and one fan.
Finch sells a "Citrus in the Snow" report detailing his work with his "geo-air" greenhouses and says anyone can build a market-producing greenhouse for about $25,000 or "less than the cost of a heat system on a traditional greenhouse".
- Tropical fruits can be grown in subzero climates with geothermal energy
- The only heat source for geothermal greenhouses is the Earth’s heat, which is 52 degrees at 8 feet deep
- Energy costs to run a geothermal greenhouse are less than a dollar a day
- Harmful herbicides and pesticides can be avoided with geothermal greenhouses
- Geothermal greenhouse produce is marketable at local farmer's markets
- The crops can be more profitable because there are few transportation costs involved
Genetically modified seeds, the weed killer Roundup (glyphosate), and other dangerous agro chemicals and pesticides have hijacked our food system. This chemically-based method of industrial agriculture has irrevocably damaged the soil. It kills the microorganisms that provide the nutrients needed for plant growth and nutrition, depleting the soil minerals that enrich our food.
Because of soil depletion, fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than those grown today;1 each successive generation of pesticide-resistant, gene-altered fruits and vegetables now is less nutritious than the one before.
That is why I highly recommend starting your own garden to supply fresh, organic foods to your family and avoid these destructive agricultural practices. I recently saw a documentary, “Nebraska Retiree Uses Earth's Heat to Grow Oranges in Snow,”2 about a former wheat farmer who is perfecting the art of indoor gardening in dramatic ways.
Retiree Reconceptualizes Farming in Cold Terrains
Russ Finch, a retired wheat farmer and postal worker who resides in Alliance, Nebraska, has used his aptitude for physics to solve two major agricultural hurdles: how to grow year-round produce in cold climates that can hover under zero degrees and how to do so economically.
After retirement, Finch heard about the possibilities of geothermal energy. Despite encountering skepticism from University of Nebraska scientists about his idea to grow citrus fruit in the coldest of climates, Finch proceeded. This is how Grower Talks describes his initial project.3
"So he constructed a 70-ft.-long greenhouse with a 4-ft.-deep pit. The pit allowed Russ to experiment not only with off-season plants, but trees, planting them directly into the ground. A 10-in. wheel blower was used to circulate the air through seven 6-in. tubes, with a total length of 1,050 ft.
It’s a completely closed-loop system, continuously recycling the same air. Using low-grade geothermal energy (referred to as geo air) alone, Russ was able to successfully maintain a consistent heat of 52F from one end of the greenhouse to the other without any back-up heat.
During the day, the internal heat increased due to the prolific, bright sunlight that the high altitudes of Nebraska is known for. The roof is slanted to the south, taking advantage of the solar rays to increase the temperature from 52F to the mid-70s (at times 80s) during the sunnier winter days. Russ was able to achieve his ideal temperature."
The warm air, obtained from perforated plastic tubing that is buried underground, is all that’s used for heat for the greenhouse — no propane or electric heaters. “All we try to do is keep it above 28 degrees in the winter,” said Finch. "The only heat source is the Earth’s heat, at 52 degrees at 8 foot deep."4 The heat is then returned to the ground to heat the structure during the cooler evenings.5
A Successful and Affordable Enterprise
Finch's geothermal energy-based farming has been fruitful, pun intended. The greenhouse includes 20 citrus trees with 13 varieties of fruits, along with cacti, orchids, nine varieties of grapes, figs, avocados, ivy, tomatoes, garden plants and flowers.6 One 24-year-old tree will grow to be 100 years old or more, says Finch.7
Each tree is capable of producing as much as 125 pounds of fruit every year which Finch sells at local farmers markets.8 The year-round growing and low transportation costs help the marketability of the products says Finch –– and "locally grown" can be just as much of a sales point as "organic." Finch sells Valencia oranges, the fruit from which most juice comes. The temperatures are so salutatory, you could probably grow bananas too, he muses.9
Yet the energy costs associated with running the geothermal greenhouse are surprisingly low –– less than a dollar a day. A geothermal greenhouse Finch designed for a local high school in Alliance has used an average of 96 cents a day in energy costs for the last several years.10
Nor are construction costs high. "It only took two of us a few hours to put up the frame," says Finch. Despite how cost prohibitive farming can be with huge economic barriers, "young people could get into this for less than the price of a tractor," he says.11
Finch also sells the greenhouse "kits" that can be installed in increments of 6 feet by fitting the pieces into sections. A farmer or rancher with a backhoe and construction skills, "can put one up for about $23,000,” says Finch.
Herbicides like Roundup and pesticides which include the notorious chlorpyrifos, atrazine and neonicotinoids, have endangered much of the U.S. food system, polluted our water systems and contributed to resistant pathogens.
The so-called Dirty Dozen with the highest pesticide concentrations include strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. Human consumption of pesticides has been linked to cancer risks, fertility problems and other health concerns.
Fortunately, there are safe, effective and natural alternatives for almost any pest problem that an individual gardener might come across. For example, a mashed garlic paste combined with a little cayenne pepper or horseradish made into a homemade garden spray will discourage most pests.
Add a small amount to a gallon jug of water and let it sit for a day or two, shaking it occasionally. The only caution is you should spray a small amount onto a few leaves first as a "test" to make sure the formula is not so strong that it burns leaves or stems.
In the documentary, Finch has some intriguing pest control methods of his own. This is how the Star Herald describes them.12
"Insect pests such as white flies or aphids sometimes show up, but he keeps them in check with a horticultural oil spray that works by smothering the insects or their eggs or disrupting the way they feed. He began using the oil after trying for several years to control the bugs with poison.
'The bugs got immune to it," he said. With the new method, "You can spray a berry and eat it, because it’s just mineral oil.'"
Other Innovative Growing Models
Because Finch's greenhouses rely on geothermal heat in winter, they need to be at least 54 feet long for maximum efficiency. "That kind of rules it out for a city lot,” he says. “Most all of them are going to farms and ranches."13
But a hydroponic farm (sometimes called a container farm) in Robbinsville Township, New Jersey, is also thinking outside of the agricultural box –– growing high quality local herbs and greens in an urbanized setting with a small footprint.14
The crops, which are grown in assembled containers from the umbrella organization Freight Farms, are high quality local herbs and greens grown on a small footprint that can be sold to restaurants which support farm-to-table produce.
Basil, mint and kale tend to be the most popular crops followed by spinach. The crops are generally kept at 75 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night and can be maintained by one person for as little as 25 hours a week. Customers also come directly to the Robbinsville township hydroponic farm to purchase greens.
Innovative Cannabis Farming
Cannabis farming is another agriculture sector benefiting from out-of-the-box thinking. At one operation, the Los Sueños Farms outside of Pueblo, Colorado, some plants are grown outside, some in greenhouses and some in greenhouses with no walls to allow solar maximization while permitting fresh air to circulate and prevent too much heat from accumulating. The choice of under what conditions to grow them depends on their genetic expression.
For outdoor plants, drones with different lenses hover over the plants, reporting their respiration rate, any insects or disease risks and plants that might be struggling for one reason or another to the growers. Humidity and lighting are computer controlled for indoor plants and an advanced drip watering system with an emitter every 12 inches provides pressure compensated irrigation and the ability to provide specific nutrients.
The 36-acre farm, which consists of four separate farms, processes 40,000 pounds of "biomass" each harvest. While the machinery does not require human labor, a quality control person inspects the product as it comes out of the twister to make sure all stems have been removed at their base.
If you live near local farmers markets, you are fortunate –– but many are forced to rely on grocery stores for their fruits and vegetables. That is why Russ Finch's geothermal energy greenhouses are such encouraging news.