Tobacco has always been the mainstay of Wayne McKinnon's farming operation in southeast Georgia's Coffee County. But he decided last fall if he was going to keep growing the golden leaf, he was going to have to slash his soaring curing costs.

Tobacco growers have seen curing costs double as on-farm diesel prices have climbed from $2.30 to $4.60 per gallon since last spring.

Last year, McKinnon visited neighboring Jeff Davis County tobacco grower Jerry Wooten, who has been successfully curing tobacco with heated water from a converted turpentine boiler for six years, and he decided to modify his curing operation to a similar system.

McKinnon took Wooten's advice on how to improve on his system and then met with Advanced Vessel & Alloy in Valdosta to design a more efficient boiler system.

McKinnon says, “My efficiency was greatly increased by using a three-pass recirculation system within the boiler. My new system uses boiling water routed through heat exchangers to produce the heat used in the cooking and curing of tobacco. The system consists of a boiler, pressure-tested steel pipes, hot water pumps, thermostats and heat exchangers. There is no steam or pressure — only heated water is used.”

McKinnon's boiler system was designed to cure 16 barns and it cost about $200,000 to become fully operational, but he has been well pleased with the outcome. He has cut his curing costs from $1,050 per barn to less than $200 per barn. “I should cure 100 to 105 barns this year so my savings should be $85,000 to $90,000,” he says.

McKinnon is using by-products from the timber industry that were destined for the landfill to fuel his boiler, but he also is experimenting with farm by-products such as cotton stalks, peanut hay and wheat straw that he baled last winter.

McKinnon, who had two barns burn last year, adds that since no open flames or combustible fuel is used at the curing barns, it will lessen the potential for barn fires.

He notes that besides the savings from eliminating the cost of the 30,000 gallons of diesel he would have normally used this curing season, there is a tremendous environmental advantage by using natural fuels.

He says, “Environmentally, there are many advantages to using natural fuel sources. The elimination of fossil fuels as a source of energy is important fuel conservation in a time of an energy crisis in the United States. This system will also be retrofitted to supply heat to my poultry houses in the winter months and save an additional 16,000 gallons of propane annually.”

He also points out this system will lead to a safer tobacco product for the consumer by eliminating cancer-causing nitrosomines produced in the curing process because of the combustion of fuels. The hot water flowing through the radiator and heat exchangers produce no toxins or fumes.

McKinnon figures it will take 30 months for him to pay for his boiler system with his fuel savings, which doesn't include a 25-percent USDA Rural Energy grant he has applied for or tax savings from accelerated depreciation deductions.

“Anytime you can net out a capital investment and start making money off the savings in three years, it is an extremely good investment. This doesn't include the 25-percent cost savings if I get the USDA rural energy grant or depending on which tax bracket you fall in a $40,000 to $50,000 savings in taxes. The boiler system could net out in a little over a year if I get the grant and with the tax savings,” he says.

Craig Scroggs, renewable energy coordinator for USDA Rural Development in Georgia, says, “The biomass boiler installed by Wayne McKinnon is the type of project that is eligible for our program. Farmers have applied for several types of improvements on their farms including diesel irrigation motor replacements, poultry house upgrades and on-farm renewable energy systems.”

The Rural Energy for America (REAP) grants are available to farmers who want to do energy efficiency improvements on their farm. USDA Rural Development can provide a grant for up to 25 percent of the cost of doing these improvements.

“In 2008, more than 60 farmers took advantage of this grant opportunity and submitted an application. Grants are not automatic as this is a competitive program, but we are excited that these producers are interested and put in for the funds. Georgia received the fourth most applications in the country in 2008,” says Craig.

The 2008 farm bill created several new renewable energy programs and increased funding in existing programs. Funding for the REAP program was proposed to increase to $55 million in mandatory funding, which is an increase of more than $30 million from 2008.

A Tobacco Boiler Field Day will be held Sept. 11 at 5:30 p.m. at McKinnon's farm in Douglas. A sponsored dinner and panel discussion will follow at 6:30 p.m. at the Coffee County Extension office. The panel will include McKinnon, Jerry Wooten, Craig Scroggs and Emory Felts, general manager of Advanced Vessel & Alloy. Please call the Coffee County Extension office at 912-384-1402 or email Eddie McGriff at twobales@uga.edu to reserve a meal or for directions.