Feedback on Peat: Renewable Fuel and Organic Garden Amendment

Readers respond to the article on peat and their experiences with this natural resource as a renewable fuel and garden soil amendment.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
May/June 1975
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You may be interested to know that the building shown in the photo was erected in 1904, near Eaton Rapids, Michigan, for the purpose of processing the area's peat into a commercial fuel.
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Readers respond to the article on Peat in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31. 

ERNEST J. FULTON: 

In reference to the article on peat in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 31, I'd like to recount a bit of local history. You may be interested to know that the building shown in the photo (see the image gallery) was erected in 1904, near Eaton Rapids, Michigan, for the purpose of processing the area's peat into a commercial fuel.

The incentive behind this venture was an energy crisis caused by the coal strike of 1902-03. Construction of the facility was financed with private fund plus $1,000 from the sale of stock in the business. Its fittings were most complete, with two big steam boilers: one to dry the peat, the other to supply a steam turbine which operated a 110-volt AC electric lighting and power plant. This, in turn, ran the motors for the conveyor systems.

Over a period of four to eight years, many attempts were made to improve the methods of processing raw peat. The original intention was to compress the substance into solid cakes (about three times the size of charcoal briquets), but this proved impossible because of the fuel's high humus content. Since the drying of the peat required three times as many heat units as the resulting fuel could produce, the cost of the operation was prohibitive. As a result, the Eaton Rapids plant (and some 12 or more similar facilities elsewhere in Michigan) were forced to close down and the stockholders and others concerned with the enterprise lost heavily. The building — more than a city block long, with poured concrete walls — still stands and is in good condition for its age. It has been a kraut factory and is now used for the storage of onions.

Although the 1904 business venture proved unsuccessful, the research behind it might be of value to those who are interested in alternative fuel supplies. The idea of processing this state's peat resources was investigated by Charles A. Davis, a faculty member at Alma College and later a professor at the University of Michigan . . . from 1901 to 1907, when he joined the staff of the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Davis was the author of a treatise entitled Peat: Essays on its origin, uses and distribution in Michigan, and I believe copies of this work, or further information, could be obtained from the Bureau of Mines or from the university.

I should mention in closing that peat does have a commercial value today . . . not as fuel, but as a soil improver and planting medium sold by the bag through greenhouse and garden supply outlets.

JOHN C. SINCLAIR: 

I was born in the Shetland Islands, where peat was the main fuel, and would like to tell you how it was prepared and used.

In summer, we dug our winter heating material as shown in the picture (which I have taken from a very old book about the Shetlands — see the image gallery). The peat was sliced out of the bog in chunks 2 inches thick, 6 inches wide, and 24 inches long. The tool used for this purpose had a 3-inch cutting tip and a 10-inch edge blade with which the sides of the blocks were carved out. The slabs were taken from the ground at an angle so they would stay on the spade when lifted.

The peat was then laid up in stacks — usually 30 inches high — with the blocks in the first row set 2 inches apart and the upper layers staggered over the gaps to allow air to pass through the material.

When the fuel was thoroughly dried, we brought it home and stored it in a large stack close to the house. Our home had a metal cookstove and a potbellied stove for heating — and, since that area is very cold, it was necessary to warm the rooms year-round.

If anyone desires further information on the use of peat, I'll be glad to furnish all I can. Just write to me in care of MOTHER.

Is there a lesson here for all the experts who think we can "solve" the current energy "crisis" by the high-energy-input leveling of the Rocky Mountains for its oil shale? Why do we always seem to think that big factories and grandiose financing is the answer . . . when, time and again, nature shows us that the long-term solution is always as simple as a spade and the drying rays of the sun? — MOTHER. 


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