Corn as a Fuel, and it is a Bad Thing?

Recently, I was re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books about life on the prairie. I find the whole series fascinating, but one line in particular jumped out at me: about farmers burning their corn to stay warm. I had heard that it was also done during the Great Depression, but it isn’t something that I researched. It was just a little nugget thrown out there when I began seeking information on corn burners a few years back.

I just thought it was interesting that corn as a fuel is not a new concept. Although reading “The Long Winter” again, and how Pa and Laura make hay sticks to burn for heat, it made me realize that desperate times do call for desperate measures. Thankfully mine are not so labor intensive or time consuming!

The path that led me to burning to corn for heat is a long and windy one. It began with my utility bill being sky high for natural gas. Then the discovery that my current furnace was nearly forty years old and running at about fifty percent efficiency. I could have guessed both bits of knowledge, but having them confirmed was a bit upsetting. The realization that the foam insulation we had installed could only do so much with an ancient and inefficient furnace made us realize action had to be taken.

This is when my grandma read about corn burners in her AARP magazine. You burn corn, and with corn being about $80 a ton, it was pretty inexpensive to heat a home even in cold climates like our own. We did a lot of research and shopping around until we found ones we felt suited us. We put our money down, and installed them last winter.

Unfortunately, something else happened in the interim: ethanol. Corn to run automobiles. The price shot up drastically, and I can say that I never did pay $80 for a ton of corn. Fortunately my stove also burns wood pellets, though the price of those isn’t much better. Still better than natural gas, yes, but not the savings I had hoped for.

My grandma and I have had to pacify ourselves with the idea that we are burning a renewable resource, and one that supports the farmers in the United States and not overseas oil barons. That despite our hard work hauling ton after ton of corn to our homes, cleaning the stoves, and depositing the “clinkers,” or ash depositis into our gardnes, we are still doing a good thing that benefits our country. Let’s face it, burning corn is a lot more work than just turning your thermostat up on a gas furnace. Not as much work as splitting wood, as some folks we know still do, but hard work nonetheless.

I noticed some interesting things the past few years. I am surrounded by farmland, and every other year we would have our “privacy fence” of corn. The off years would be beans. We have had corn surround us for the past three years now. I don’t know much about crop rotation, but I know it is important. I know I have to rotate things in my garden every few years or so to keep fungi and disease from setting in. With corn prices so high, it seems farmers cannot resist planting their fields of gold.

I recently read in the paper that some organization, I want to say WHO but cannot recall for sure, finds the idea of corn as fuel appalling. They feel that grain for fuel when there are hungry people in the world is just wrong.

Part of me has to agree with that, to a certain extent. However, we also know that fossil fuels will not last forever. In our search for alternative fuels, things we can grow, that we might normally eat, will undoubtedly be explored.

Part of me also says that those of us burning corn for heat are not the same as the ethanol plants. They are devouring much more corn than I imagine the corn burning community is. I don’t believe it was the corn burning for home heat community that jacked up the prices on so many things involving corn. A couple ton here or there cannot compare to the hunger of the ethanol plants.

From what I hear, the ethanol experiment has not been so successful. The miles per gallon is not sufficient to make the conversion. One can only hope we will give up on corn for automobiles and seek another alternative. I just love hearing about cars being run on the oil from fast food joints. Talk about some smart recycling!

Despite the prices of milk, chips, eggs and meat going up (all blamed on corn going to fuel), I cannot blame the farmers for trying to grow more of it. I have read some harsh criticism of farmers trying to take advantage of the need and desire for corn. Farming has always been a life of chance, and if they want to hedge their bets on corn, well, what can you do?

The farmer we get our corn from warned us that corn would be going up $25 a ton, so we had to do a frantic gathering of folks and money to stock up before the price went up. I don’t imagine the ethanol plants with their federal subsidies felt such a pinch.

It just seems that right now, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t when it comes to home heating. You will pay a premium price for natural gas, propane, electricity, corn, wood, or however you heat your home.

This might be the time where we start learning from the gas issues of the 1970s. We didn’t start making more fuel efficient cars then, and look where it got us. Now it is typical to see the McMansion with cathedral ceilings in the great room, and more square footage than a family of four could ever really need. Maybe it is time for us to realize that not only do we not need to drive Hummers, we don’t need to live in their housing equivalent. That sharing bedrooms and bathrooms isn’t a bad thing. Maybe if we promote it as environmentally sound for global warming, rather than frugal, it would be heard! Sometimes solutions to problems are simpler than we realize.

Then again, this is coming from someone used to hauling corn to heat her aging farmhouse, with one bathroom and nary a walk-in closet in sight.

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