ENERGY SAVER TAB Father, son make furnaces for corn
By Janet Kubat Willette
PINE ISLAND, Minn. -- The demand for corn-burning furnaces keeps Ken Markham in running shoes.
Markham, who owns Zumbro Ag, Ranch and Pet in Pine Island, added more hours to his daily routine Oct. 1, when he and his son, Chris, started building corn furnaces.
Markham has sold corn stoves and furnaces for five years, but he said it's only been in the last couple years that demand has soared. This year, he had 25 furnaces sold, but was told by his supplier that he couldn't get them for six weeks. The supplier couldn't keep up because of the demand fueled by projected higher heating costs.
That convinced Markham to buy franchise rights from A-Maize-Ing Heat of Taylorville, Ill., and start building furnaces. He recruited his son from the drywall business, flew to St. Louis for training and set up a new business, K-C Corn Burners. Now the duo are putting in 16-hour days in an attempt to meet customer demand. They're a month behind and orders keep rolling in.
They sold 12 furnaces one recent afternoon.
Next year is going to be even busier, Markham predicted. When people get their home heating bills this year, they will react by looking for alternative heating sources.
Markham hopes to meet that demand by building 300 to 400 corn furnaces. He also plans to start building corn boilers in January.
Markham has sold 100 corn furnaces so far this year and is waiting for parts for another 50. They are still taking orders.
The corn-to-heat-your-home business started slow, Markham remembers.
"People laughed at me five years ago," he said, saying corn burning was a gimmick.
City people were more receptive than their country neighbors to burning corn then, Markham said. In the last couple years, farmers have started buying more stoves and furnaces to heat their houses and shops.
Farmers are also seizing the new market by cleaning, bagging and selling corn. Last year, Zumbro Ag sold 3,000 bushels of corn at $3.50 a bushel. Markham pays farmers $2.10 a bushel for cleaned corn, compared to about $1.40 Nov. 11 at southern Minnesota elevators.
Markham said corn prices would have to soar to $18 per bushel to equal the price of LP now.
Most people add a corn burner as an additional heat source, Markham said, but some homeowners have converted their heating system to rely solely on corn. He knows a guy in the Hudson, Wis., area who earns his living retrofitting houses for corn-burning furnaces. Markham told of a 40,000 BTU stove he installed in a house near Faribault. The owner heats his 4,000-square-foot home with corn. Last winter, he used 300 bushels.
A corn burner requires a Class One chimney, which is block or stainless steel lined, and another thermostat. There's a little ash, which some people dump in the feed bunk. Others dispose of the ash on their driveway or in the yard. It's all-natural, Markham said, and will dissolve.
Not only do the Markhams build furnaces, they also install them. A recent weekend found them in Duluth installing a furnace.
Now, Markham is looking for a dealer in northern Minnesota and elsewhere. He has seven dealers in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Corn-burning stoves and furnaces are here to stay, Markham said. He envisions a business where corn is delivered to houses and ash is vacuumed.
Not only is Markham a builder, installer and retailer of corn burning stoves and furnaces, he's also a user. He's heated his three-car-garage and Victorian house with a corn boiler system for five years. He burns about 500 bushels of corn a year.
"It's the only way to go," Markham said.