Nursery Business Uses Radiant Heat To Keep Plants Happy 24 Hours-a-Day

4/15/2014 8:00:00 AM

Tom Lundahl, Lucena Morse and Michael Shonka have some very important attributes in common – a love and respect for the field of agriculture, Nebraska overall and the innovation that can help both come to life in new, progressive and conservationist fashions.

The trio met due to Shonka’s expertise in solar energy.  Morse and Lundahl are partners operating Meristem Farm & Nursery and were looking at the value of alternative energy systems in their greenhouse operation. They were already using passive solar and hydronic heating in one of their facilities. Now, with the help of Shonka, they are building a section of their new gutter-connected greenhouse to be set up with radiant floor heat using a series of solar hot water panels mounted near the facility.

“Typical greenhouses produce sufficient solar heat during the winter day, but at night they have no way to heat up their plant beds,” Shonka explained. “So, we are installing 24 solar hot water panels to provide radiant heat to a 12 by 72 foot portion of the 72 by 44 foot greenhouse.”

Shonka said the solar panels heat up the water that is pumped into a tank. The heated water then moves through tubes embedded in concrete on the plant benches, providing radiant heat to the plants. These benches are designed to be mobile on a track, allowing space for more plants and also creating a more versatile workplace for those caring for the crops inside – in this case aronia (also known as chokeberries) that are cultivated as both ornamental plants and food products.

There is a business risk to innovation, but there are significant rewards that can be shared and replicated by other farmers. The greenhouse project was awarded a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust for its innovation, conservation of resources and potential economic impact in the state.

Lundahl has been an agricultural innovator his entire life. Born in Wakefield, Neb. the family farmed until his father decided to enter the ministry. He still retained a passion for farming and since has operated three different farms – growing everything from corn and soybeans (in rotation with sweet clover, oats and alfalfa) to vegetables.

Lundahl said he did not want to go into debt during the 1980s, so he opted to be innovative and entrepreneurial in his endeavors in order to continue in the agricultural field he loves. He met Shonka during a class he took at Metropolitan Community College and decided to use his skills in solar to enhance his operation.

“The current greenhouse we are working on was moved in from South Dakota. The structure was used there as a hog house,” Lundahl explained. “Now we’re growing aronia in it by Papillion. We have definitely been willing to adapt and change to make our farm continue.”

Shonka is proud to work with Lundahl and Morse to help their agricultural dreams come true. He also said that the students he teaches have a passion for solar energy, “Solar is not the only answer, but it’s one of the answers, and I want to encourage their desire to see this technology grow.

Another project that is important to Nebraska’s agriculture economy is the solar electric system installed on a pivot at the Beller family farm near Lindsay this past summer. One-hundred solar modules were installed behind the meter that runs a 60 horsepower pump. The solar modules were on a rack 130 feet long and tied into the grid.

“The solar system will generate electricity all year long, but the irrigation season is only three months. This year we were fortunate to have a wet year so the solar system actually produced a small surplus. We expect on a typical year that it would save 50 to 80 percent of the electrical costs, depending on the size of the pump,” Shonka said.

“We enjoy trying new things,” Lundahl said about his entrepreneurial spirit.

Morse added, “It’s really nice to see Nebraska Farm Bureau interested in projects like this.”

Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation agrees, it’s going to take diversity, innovation and a good business plan for farmers and ranchers of all different backgrounds to be viable in the future.

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