Hazelnuts at Badgersett Farm

Solar-Powered Off-the-Grid Greenhouse at Badgersett Farm: Interview with Owner Phil Rutter

This summer on Saturday, August 20th Badgersett Farm in Southeast Minnesota had a huge public event, that, among other exciting activities, provided an opportunity for CERTs folks to tour their awesome solar greenhouse. I asked owner Phil Rutter to tell us a little more.

Joel Haskard: What got you interested in hazelnuts?

Phil Rutter: When I discovered that our newly acquired farm (1975) had lost a full 12 inches of topsoil since the 1955 soil survey (not an exaggeration) I started asking “what could we grow here that would not require a plow?” Doing my homework, I found that the original vegetation on much of our farm had been “oak-hazel savanna.” I figured if it could be successful enough to be a main portion of the ecosystem, it might make sense to look at hazels as a crop.It took 10 years to get a “maybe” answer from testing various hazel genetics; now we’re 30 years into the project.

Joel: What can people expect to see at your farm?

Phil: The beginnings of an integrated sustainable agriculture—with the food production coming from woody plants—not annuals. We are NOT having a “big” crop year; it’s an average one. But there are many places where it’s obvious—this can be as much food as soybeans can produce—but with no plow, and actually many more crop products than soybeans could ever hope for.

Joel: How you have incorporated renewable energy into your farm?

Phil: We use greenhouses to produce a commercial nursery crop, on the order of 30,000 to 40,000 tubeling plants each year. Our entire farm has always been off the grid. The house and greenhouses have electricity from solar PV, and the greenhouse is 100% solar heated and earth sheltered. The house is wood heated only, with no backup. We are at a point where we have SO much woody biomass as byproduct of the food crops that we’re thinking of installing some kind of a biomass heat/electricity co-generation plant for greenhouse expansion. (We need another four-season greenhouse).

Joel: Lots of people have been impressed with your greenhouse—can you tell us more about it?

Phil: It was built in 1992. We estimate the #1 greenhouse, which is deep earth sheltered glass and concrete, and designed as a four-season structure, uses on the order of 1/50 (one fiftieth) of the energy that other commercial greenhouses do, including heating, cooling, and water management. The #2 greenhouse, designed only as a three-season house, has had its purpose and operation changed drastically since we started. It was designed to serve as a shadehouse, for acclimating tree seedlings, but we discovered how to do without shade in that process, saving time and money. It now also functions as our main harvest processing building—and we’ve outgrown it.

Check out their blog to learn more!

You can also learn about a related project by Norm Erickson at Hazelnut Valley Farm: Going Nuts for Clean Energy: Solar-Heated Greenhouse and Biodiesel from Hazelnuts.