Agriculture has come a long way since the Rural Electrification Act led the way to powering up farms more than 80 years ago. Today virtually every farm in America is fully supplied with electricity.
When the grid is down, however, work still must get done. Fortunately, many have a good backup source in place. And business is booming.
“Power is in high demand,” said Kaytlin Pearson, business development manager of Colorado-based Generator Source.
The company distributes used and surplus industrial generators to businesses both domestically and internationally. Farm operations make up a big part of the company’s business.
“We do a lot with farms and ranches, everything from feed mills to dairy farms to hog farms to irrigation pumps,” Pearson said.
Brian Duncan, a grain and hog farmer in Ogle, Illinois, is taking the plunge into more power.
“We have a PTO generator, but we’re getting ready to make an investment on a standby diesel generator for our farm,” he said. “It will run our house, our buildings and keep everything going. The confinement hog buildings are where we have to make sure there is power.”
One reason for the investment is the increased workload for Duncan in his role as vice president of Illinois Farm Bureau.
“I’m traveling so much now, and it never fails that when I’m gone it storms,” he said. “This will help me sleep a little better at night when I’m gone, and hopefully take a little stress from my wife and employees.”
Possibly no operation is more dependent on a steady diet of electricity than dairies, especially those with robotics.
“Robotic dairies aren’t on set schedules like conventional dairies are,” said Mitch Schulte, executive director of the Iowa Dairy Association. “Therefore, that power backup is a necessity to kick on. A vast majority of them have generators that kick on and continue to run until power returns.”
Conventional dairies aren’t as dependent on uninterrupted power as those with robotics. But most dairymen have some form of alternate power.
“All dairy farmers have to have a backup, said Bryan Henrichs, who has a dairy in Clinton County, Illinois. “We have a PTO generator. A lot of the dairies now are putting in standby generators that are stationary and run on diesel. The robotic dairies have to have that. They can’t be shut down at all.”
Retired dairyman Craig Finke had a PTO-driven generator when he had a milking parlor at his Washington County farm in southern Illinois. It is better than nothing, but has its drawbacks. And when he installed robotic milkers, he went to an automatic backup system.
“It can take a little bit to get hooked up and get the tractor started,” he said. “Also, most PTOs don’t hold voltage like an automatic generator. Having good, clean power is really important with those kinds of electronics.”
Pearson said her company is keeping busy.
“We are a big supplier to dairy farms, especially this time of year,” she said.
Generator Source ships generators that produce from 30 kilowatt to 4 megawatts. Prices range from $13,000 to “millions of dollars,” Pearson said.
The large generators run on diesel, while smaller models can run on propane or natural gas.
Henrichs said that while outages are rare, the unexpected does occur.
“This past year there were several times where electricity kicked off for an hour or two,” he said. “This fall, a farmer in a combine backed over a power line and the whole area was out for two hours.”
For most farms, generators operated through power takeoffs may suffice. And while some larger produce operations with cold storage make sure backup is available, it’s not a priority for all farms.
“We don’t have anything,” said Jeff Flamm of Flamm Orchards in Cobden, Illinois. “We’ve never had any real problems. The (fruit) will last a while. We just close everything up.”