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More farmers harvesting wind, biodiesel

Brain Zachary and his father-in-law, Joseph Weishaar, stand in front of the electric wind turbine they erected on their farm just outside of Creston, Iowa.
Brain Zachary and his father-in-law, Joseph Weishaar, stand in front of the electric wind turbine they erected on their farm just outside of Creston, Iowa. Steve Pope / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Joe Weisshaar always knew the winds whipping across his family's farm could offer more than a cool breeze.

He just didn't how to harness it.

"I started going to a bunch of seminars, trying to figure out how to do this. But I was going no place," said Weisshaar, who has farmed on family land for 50 years in Creston, about 75 miles southwest of Des Moines.

That's when Weisshaar linked up with his son-in-law, a grad student with an expertise in grant writing. Finally able to navigate the paperwork, he obtained a federal grant and the Weisshaar Family Farm added an electric wind turbine in February.

"It's always been windy here," says Brian Zachary, Weisshaar's son-in-law and next-door neighbor. "It's a resource that's just been slipping away."

Squeezed by high energy prices and more overhead costs, some small farms are exploring ways to increase their energy efficiency and lower costs. By erecting wind turbines, making biodiesel fuel and adopting more efficient tilling practices, farmers have cut costs and reduced their environmental impact.

"It's one of those things, just like a regular homeowner, when you start talking about the things you've done at your household and how to lower your energy bill," said Kamyar Enshayan, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Energy and Environmental Education.

Practices such as generating power from the wind or brewing biodiesel aren't new, but experts said increased costs have motivated farmers to take another look at their operations.

Tracking the number of farmers who have made such moves is difficult, but those who study agriculture think it's becoming more common, as farmers are motivated by potential profits and benefits to the environment.

Lots of buzz in Creston
Weisshaar has certainly seen the interest. Since erecting his turbine, he's become a local celebrity of sorts. The turbine sits in the middle of his farm, between his house and his daughter's house, and is easily visible from a nearby highway. Unexpected visitors are fairly common.

"They see it and they're excited about it," said Mary Jane Weisshaar, Joe's wife. "A lot of people pull into the driveway and they say 'I've wanted to do something like that.' But they don't have a clue."

Alliant Energy estimates that Iowa has more than 600 wind turbines, which collectively produce enough electricity to power 140,000 homes. Most of those turbines are located on wind farms and are not individually owned.

Brain Zachary reads data on the control panel of the electric wind turbine that he and his wife and in-laws erected on their farm just outside of Creston, Iowa, on Sept. 12, 2007.Steve Pope / AP

During particularly windy months, the Weisshaars have collected as much as 4,000 kilowatts of energy — while using only 2,000 or so to power their home. Their agreement with their power company lets them bank the extra energy, using it during less windy months.

Although they could sell their energy back to the power company, Zachary said it saves the family more money to bank the kilowatts.

Steve Fugate, an Iowa-based energy consultant who works with farmers on efficiency efforts, said some farmers may face a struggle for survival if they don't limit energy costs.

"Energy prices are just skyrocketing and it's one of those costs that farmers can't control at all," he said. "You're looking at people getting five dollars a bushel for corn and if their gas price triples or their electricity bill increases then they're not making a profit."

Biodiesel coop
Among other efforts, Fugate helps run the Yoderville Co-op in Iowa, where farmers pool resources and use shared equipment to create biodiesel fuel. Biodiesel reduces their costs, lessens the uncertainty about the day-to-day fluctuations of gas prices and burns more cleanly than gas.

"We all know we're on a razor's edge with oil supply and refining capacity," Fugate said. "It won't take a lot, something catastrophic happening, and then it's not crazy to suggest oil prices might double."

There are even simpler approaches to going green on the farm. Jerry DeWitt, the director of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, knows of farmers who have adjusted the ways they plow, trimming costs by limiting the number of trips back and forth across their land.

"If you can lessen the number of trips, you can save fuel," DeWitt said. "We've also worked with folks who are developing no-till fields."

Going green isn't a panacea for every struggling farmer. The Weisshaars' turbine, for example, cost about $140,000, of which $29,000 was covered by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The family expects the energy savings to pay off the investment in 10 to 15 years, although that timeframe could shrink if energy costs continue to balloon.

"We're pretty sure they'll keep raising rates," Zachary said. "And as the rates get higher, we're going to save more money in a shorter period of time."