Midwestern geothermal greenhouse provides local citrus year round for $1 a day

greenhouse in the snow
Video screen capture YouTube/Harvest Public Media

Greenhouse in the Snow, built by a former mailman, grows an abundance of local produce high on the Nebraska plains.

"We can grow the best citrus in the world, right here on the high plains,” says Russ Finch, the former mailman (pictured above) who is the creative superstar genius responsible for building the Greenhouse in the Snow. And he can do it spending only $1 a day in energy costs.

For Midwesterners (and many of the rest of us) produce in the winter means things imported form warmer climes or grown in greenhouses, which typically have a prodigious hunger for energy and are fed by burning fossil fuels.

But by harnessing the Earth's natural internal heat to warm a greenhouse, oranges and other tropical treats thrive without the waste and pollution typically found in so much agriculture. Finch’s structure is a take on a walipini – a brilliant design that TreeHugger has written about (and which remains one of our most popular posts: Build a $300 underground greenhouse for year-round gardening).

As Grant Gerlock writes at NPR, the floor is dug 4 feet below the surface, the roof is slanted toward the south to harness as much sun as it can. In the daytime it can warm well into the 80s (F) inside, but at night the temperature drops, which is when the geothermal heat is called in.

"All we try to do is keep it above 28F degrees in the winter," Finch says. "We have no backup system for heat. The only heat source is the Earth's heat, at 52F degrees at 8-foot deep."

Which is good enough for the oranges, and all kinds of other delicacies.

"Any type of plant we saw, we would put it in and see what it could do. We didn't baby anything," Finch says. "We just put it in and if it died, it died. But most everything really grows well. We can grow practically any tropical plant."

"There have been hardly any successful 12-month greenhouses on the northern High Plains because of the weather," Finch adds. "The cost of energy is too high for it. But by tapping into the Earth's heat, we've been able to drastically reduce the cost."

Finch grows a few hundred pounds of fruit each year to sell at local farmers markets, notes Gerlock, but his main business is selling the design for his greenhouse in the snow. And while a new greenhouse costs $22,000 to build, the beauty of running them is kind of priceless. To date, 17 of his designs have been built in the U.S. and Canada – we hope to see many more.

Changing the world one orange-grown-in-the-winter-in-Nebraska at a time? Bring it on!

Watch the charming Mr. FInch (and cat!) in a tour of the greenhouse in the video below.

Tags: Farming | Food Miles | Nebraska

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