Corn warms D.C. suburb


TAKOMA PARK - The corn-burning stove that Mike Tidwell put in his living room last winter kept most of his 87-year-old, two-story bungalow toasty warm - so much, in fact, that his furnace never came on.

But Tidwell and some other local residents who use the stoves realized they still had one big hurdle to overcome this winter: how to store enough corn in this Washington suburb.

Their solution was a 25-foot-tall grain silo that holds nearly 21 tons of shelled field corn. Used mainly as animal feed, this type of corn has become more popular in recent years as a clean-burning, economical alternative to natural gas, oil and wood.

"It's a standard agricultural procedure happening right here in Takoma Park, except we're using it to heat our homes," Tidwell said while watching an 18-wheel rig fill the silo with its first delivery of more than 20 tons of corn kernels last week.

But the silo also stands as a symbol of the unique partnership forged between the city, businesses and local residents - one that Tidwell, a writer and environmental activist, hopes other communities will emulate.

About 10 families are participating in the Save Our Sky Home Heating Cooperative. Its members pay a one-time $100 fee, plus $400 to cover the cost of the corn for the heating season.

Tidwell estimated that each of the families would use an average of 3 1/2 tons of corn to heat their homes this winter, which will likely mean another corn delivery later in the heating season.

The cooperative covered the $4,000 cost of the silo mainly through donations from businesses. American Energy Systems Inc., a Minnesota corn-stove manufacturer, gave a $3,000 grant to the cooperative to help defray the cost.

One of the manufacturer's Maryland dealers, Cornburners Inc. of Finksburg, chipped in $500.

And the nonprofit Chesapeake Climate Action Network (of which Tidwell serves as executive director) contributed another $500.

The city of Takoma Park was persuaded - after ironing out liability concerns - to allow the residents to put the silo on a small patch of land at its Department of Public Works compound, which is nestled in the midst of a leafy neighborhood.

Corn-burning stoves have been around since the early 1980s, taking root in the Midwest where farmers have easy access to the crop. But their appeal has spread across the country wherever there is cold.

Mike Haefner, president of American Energy Systems, one of more than 30 stove manufacturers in the United States, has been making and selling corn-burning stoves since the early 1980s.

The Midwest is his busiest market, followed by Eastern states, such as New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Last year, his company made 7,500 stoves, but turned away orders for 8,500 more because he lacked the manufacturing capacity. Since then, the company in Hutchinson, Minn., built a plant that's capable of making 20,000 stoves a year.

Helping the Save Our Sky Home Heating Cooperative get a silo for their corn was an astute business move, Haefner acknowledges.

Dealers across the country sell his stoves for between $2,100 and $2,500, plus installation fees -at least half the cost of a typical natural-gas furnace. Many of the cooperative's members are buying his stoves.

"We're committed to putting together whatever it takes to make corn a viable heating alternative," Haefner said.

Tidwell, who stores the corn kernels in trash cans in his garage, said he shaved $200 off his heating costs last winter.

Thom Wolf, another Takoma Park resident, said he was spending about $300 a month to heat his home with natural gas before installing a corn-burning stove last winter.

Last winter, Wolf said, he spent between $60 and $100 a month to run his stove. The corn stove heated about two-thirds of his 3,000-square-foot home, while he used a natural gas stove for the rest.

Dennis Buffington, a Pennsylvania State University professor of agricultural and biological engineering, said he expects the use of corn as fuel to become more widespread in the near future, pointing to a number of environmental, economic and even political benefits.

"It renews itself in three or four months as compared with the hundreds of millions of years it takes for coal or natural gas to be produced," Buffington said.

"We're reducing our reliance on foreign sources, and providing a much needed impact for our rural communities."

Tidwell said the cooperative buys its corn from Gary Boll, a Frederick County farmer, because he employs environmentally friendly growing techniques, such as no-till farming, which lessens soil erosion.

About 80 percent of the fertilizer he uses is manure from his own animals, while the rest is chemical fertilizers, Boll said.

An abundance of corn has kept its market price low for years. Boll said he makes more money selling his corn for fuel than he does selling to mills for commercial processing.

Before he started selling his corn for fuel, he used most of it as feed for his hogs. Now he sees a future in selling corn for fuel.

"Last year, we sold 40 tons for the whole winter," said Boll. "This year we have one ton short of 40 already that we've sold."

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