Farmers, propane professionals find common ground

August 19, 2019 By    
Photo courtesy of CHS.

Photo courtesy of CHS

How are you ever going to keep them down on the farm after they’ve gotten a taste of the propane industry?

Agricultural culture has long been a fertile field for producing a feedstock, so to speak, of young men and women interested in joining the ranks of propane professionals. Even if you’re a total carnivore, you’ve eaten foodstuffs from a farm, and chances are propane assisted in the growing process.

“In fact, propane is used on 80 percent of all farms in the United States,” according to Robert Zeek Jr., president of the family-owned Blackhawk Propane, where his mother Ann and brother Scott are also involved in the business.

Established in 1953 by Robert Zeek Sr. and Dan Bruschi on Blackhawk Boulevard in South Beloit, Illinois, the family-owned operation covers the rural Illinois/Wisconsin border-region counties of Winnebago, Stephenson, Boone, McHenry, DeKalb, Ogle, Rock, Walworth and Green.

Like many propane marketers across the nation, Blackhawk successfully serves a portion of the more than 800,000 American farms that utilize propane for crop drying, tobacco curing, poultry and pig brooding, stock tank heating, space heating in greenhouses and barns, flame-based weed control and pathogen reduction, food refrigeration and frost protection for fields and orchards. It also fuels farm equipment such as tractors and other vehicles, electrical generators and irrigation pumps.

Propane marketers and farmers work outside, with pumps and motors and with rural customers. Photo courtesy of CHS.

Propane marketers and farmers work outside, with pumps and motors and with rural customers. Photo courtesy of CHS

“It has proven to be safe, reliable, efficient and clean burning,” says Zeek Jr. “It is a multi-purpose energy source and is often also used for the residential needs of the farm. It helps to heat, cool and cook. No wonder so many farms use propane for their agricultural and home needs.”

Propane has been applied to farming and other aspects of the ag sector since at least the 1900s.

“Even the good old farm truck can use propane due to recent technological improvements,” Zeek Jr. adds.

And when someone grows up on a farm, they certainly come away with a hands-on appreciation for what propane can accomplish.

“I think farmers and propane marketers are very similar in many ways. In both industries, we have various sizes of operations ranging from very large to small. In all cases, regardless of size, commitment to the business is vitally important,” explains Michael Newland, director of agriculture business development for the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC).

“It is essential to having an understanding of the details, and keeping the business organized does pay dividends,” he adds. “These two industries, farming and propane marketing, are really symbiotic. Each one benefits by the other one being successful.”

Although D.D. Alexander, the president of Global Gas, is the third generation of her family’s involvement in the propane business, her husband’s family has a long history of farming – giving her some insights into both lifestyles.

“There are a lot of similarities regarding working outside with your hands, working on pumps and motors, and dealing with rural customers that are prevalent in the propane industry as well as farming,” she says. “I would say the family farm and the family retail business have the same family issues, both good and bad.”

The farming and propane industries each benefit by the other being successful, says PERC’s Michael Newland. Photo: farming and propane industries each benefit by the other being successful, says PERC’s Michael Newland. Photo:

The farming and propane industries each benefit by the other being successful, says PERC’s Michael Newland. Photo:

Alexander says many of her dad’s retail bobtail drivers were farmers. “They made fantastic seasonal drivers,” she says. “They were used to working in all kinds of conditions. They were hardworking, loyal and honest people, and they were used to finding farms on small dirt roads that were labeled by anything but a street sign.”

“Retailers in Kansas and Nebraska use propane for irrigation, so having drivers that were familiar with irrigation systems was very helpful,” she adds. “The small community and rural cultures are very similar, and they help you to relate to your rural customers easier.”

A different breed

As with the propane industry, “farming is 24/7 – you have to keep going, going and going” to accomplish all of the necessary tasks, according to Matthew Pot, publisher of the influential Grain Perspectives newsletter, an important resource for executives within the agribusiness realm.

Pot was raised on a family farm within the Niagara Region of Ontario, Canada, where for years he was “destined to take over the dairy operation,” he recounts.

“It’s a different breed,” Pot says of his family, friends and colleagues who have experienced the farming way of living, noting that his personal history has greatly aided his business acumen.

“You have to have compassion and understand what it means to blow a tire while you’re planting,” he says. “All of those things are wonderful traits to have, and if you can’t understand that, you’re at a disadvantage. My farming background helps me talk to everybody” pertaining to Pot’s publishing enterprise.

Brian “Chubby” Waggoner was operating a farm until a family connection – his in-laws owned a propane company – brought him into the LPG industry. He has since gone on to become the manager at Consumer Oil & Propane Inc. in Bendena, Kansas, and join the Propane Marketers Association of Kansas board of directors, plus assume other industry leadership roles.

Good opportunities

“I’m a city slicker working for the propane department of a co-op,” says Brock McCoppin, petroleum operations manager at the 5,800-member Heartland Co-op. “All that we do, we do to keep the farmers running.”

Founded more than a century ago in Des Moines, Iowa, Heartland provides propane and a multitude of other services at 71 locations in Nebraska and Iowa.

“The old, original elevators served the needs of those turn-of-the-century farmers who unified in order to put some clout in their grain marketing,” according to McCoppin.

Although McCoppin spent much of his childhood in a non-rural neighborhood, he was involved with his grandparents’ farming operations. As he got older, he was intrigued by agriculture. He went on to study agricultural business at Northwest Missouri State University.

“I started working in the co-op, and there were some positions open in the propane department,” he says.

In addition to embracing the “good opportunities” presented by becoming a propane professional at the co-op, McCoppin is grateful for being able to carry on the traditions of his agricultural roots.

“They’re down to Earth, it’s a laid-back community and they’re hard workers,” he says.

Family friendly

According to the USDA 2017 Census of Agriculture, 96 percent of farms and ranches are family owned.

Propane: Farm fuel of the future

Because propane farm equipment is EPA- and CARB-certified and operates on an independent system, it is a convenient solution to meet environmental regulations and gain control over the farm by avoiding grid-related power interruptions or gas-line fluctuations.

Here are a few statistics from the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) about propane-powered farm equipment:

  • Propane produces up to 24 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, and 11 percent less emissions than diesel engines.
  • Propane-powered engines reduce energy costs by up to 50 percent.
  • Today’s propane grain dryers use up to 50 percent less thermal energy to do the same job as previous generations of dryers.
  • Propane heating systems maintain precise room temperatures within 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit of the desired temperature.
  • PERC field studies show propane flame weeding is between 80-90 percent effective when applied to row crops twice during the season – equally as effective as traditional herbicides.

For more information about the variety of propane-powered farm equipment available and how it can help your agricultural customers, visit

Powering farms with propane

Photo courtesy of PERC.

Photo courtesy of PERC

An increasing number of new generation propane-powered equipment is now available, allowing farmers to depend on propane as their go-to fuel source to power their farms. Propane can be used for a variety of farm applications, including irrigation engines, grain dryers, building heat, forklifts, power generators, flame weeding systems, vehicles and more.

Irrigation engines

Propane-powered irrigation engines include the latest technological advancements and features, making them a great choice for farming operations. These high-performing engines can provide up to 300 horsepower of continuous power. They produce significantly less emissions, allowing producers to easily meet Tier 4 emissions standards requirements without the need for complex engines with expensive diesel exhaust fluid and filters. Farmers who switch to propane irrigation engines cut costs on the original purchase price, as well as fuel, operation and maintenance costs.

Grain dryers

Producers have made propane their No. 1 choice for grain drying; in fact; more than 80 percent of grain dryers run on propane. With a higher Btu than natural gas and reliable on-site fuel storage, propane-powered grain dryers result in fewer shutdowns, smaller and more economical gas controls, and the ability to avoid contamination.

Building heat

Photo courtesy of CHS

Photo courtesy of CHS

Propane-powered ag heating is a convenient solution to the consistent, comfortable temperatures and clean air required by livestock, poultry and greenhouse plants. Propane provides more even, precise heat, is cost-effective, and is a cleaner, non-toxic fuel that doesn’t contaminate ground water or soil – making it safe to use around animals and plants. The precise and consistent heat available through propane-powered heating systems makes it the optimal choice to maintain animal health and help plants flourish.

Flame weeding

Propane flame weeding systems are a 100 percent organic solution for weed control that works in multiple growth stages and eliminates the need for herbicides. Instead, propane flame weeding systems remove weeds by using short jets of flame between the rows. The intense, focused heat bursts plant cells, causing weeds to wither and die without harming crops. And unlike chemical herbicides, there’s no resistance to flame weeding, allowing farmers to return to fields almost immediately. Propane flame weeding also allows farmers to avoid expensive, non-selective chemicals or costly, labor-intensive hand weeding.

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