Secretary of Agriculture lauds Huntersville greenhouse
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE — Metrolina Greenhouses served as a backdrop Monday, June 25, for an announcement that the USDA’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) is providing 450 farmers and business owners with more than $7 million in grants.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced after a tour of the greenhouses that out of the 450 recipients, 31 are in North Carolina for projects that promote energy efficiency and sustainability.
In 2009, Metrolina Greenhouses received a combined grant and loan from REAP to construct a wood boiler heating system to supplement and replace its use of natural gas and fuel.
Vilsack got to see first-hand just how the company used its grant.
The VanWingerden brothers, Abe, Art and Thomas, who own and operate the sprawling 140-acre facility, explained how the wood boiler system is used to heat the facility during the winter. The system heats millions of gallons of water, which are pumped through pipes under the greenhouse.
Once the water is heated, it’s pumped through pipes under the greenhouse.
The wood burner is all digitally controlled by a complex system with ever-changing numbers and can heat up to 7 million gallons of water at one time.
The burner last year produced 187 BTU of heat, about half of what it did the previous year due to the mild winter.
Not only does this save the company money on gas and electric expenses, all of the wood it uses to burn is scrap that would have otherwise been thrown away. Wooden pallets, lumber leftovers and other wood scraps are chipped, dried and stored at the greenhouse. Most of the wood comes from within 100 miles around the Charlotte area.
During the winter, the burners use about 14 truckloads of wood chips each day.
“We’re seeing a lot more schools and businesses starting systems like this,” Vilsack said while exploring the control room.
He said it’s important to convince Congress to fund grant programs like REAP to keep businesses at the front-end of sustainable and energy-efficient technology.
But as the fight for funding gets increasingly more difficult on the federal level for some programs, Vilsack encouraged the VanWingerden brothers to consider partnering with a university to help educate others about this kind of technology.
“It’s helpful to know the science behind these things,” he said. “Plus, you need a continuous string of people coming in to help run this place, so the question is where does the next generation of horticulturalists come from and what’s going to get them interested?
“Urban farming is taking off and your prototype of this is just a whole lot of opportunity, Vilsack said. “There’s a lot of interest in hydroponics and vertical gardening and this is an exciting opportunity.”
Metrolina also uses innovative technologies to treat its water, ridding it of chemicals, and uses a TTA Pack Planter Wireless to ease the strain of manual labor, enabling the facility to transplant dozens of plants at once.
Tom VanWingerden, the founder of the greenhouse, was the pioneer of its automation.
“His motto was always ‘automate or stagnate,’” Holly Hess, public relations coordinator for Metrolina, explained.
His sons have carried on that sense of innovation, using things such as the wood burner, water filtration system, and innovative watering techniques to make the company more sustainable and efficient.
“This is a quintessential American story,” Vilsack said after his tour of the facility. “A family comes with a dream 40 years ago, and a modest dream, of 10 acres, and now they have 140 acres and support six families and provide flowers and plants across the U.S.”
Vilsack said the story of the VanWingerden’s is one of “extraordinary innovation” and that if more farms and businesses adopt creative and innovative ways of thinking, they will transform rural America.
“We have a lot more work to do, but this is just an example of what is possible,” he said. “I just think this is an amazing place. I will never think of a greenhouse in the same way.”
Vilsack said REAP has provided more than 600,000 grants in its efforts to strengthen rural America.
Visit www.usda.gov. to learn more about the recent grant funds made available to North Carolina business owners.