When he was laid up recovering from knee surgery, farmer Ralph Dull picked up a notebook dropped off by a friend that detailed how wind generators produce electricity."I had plenty of time to read it," Mr. Dull recalls. "And I said, 'That's something we could do."'
Dull has since become an Ohio pioneer in green farming and renewable energy, and his efforts have garnered the attention of Ohio legislators, who turn to him for creative ideas on agriculture's role in environmental protection.
"He is demonstrating through his farming practices that you can have a profitable farming operation while caring for the earth," says Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who wants the state to rely more on alternative energy and is pushing a stimulus package that would earmark $150 million for advanced energy sources such as solar power, wind, and clean coal.
There are six wind generators on Dull's 2,800-acre farm in western Ohio. In one building sits a machine that produces hydrogen made from electricity and water. Dull hopes it will soon replace the gas in his forklifts and supplant the propane that heats his pig barn. Dull's office is geothermally heated and cooled. He dries his seed corn by burning rejected corn instead of propane, and he grinds corn cobs to sell as horse bedding and mulch.
"Five or six years ago, Ralph would have been considered a voice crying out in the wilderness," says Dale Arnold, director of energy services for the Ohio Farm Bureau. "Now, other farmers are lining up behind him."
Beyond environmental concerns, such cost-conscious farmers are seeing economic benefits as fuel and fuel-based fertilizer prices soar.
"If they don't, they're done," he says, noting US prices for natural gas, a component in the production of nitrogen fertilizer, have nearly doubled since August.
Mr. Arnold says more operators of small and medium-sized farms of about 600 acres or smaller are trying to decide whether it makes financial sense to invest in alternative energy.
"You're talking about spending the same amount of money as you would on a new combine or major piece of equipment on their farm," he says.
Dull spent $210,000 on his 120-foot-high windmills, 25 percent of which was bankrolled by a state grant. The windmills account for about 15 percent of the $40,000 worth of electricity required to run the farm each year. Dull spent about $100,000 on his corn-drying furnace; at current propane prices, it has saved him about $150,000.