Environment a Priority for Michigan Mini-tuber Producers

Sklarczyks keep growing green

Published in the January 2009 Issue Published online: Jan 13, 2009
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When potato specialist Ben Sklarczyk joined his father, Don, in collecting the Michigan Farm Bureau’s 2008 Ecology Leadership Award in December, it was recognition of the family’s 66 years of environmental stewardship.

Long before “climate change,” “environmental sustainability” and “global warming” joined the popular lexicon, three generations of the Sklarczyk family were working their land with the aim of doing no harm to their natural surroundings.

Farm bureau President Wayne Wood says the Sklarczyks fully embody the spirit and essence of the bureau’s award.

“It seems no stone has been unturned on their operation,” he says. “From the biggest to tiniest detail, they’ve thought about the environment in all their decision-making.”

The award is for an individual, farm or partnership whose natural-resources stewardship practices contribute to the protection of the environment while maintaining or enhancing productivity and profitability.

The Sklarczyks received their award at the bureau’s 89th annual meeting in Grand Rapids, adding to the EPA/National Potato Council Environmental Stewardship Award they collected in 1999.

They won the Michigan award from a field of 21 nominees as a result of efforts ranging from establishing filter strips; converting to minimum tillage to reduce soil erosion; and installing a low-pressure irrigation pivot system, global-positioning system controls on tractors and yield monitors on harvest equipment.

The yield monitors help determine fields where the energy requirements to produce a crop outweigh yields, thus making it more sensible to use the fields for wildlife food plots.

Sklarczyk Seed Farm LLC produces mini-tubers in a lab and a hydroponic greenhouse from tissue culture. The mini-tubers are provided to seed growers.

 

CARE FOR THE ENVIRONMENT

The farm in Johannesburg, 245 miles north of Detroit, produces 3,000,000 mini-tubers a year, and despite the highly-concentrated operation, the concern for the environment is as focused as it was when Michael and Theresa Sklarczyk purchased the farm in 1942.

“I grew up in an environment where not only my father, but even our neighbors thought about the impact of what they did to the environment,” says Don, immediate past president of the National Potato Council.

“Growing up with that helped me realize you don’t have to look at the environment necessarily as an expense. Many times it gives a return; it doesn’t come immediately, but it will come back to you.

“The whole impact we have on the environment speaks to where we are. This is a very pristine area in northern Michigan. You think about it all the time as a way of life and you try to pass it on from generation to generation.

“Just as my father had done to me, I am very pleased to see what Benjamin is doing now because he is taking it to the next step.”

The operation was the first farm in Otsego County and one of the first greenhouse operations in Michigan to become verified under the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP).

Chipmaker Frito Lay Corp. represents a large part of Sklarczyk Seeds business and, in return, the seed company produces the majority of Frito Lay’s base seed for North America.

The wheat and soybean arm of the business was verified in 2007, signifying it was compliant with all applicable state and federal environmental regulations and generally accepted farming practices. A year later, the greenhouse portion followed suit, becoming one of the first MAEAP-verified greenhouses in the state.

“My grandfather always said we should leave the land better for the next generation,” Ben says. “That’s something my father believes in, and so do I. Being part of the MAEAP program is one way we can assure we’re doing that.”

In looking to reduce their environmental impact, the family took the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Pollution Prevention, Waste Reduction, and Energy Conservation Report and used it as a starting point.

 

APPLICATION AND TECHNOLOGY

As the business expanded, Don relied on advice from outside experts, including those from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Michigan State University Extension to help make the business as environmentally friendly as possible.

“Before we ever built the then glass-top greenhouse we had a design that came from Holland to contain 100 percent of the water generated from the operation and put it into a water-holding basin so we would have a zero negative ecological impact on the surrounding environment,” Ben says.

Natural sunlight breaks down the left-over fertility residues and then the water is allowed to percolate through the ground. This finishes the job of filtering.

“When we moved to hydroponics it was just a natural that we looked at how we were going to expel the fluids that are no longer in use,” Don says. “That’s when we came up with a design to distribute it on the lawns. We are using it not only to water the grass but also to fertilize it.

“When people go by, they notice it. They say we have a great-looking facility and they see it as what we do for the community.”

Summer cooling of the facility is an area the Sklarczyks realized early on was as a way to reduce their environmental impact and cut their overheads at the same time.

A thermal-imaging company used infrared heat cameras to detect heat loss/gain in the greenhouses. Space-age insulation, foil and bubble/bubble was installed on the bottom of roof trusses to create a convection effect.

“We had a constant problem from the added temperatures in the structure in the summer,” Don says. “We came up with the idea to take a new type of insulation and used it to redesign the ventilation to create a chimney effect. We capture the most intense heat and trap it in a small area close to the roofline. We allow cold air to come in, and it creates a chimney effect by sucking the heat out of the structure itself.

“This also cuts down on electricity use and makes a more comfortable environment, and this helps allow the coolers to maintain the required temperature.”

Blown-in fiberglass was used to increase the attic insulation and a 1-inch thermo break of insulation was added to all cooler floors to reduce the amount of cooling run time. Hydro cooling pads and energy-efficient fans were installed to reduce the summer cooling energy requirements of the greenhouses.

“I don’t know of any hydroponic operation that is looking at the ecological impact in the same way we have done,” Don says. “Every action we take, we analyze, even changing the balases in the fluorescent lights we use in the laboratory. We found the benefits were tremendous. By changing to the latest electronic balases, the heat generated was so much less it had us changing our whole lighting system.”

A change of fluorescent bulbs from 1.2 inches in diameter to half an inch allows more light to come out of the bulb, so it takes less energy to generate the same amount of light.

“We changed all our fixtures to electronic balases in the lab for growing the plants and we found we had an excessive amount of light,” Don says. “We were able to unhook half the lights, not only cutting down the amount of electricity but also the heat the lighting system was producing.”

A million BTUs of heat were generated in the tissue-culture growing environment when all the lights were on.

“We were struggling with our refrigeration and cooling system to make it operate efficiently to maintain the temperature we wanted,” he says. “Once we made the change, the cooling system worked because it didn’t have as much heat to get rid of. That cut down electricity use as well. It was a win-win situation.

“There was also new technology that allowed us to change our air-conditioning system. When we did that, it again reduced our electricity. But it also gave us closer control and allowed us to go to electronic controls.

“When I was growing up, thermometers were the temperature regulators and if they regulated within two degrees they were doing a good job. Now we are talking two-tenths of a degree.”

The latest insulation technology was used in all greenhouses to reduce energy requirements.

“Our goal is to provide the correct temperature at plant height while reducing heat loss out the tops of the greenhouses. An energy-shade curtain system reduces heat/cooling requirements even more within our greenhouses.

“It is being done in stages,” he says. “We have already cut electricity consumption by 10 percent to 15 percent.”

The payback is in having a better-insulated structure giving a more programmed control over the product.

“The energy saving was one issue, but it was more of trying to create a better environment to produce a better product for the customers. That was the engine that drove us. The environment benefits were a bonus from the economic benefits.”

 

SOME SPECIFICS

The company also began a local waste-energy recycling operation, obtaining a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to collect and burn waste oil.

“We have a relationship with individuals who live around here, as well as the local school system, who bring their used oil,” Don says. “We also collect from gas and oil development companies whenever they change their compressors.”

Some 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of used oil is collected each year and consumed in approved waste-oil burners and the heat produced as a result reduces the company’s fossil-fuel dependency.

“Used oil has a heavier viscosity, so our savings are up to 9,000 gallons of oil,” Don says.

The result is a cost reduction of about $35,000 a year.

“Everything we do around here, we have to analyze the benefits and the paybacks and the cost justification, certainly in economic returns, but also by what we are doing to the environment and the benefits we can have by providing for it,” he says.

“Some of that is driven by our relationship with Frito Lay and the overall general idea that we need to be thinking green. We have worked with Frito Lay within the overall philosophy of making sure you conserve energy.”

The relationship with Frito Lay started 10 years ago and has become deeper in the last three or four years, helped by the farm’s concern for the environment.

“We had quite a few meetings with Frito Lay because they wanted to make sure of our commitment,” he says.

“If they were going to put such an emphasis and dependence on us, they wanted an extensive briefing on what we had planned.

In that process we did a five-year plan of our expenses and they looked at the environmental things that we wanted to do,” Don says.

The plan involved spending on energy-saving and environmentally-friendly projects ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 a year.

“It took a lot of years to get Frito Lay convinced we could do what they wanted. They had a production facility in Wisconsin that they literally closed down because they found we could do it more efficiently.”

Sklarczyk Seeds produces about 50 potato varieties for Frito Lay, ranging from small volumes to 500,000 tubers.

Don says the operation is not yet at capacity, thanks to the next generation.

“At one time I used to think if we ever got two million units out of this footprint that would be a great accomplishment,” he says. “Now, Ben says we can do four million units.

“As Ben increased the production per square foot, he accomplished two things, helping us control cost increases while reducing our ecologic impact at the same time. Everyone wins in the end.”

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