Developer believes greenhouse could lead to year-round crop production in Sandhills - starherald.com: Hemingford

Developer believes greenhouse could lead to year-round crop production in Sandhills

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Posted: Wednesday, January 4, 2012 11:00 pm

Just a few miles north of Alliance’s Carhenge, sits another roadside oddity. This one is far less noticeable from Hwy. 87, but could have a world-wide impact.

Though it is the midst of winter in the Nebraska Panhandle, Russ Finch has created his own 1,360-sq.-ft. tropical paradise called “Greenhouse in the Snow.” While greenhouses aren’t uncommon in the Great Plains, Finch’s is one-of-a-kind.

Walking through the front door of his home, then through a sunroom, one immediately notices a temperature change. A few more steps lead to a narrow hallway of green vines, plants and trees. Growing from these trees are five types of oranges, three types of lemons, tangerines, limes, grapefruit, dates and any type of citrus fruit that most imagine growing in the Florida sunshine.

The greenhouse is the “fruit” of 35 years of labor, trial and error, and blood sweat and tears. With the plants constantly producing fruit, in various stages throughout the year, the harvest is more than one family can eat. So why would one dedicate so much of his time and effort into this venture. For Finch, it was a challenge – motivating him to prove it could be done.

Finch thinks big. He invented the Kidnapper; a product similar to a pickup truck topper, which was installed in the bed of a truck to allow children or pets to ride along before the days of extended cabs. It is this kind of “big” thinking that has helped him to develop a production greenhouse and growing system suited for the high plains and Sandhills area.

“There are no production greenhouses on the Great Plains, because the cost is too high to run them for 12-months per year,” said Finch.

But, by using geothermal heating technology, lowering the ceiling of the greenhouse and strategically placing the plants to get the most harvest out of a small area, Finch has proved that greenhouses which produce commercial crops, can be done in this area.

The heating system for this greenhouse is a ¾ hp blower motor which circulates air through 1.100 ft. of six-inch tube, which is buried eight feet under the earth.

“Our entire energy cost is less than $600 per year,” said Finch. “That is unheard of, even in other more temperate regions.”

Finch even heats his home with the system. As for the crops, Finch says the quality is excellent and the yield is very heavy. Aside from the citrus fruit, Finch is experimenting with grapes, tomatoes, dates and avocados.

His setup has gained some attention world-wide. He said he is currently working with Pat and Karen Runkle, who own Lil’ Ladybug Greenhouse and Gardens near Hay Springs. Finch said the Runkles are who encouraged him to experiment with tomatoes, to see if it would help in their operation. The design is continuously being tweaked, but so far the tomatoes look promising.

Finch ha also drawn interest from the Middle East and even Mongolia, regions with extreme climates not conducive with growing many types of fruits and vegetables.

Finch thinks the Sandhills create a perfect opportunity for entrepreneurs interested in getting into or expanding their agricultural operations. He said the soil in the Sandhills is good for growing crops while the potential customer base is good for growing a business.

“People don’t realize this, but there are one million people between here and Omaha,” said Finch. “That is a larger customer base than the city of Omaha itself.”

He added that another benefit is that you don’t need a lot of land to establish a Greenhouse. He said on one acre of land, an operator could place four greenhouses, over twice as long as his own.

While this industry is all about the crop, Finch’s enterprise has more to do with the structure. He said until this year, he has never sold the fruit he produces, but he likely will with the help of Lil’ Ladybug, just because he has so much of it. Greenhouse in the Snow is more directed at manufacturing these ultra-efficient greenhouses.

He has utilized other area businesses in the development of his product. About 18 months ago, he was forced to rebuild his original greenhouse. The wood frame was rotting and frost had gotten in, damaging some of his trees. When he rebuilt, he enlisted Antioch Machine Shop of Alliance, which built a steel frame.

Finch said the process of building the greenhouse is relatively simple. The frame is designed to slide together like “Tinker Toys.” The panels are a light weight Lexan glazing material which is very flexible, yet very durable. Finch said that the product has proved itself through many large hailstorms over the past two years.

Greehouse in the Snow fabricates the greenhouses in six-foot sections. To save costs on freight, the company sells the metal frames and the Lexan glazing material. All of the other material needed to build the structure, is available locally. The cost of a 78-ft.-long unit is estimated at less than $18,000.

“I think this is a great thing for schools,” said Finch. “I was a D student throughout high school, but if they would have offered something like this, that would have kept my interest, I think I would have done better in school.”

Finch recently assisted Garden County High School in building a 54-ft.-long greenhouse which will be used by their FFA program. He said this spring, Alliance High School will begin construction of their own Greenhouse in the Snow. After assisting with that project, Finch hopes to develop his company further, by hopefully drawing interest from food banks, nursing homes, community gardens and even prisons.

For those wanting to find out more about Greenhouse in the Snow, contact Finch at (308) 762-3042 or by email at greenhouseinthesnow@hotmail.com.

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