Versatile, Environmentally Friendly Propane Powers American Agriculture

Saving a colorful fruit orchard in western Massachusetts from a damaging frost, eliminating weeds on an organic farm in Missouri, keeping a flower-packed greenhouse in rural Iowa warm, and aiding farmers in grain drying across the world — all have one thing in common: propane.

Propane has proven to be a great resource for farmers. It is a portable, clean-burning, low-carbon fuel powering daily operations in ways that keep costs manageable while treating the environment with care.

The uses for propane in agriculture are many and varied. (For an extended list, see the box below.) Here we highlight four applications that provide environmentally friendly support for American agriculture.

Saving Orchards from the Deep Freeze

In 2007 Russell Braen and Alane Hartley grew tired of their 9-5 jobs. They wanted a change. Braen and Hartley found that change in the Park Hill Orchard, 127-acres in Easthampton, Massachusetts with apples, plums, blueberries, and cherries.

A spring freeze can wipe out the entire Massachusetts fruit crop. To prevent freeze related crop loss, Braen uses a portable propane-powered frost control machine. The frost control machine is pulled behind a tractor and circulates warm air among the trees. The propane-powered machine warms the fruit blossoms and protects the trees.

In 2017 after a late spring freeze, the majority of the Massachusetts fruit crop was lost, but not at Park Hill Orchard. Propane frost machines are the difference between a catastrophic crop loss and a bumper crop.

Flame Weeding Organic (and Conventional) Crops

David Yoder is a third-generation Missouri farmer with a 518-acre family farm near Garden City.  5 Star Family Farms grows organic corn, soybeans and milo.

One important technique for maintenance of organic plots is flame weeding. Propane-fueled torches are and mounted on tow-behind equipment and burn away low-lying weeds quickly and cheaply. It is an excellent and affordable way to weed without chemical herbicides. It also dramatically reduces the need for mechanical weeding, which can affect soil quality in organic agriculture production.

Although organic growers are the major users flame weeding, farmers growing conventional crops see benefits too. Conventional crop growers are looking for ways to banish weeds that have become increasingly resistant to chemical herbicides.   Weeds are not resistant to the 2,000oF heat of the flame weeding torches.  Flame weeding is a critical tool in weed management.

Greenhouses Stay Warm with Propane

Swift Greenhouses in Gilman, Iowa sells starter plants in every state except Hawaii.  Swift maintains five acres of greenhouse space that shelters more than 1100 varieties of plants.  All of that greenhouse space needs to be heated during cold Iowa winters, and that takes a lot of propane.

Swift estimates that an average of 225,000 gallons of propane are used each year.

Being able to control optimal greenhouse temperatures is important—70oF at night and 60oF during the day.  Propane power provides the ability to create the growing microclimate that Swift needs.  Swift details the role propane plays in greenhouse operations in this Straight Talk video.

Ensuring Farmer Grain Harvest Storage

For almost 70 years, the family-owned Mathews Company, in northern Illinois’ Crystal Lake, has been helping to ensure the world’s grain harvest with its grain storage dryers.

Grain needs to be stored in a low moisture environment. From field to storage, the moisture content in the grain  is critical. It can be the difference between a profitable harvest and significant crop loss.

Mathews Company makes a wide variety of grain dryers that use heat to dry grain.  About 90% of the dryers are powered by propane.  Grain dryers are used on a variety of crops including corn, wheat, soybeans, canola, sunflower seeds, and barley.  Grain with a high moisture content results in a profit loss.  Propane power makes controlling the moisture content a manageable variable for the farmer.

The Numbers on Propane in U.S. Agriculture

Some 40 percent of farms in the United States rely on propane in their operations. About half of all farms use propane as the energy source for their home and residences. Some 850 million gallons of propane were sold for agricultural use in 2016, the last year for which information is available. That number constitutes 10 percent of all propane sales in the country.

Propane and Sustainability

As farmers drive toward greater sustainability, propane offers an affordable, low-carbon alternative to diesel or gasoline. Propane is a portable, high-density fuel. It is cleaner when it burns and far safer for the environment than traditional fuels. Propane is a cost-efficient, low-carbon fuel.

Propane is renewable. As renewable propane becomes more widely available, propane will further cement its reputation as an essential tool for sustainable agriculture. Propane derived from biomass sources is already in use. Research is underway that may yield other renewable sources of propane.

Whether saving orchards from damaging frost, eradicating weeds on organic farms, keeping greenhouses warm, or drying grain for storage, propane’s versatility has already made it an essential element in American agriculture and one that is likely to expand its importance over time.

Uses of Propane in Agriculture

  • Agricultural Building Heat
    • Greenhouses
    • Incubation Facilities
    • Livestock Facilities
    • Milk Parlors
    • Poultry and Pig Brooding Facilities
  • CO2 Generation (for plant growth enhancement in greenhouses)
  • Drying Produce
  • Flame Sanitation (for indoor livestock spaces)
  • Flame Weeding
  • Forklifts
  • Frost Protection Equipment
  • Generators
  • Grain Dryers
  • Irrigation Engines
  • Light-Duty Vehicles (such as pick-up trucks)
  • Medium-Duty Vehicles (such as delivery vans)
  • Stock Tank Heating
  • Tractors, Combines, Lawnmowers and Other Self-Propelled Farm Equipment
  • Water Heating (for food processing and other purposes)