Plight on the prairie

A tale of my recent, personal battle with weather and low energy supplies
By Ron Kotrba | February 20, 2013

From Saturday night through Tuesday afternoon, Northwest Minnesotans were besieged with nonstop 30-40-mph winds, wind chill temperatures at minus 40 degrees and loads of fresh snow and mountainous drifts. The experience for me, personally, was horrible. I had guests over the weekend that had to leave early Sunday morning to attend church services 30 miles away, so I woke up at 6am to the howling wind, intending to clear my long country driveway so they could leave. At this point, it was gusting from the south at 30 miles per hour and the subzero temperatures hadn’t made their way down from Lake Hudson yet, but even 15 degrees above has a bite to it when pushed by such winds. I couldn’t tell if it was snowing yet, or if the wind was just pushing around snow that had fallen earlier. Anyone who lives in these types of conditions knows that clearing snow when it’s so windy is not a good idea—you always wait ‘til the storm passes. But if I waited, my guests wouldn’t have left ‘til Tuesday afternoon. I layered up and grabbed a cup of black coffee, and my dog Barney and I made our way to the shed to start the John Deere. It’s a 212 lawn tractor with a blower on the front, chains and the tires and weights bolted on the wheels for extra grip. She’s old, and I’ve replaced more parts on her than I can recall, but she’s built to last and, most times, she is more than adequate to get the job done.

I noticed immediately I was not getting the power out of her that I normally do, and after making one laborious swipe down the driveway through drifts that were at that time only three to four feet high, I came back and parked her. I put a heater on the blower, thinking my chain, gears and pulleys were iced up. I also tightened the power take-off tensioner to give me more throwing power. I went in and told my guests, who were dressed to the hilt and ready to go, that they would not be leaving any time soon. After an hour or so, she was back up to full throwing power, and I cleared a path just wide enough for their van to meander through and they were on their way. Thirty minutes later, you couldn’t even tell that I had cleared the drive, as the wind had filled it all right back in.  At some point Sunday night the wind had shifted from the south to the north. Enter phase two: the blizzard.

Temperatures plummeted to well below zero, and when I woke up Monday morning I couldn’t see through any of my windows because snow had plugged up all of the screens, and even if I could see out, there was nothing to see anyway because it was a pure white-out. I thought I better dip my heating oil tank outside to see how much biodiesel-blended fuel I had left. Enter phase three: the energy crisis.

My stomach dropped when I saw only two inches on the dip stick. I ran into the basement and knuckled my 35-gallon reserve tank in the basement, luckily that was full, but with temperatures at 20 below zero it doesn’t take long to suck that dry. I had run out of wood a week earlier, and my uncle who sells firewood called me on Saturday saying he was ready to deliver a load but I was in town, and he said he would come Sunday, but given the weather, he was unable to.

So here I was, low on Bioheat, out of firewood, faced with a weather forecast that called for continued strong winds and subzero temperatures through Wednesday (this morning as I write this the temperature is a balmy 10 below), and a driveway that now looked like the Sierra Nevada mountain range made entirely of highly packed, dense snow drifts. Given all of these concerns, I didn’t sleep well Monday night. Enter phase four: emergency action.

At 2am, after tossing and turning, worrying and wondering, I went out to the shed and began cutting up two-foot sections of warped, off-spec wood planks (untreated of course) that I had laying around after a remodeling project a few years ago. I spent an hour cutting and sawing, and then another hour hauling armloads of wood from the shed, through the blizzard several hundred yards, into my house and down in my basement where the wood stove is. I got the fire roaring to save what little Bioheat I had left, and waited for the sun to rise so I could assess how much worse the driveway had gotten overnight. The sight was horrifying. I thought I could never make it through those drifts with my 212, but I couldn’t even begin to start trying because the winds were still 40 miles an hour from the north, producing deadly wind chills and immediately filling in any gaps with all of that new snow. I went out and cut more wood planks, plugged space heaters in, ran the oilheat furnace every once in a while just to bump up the indoor temperature enough to take the chill out of the air.

I spent the daytime working on print articles for the March/April issue of Biodiesel Magazine, which is in full production during all of this, trying to keep my mind off of my personal pending energy crisis. Once the winds died down late Tuesday afternoon, I suited up and started digging out. I was chipping away little by little at the monstrous, densely packed drifts, thinking given enough time I could get this done. Enter phase five: the rescue.

Off in the distance (you can see for miles in open flat country), I see my neighbor from two miles to the west, Jim Novak, a soybean farmer, in his full-size tractor with what I would call the most powerful snow blower known to man, headed in my direction. He turned into my driveway and snow began shooting 50 feet into the air, making short work of the task. Afterwards, I showered, made a few stiff drinks and got a good night’s rest. I have a fuel delivery coming this afternoon, and my uncle will bring a cord of wood this weekend. Crisis averted—for now.

I guess this posting doesn’t really have a lot to do with biodiesel, or things going on in the industry or the like, and I thank the readers for understanding my need to vent through this outlet. This situation does, however, sound strikingly familiar to the challenges faced by the biodiesel industry. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to who represents what, or what represents who. But I’ll leave you with these final thoughts: perseverance pays off; feedstock flexibility and fast thinking are important; proper preparation could help avoid crises; and having the right people on your side is of tremendous value and import—thank you, Jim.