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An entrepreneurial farm family produces uncommon commodities

Altura, Minn. — The Kreidermachers aren’t your typical southeast Minnesota farm family. Besides hogs, they raise poinsettias, vegetables, bedding plants and perennials on a 160-acre farm — year round. Now the family is adding fuel pellets to their operation’s production list.

Edward and Joyce Kreidermacher founded Pork and Plants in the 1980s. Their children Eric and Maria joined the family business several years ago. Today, the farm includes 65,000-square-feet of greenhouses, partially heated by two biomass boilers that burn wood pellets and corn.

Eric, with his brother Paul, also operates Alternative Energy Systems, which markets commercial and residential biomass boilers. They are working with AURI to develop pellets made from local resources such as corn stover, soybean straw and native prairie grasses to fuel the boilers.

Prairie fuel

The Kreidermachers see acres of marginal farmland in southeastern Minnesota’s rolling bluff country that may be better suited to native prairie grasses than conventional farming. Those acres could provide the biomass needed to produce fuel pellets. About a year ago, the brothers purchased two large pellet mills. This spring, they expect to begin producing pellets to fuel the Pork and Plants greenhouses.

“There’s been a lot of trial and error, but you learn as you go and find the people who know what you need to know,” Eric says. “We want to be self sufficient and produce fuel for ourselves and others.”

The Kreidermachers are “ahead of their time,” says Alan Doering, AURI associate scientist. Doering has been working with the Kreidermachers in AURI’s coproducts lab in Waseca to develop biomass pellet blends using crop residue and grasses. “This project is progressive and focuses on many of the issues AURI has been involved with including biomass utilization, densification and energy independence.”

The Kreidermachers have already planted 20 acres of their farm to prairie grasses as it takes two to three years for native grasses to fully establish. But the perennials do not require any inputs once established and can be harvested once a year, then chopped and made into pellets.

Eric says the Department of Natural Resources may consider opening some state grasslands to biomass harvest as an alternative to prescribed burns. The Kreidermachers may also source biomass and prairie grasses from neighboring farmers.

Entrepreneurial roots

Eric says it’s his family’s nature to take atypical approaches to business. His parents purchased the family farm, just outside Altura in Winona County, in the late 1960s. They raised dairy cows and later added hogs.

Joyce was interested in growing vegetables and plants but couldn’t always find varieties she wanted at area greenhouses. So she researched seeds and sourced her own.

With help from their four children, the Kreidermachers expanded and soon were selling plants to friends and neighbors.

In 1985, the family named the business Pork and Plants and added a large greenhouse. The controlled environment offers safety from the icy outside air for thousands of bedding plants, vegetables and flowers. Since the Kreidermachers raise plants year-round, the protection is expensive.

“About half of a year’s worth of fuel consumption is used just raising poinsettias,” Eric says. “There’s getting to be fewer people who raise them because of that.”

Building off biomass

The Kreidermachers added biomass boilers to lower propane costs about five years ago, before most people were serious about biomass energy. Burning wood pellets and corn “has cut our costs in half,” Eric says.

“We jumped into the boilers without a lot of information. There was a lot of trial and error, but it’s in our nature to see what’s out there that’s new and better.”

Powering the greenhouse operation consumes about 20,000 bushels of corn or 500 to 600 tons of pellets, Eric says. Kreidermachers’ two pellet mills could produce significantly more fuel than Pork and Plants will use. They envision one mill producing pellets for commercial boilers and the other for residential burners. They are also considering a mobile unit for in-field fuel production.

Eric says they are still on a learning curve. “A lot will be figured out as we go,” he says. “We’re doing it on a smaller scale by powering our own operation first and working into other potential markets.”

“Here are producers using biomass from their own farm to produce energy for another part of the operation,” Doering says. “This is a true example of producer-owned energy.”