Crop-based biofuels feasibility study for Washington County, New York

Final Report for ONE07-069

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2007: $9,442.59
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $11,100.00
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Christopher Callahan
Callahan Engineering, LLC
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Project Information

Summary:

With funding from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program the feasibility of farm-based biodiesel production in Washington County has been evaluated. The focus of this study was to determine if Washington County farms could support production of sufficient biodiesel to self-fuel their operations. This study was not intended to explore the possibility of using Washington County farmland to support the fueling of on-road or passenger vehicles or home heating equipment and does not explore ethanol production. Therefore, this study assessed farm based biodiesel production as a cost avoidance and energy security initiative.
The main conclusions are:
– There is strong farmer support for and potential benefit from regional farm-based biodiesel production. Many believe Washington County agriculture should pursue biofuels for on-farm use or for sale (79%). More than half cite farm economics as a reason for not farming (52%) with fuel costs being cited as either a major or the most significant impact on their operation (87%).
– Most farmers in the county would prefer a mode of biodiesel production in which they grow oilseed crops and sell the seed to a processor or cooperative. Forty-three percent (43%) indicate they would prefer to grow and sell seed, compared with those who would process the seed into saleable oil (13%) and those who would make biodiesel fuel (9%). Thirty-seven percent (37%) would opt to join a co-op when compared to partnering (17%) or “going it alone” (9%).
– The knowledge to grow crops and convert them to biodiesel exists regionally.
– The northeast United States shares a climate profile with high yield oilseed production areas outside the country (e.g. France and Italy), even though it does not share such a profile with domestic high yield production areas (e.g. North Dakota & South Dakota).
– Area soil data indicates 56% of harvested cropland (60,890 acres) has characteristics compatible with oilseed production. Such production will compete with hay and corn. These crops currently account for 97% of active cropland use in the county.
– Production of fuel on farms may be economically competitive with purchasing petroleum based fuels and high protein meal is produced as a bi-product. Biodiesel production cost for a single farm operation is estimated to be $4.58/gal compared with a recent high of $4.23/gal. There are two additional benefits to self-fueling which should be considered in this comparison: (1) fuel cost volatility experienced by the farm would likely be reduced and (2) meal is produced which could be worth an equivalent of an additional $2.14/gal (assuming meal cost otherwise would be $300/ton).
– Production of fuel in medium sized cooperatives (15-30 farms) is economically competitive with both retail petroleum diesel and commercial biodiesel plants. A medium sized co-operative (15-30 farms) could produce biodiesel at roughly $4.00/gal compared with $3.95/gal when produced in a commercial facility from the same feedstock (locally grown oilseed crops) using similar equipment. A larger co-operative (30 or more farms) is predicted to produce fuel for even less ($3.65/gal).
– Washington County farms can self-fuel their operations by allocating about 13% of cropland to oilseed production and making reasonable fuel efficiency adjustments to their operations. This amounts to 14,700 acres county-wide or 16 acres on an average 147 acre farm). This figure will largely depend on actual fuel use (and improvements in fuel efficiency as well as actual yields.)
This study is unique because it considers biodiesel as a way to avoid cost and to manage risk for Washington County farms. There is increasing concern about farm viability in the region. Some fear the pursuit of biofuels (ethanol, biodiesel, fuel pellets, etc) will erode regional farm competitiveness due to increased feed costs. This study demonstrates that by embracing the right biofuel at the right scale of production, farm viability can be strengthened. Specifically, a cooperative scale production of farm-based vegetable oil or biodiesel is recommended for self-fueling of Washington County farms.
Several challenges face county farmers in pursuing crop-based biodiesel production. The most significant include:
1. Development of small grain combining expertise and/or ventures providing these services.
2. Development of grain drying and storage capability on-farm, or alternatively, establishment of a cooperative model that eliminates the need for this on-farm (e.g. trucking directly after harvest to central plant).
3. Development of cooperative ag-business structures within the county to support pooling of resources and development of farm fueling infrastructure.
4. Education regarding oilseed crops (e.g. planting, cultivation, treatment, harvest, disease and pest management.)
5. Assessment of sustainable, local production of anhydrous alcohol and lye for conversion of vegetable oil to biodiesel.
6. Assumption of risk relative to crop production on the farm, financial risk associated with capital investment in combining, pressing and biodiesel production equipment.

Introduction:

This project was structured to address the six main components of an integrated crop-based biodiesel operation. Therefore, the objectives are aligned with these components as follows.
1. Crops & Climate – OBJECTIVE: Consolidate existing knowledge related to oil seed crops demonstrated in this region and other similar regions (soil and nutrient requirements, yields, etc.)
2. Available Land and Soils – OBJECTIVE: Explore available land and soil qualities for use in such an agricultural industry.
3. Stakeholder Assessment – OBJECTIVE: Incorporating stakeholder interviews to understand potential interest for farmer cooperation, community concerns, market interest, etc.
4. Biodiesel processing products, technologies and transport logistics – OBJECTIVE: Summarize available biodiesel processing products, technologies and transport logistics including consolidation of results from related feasibility studies.
5. Impact of Scale – OBJECTIVE: Explore the impact of scale on such an operation in this climate (single on-farm operation, co-op scale, regional scale, county scale, mixed-scale).
6. Market Feasibility – OBJECTIVE: Explore market feasibility (farmer use / cooperation scenarios, equipment warranty considerations, surplus markets, etc.)

Project Objectives:

This project was structured to address the six main components of an integrated crop-based biodiesel operation as noted in the Summary section. Therefore, the objectives and performance targets are aligned with these components. Progress against this plan is summarized below.

1. Crops & Climate – OBJECTIVE: Consolidate existing knowledge related to oil seed crops demonstrated in this region and other similar regions (soil and nutrient requirements, yields, etc.) Work focused on both (1) general crop information from other geographic areas with longer history of oil seed crop production and (2) gathering lessons learned from regional pioneers taking the lead in oilseed crop production.

2. Available Land and Soils – OBJECTIVE: Explore available land and soil qualities for use in such an agri-industry. Working jointly with the NRCS and Soil and Water Conservation District and referencing the USDA NASS Survey of Agriculture, the study has resulted in a summary of available crop land in Washington County and a summary of soil distributions among that land. The soils have been theoretically assessed for compatibility with oil seed crops based on hay and corn ratings from the County Soil Survey.

3. Stakeholder Assessment – OBJECTIVE: Incorporating stakeholder interviews to understand potential interest for farmer cooperation, community concerns, market interest, etc.

4. Biodiesel processing products, technologies and transport logistics – OBJECTIVE: Summarize available biodiesel processing products, technologies and transport logistics including consolidation of results from related feasibility studies.

5. Impact of Scale – OBJECTIVE: Explore the impact of scale on such an operation in this climate (single on-farm operation, co-op scale, regional scale, county scale, mixed-scale).

6. Market Feasibility – OBJECTIVE: Explore market feasibility (farmer use / cooperation scenarios, equipment warranty considerations, surplus markets, etc.)

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jay Skellie

Research

Materials and methods:

The following sections identify the most significant feasibility findings in three categories: social, technical / environmental, and economic.

SOCIAL FEASIBILITY
1. Farmers surveyed indicate strong shared concern about stability of fuel supply and pricing as they relate to the long-term viability of their farming enterprises. Eighty-seven percent (87%) of respondents indicated fuel costs were either their most significant concern or had a major impact on their operation. The vast majority of farmers surveyed (79%) believe that the Washington County agricultural industry should pursue biofuel crops.
2. Most farmers in the county would prefer a mode of operation in which they grow oilseed crops and sell the seed to a processor or cooperative. Forty-three percent (43%) indicate they would prefer to grow and sell seed, compared with those who would process the seed into saleable oil (13%) and those who would make biodiesel fuel (9%). Thirty-seven percent (37%) would opt to join a co-op when compared to partnering (17%) or “going it alone” (9%).

ENVIRONMENTAL & TECHNICAL FEASIBILITY
1. Washington County possesses soils that are compatible with production of oilseed crops. Oilseed crops will likely compete with corn for the most compatible soils and slightly graded land.
2. Oil seed crops have been grown in Washington County, though at relatively small scales. Examples of oilseed production for on-farm fueling can be observed in neighboring areas of Vermont. In fact, initial processing of pioneering Washington County farmers growing oil seed crops has been done at a cooperative scale processor in Southern Vermont. Common crops include sunflowers, canola and soybeans.
3. High yields have been demonstrated regionally for sunflower (2397 lbs/acre seed & 119 gal/acre oil) and canola (3360 lbs/acre & 112 gal/acre [est.]) More typical yields are lower (1800 lbs/acre seed and 70 gal/acre oil for sunflower and 1300 lbs/acre seed & 24 gal/acre for canola). Soybeans are grown widely in New York for feed with an average yield of 1976 lbs/acre (est. 52 gal/acre oil potential) National averages are 1454 lbs/acre sunflower grain and 2132 lbs/acre canola grain. European oilseed yields tend to be higher than US yields (France 1852 lbs/acre grain & 99 gal/acre oil for sunflower, Italy 1892 lbs/acre grain & 101 gal/acre oil). Interestingly, the climate of the dominant European growing regions is closer to the Northeast US than the Midwest when considering temperature and precipitation. Precipitation results in better growth and higher gross yield, but also presents a challenge for timing of harvest and moisture control. However, France and Italy both demonstrate relatively repeatable high yields despite high temperature and high precipitation even during harvest months. See Figure 2.
4. The vast majority of fuel use on Washington County farms is diesel fuel (87%).
5. Washington County farmers could self-fuel their operations by converting a minority of their existing cropland to oilseed production. Roughly 108,459 acres are designated as cropland in the county with 67% used for forage, 23% for corn silage and 7% for grain corn. Corn and forage, therefore, account for 97% of the cropland use in the county. Annual diesel fuel consumption by Washington County farms is 1.1 million gallons. A conservative estimate of net yield of oil from oilseed crops such as canola and sunflower in our region is 75 gallons/acre. This means that roughly 14,700 acres (or 13.5% of cropland) would have to be dedicated to oilseed crops for all farms in the county to be self-fueled. The level of diesel fuel usage on Washington County farms seems to vary widely regardless of acreage. At the farm level, to support an assumed fuel use of 1200 gallons per year, roughly 16 acres (or 11% of the average farm’s 147 acres of cropland) would be required to self-fuel. To support a higher assumed fuel use of 3200 gallons per year, roughly 43 acres (30% would be required.) This discrepancy suggests some farms should first consider fuel economy measures in addition to embarking on biodiesel production.
6. A majority of farmers in Washington County (75%) lack experience with biofuels.
7. Of those who have some experience with biofuels (25%), none have had any equipment issues that they would attribute to the use of the alternative fuel. Many farmers and others around the globe have had excellent experiences running equipment on both pure vegetable oil and on biodiesel. This is consistent with research through-out the world; well filtered pure vegetable oil and well converted biodiesel fuel will not impact equipment longevity. This is consistent with published results [7, 16, 17, 19 & 21].
8. Relatively few farmers surveyed indicate that equipment warranty is an extremely important issue for them (12%). The balance of respondents indicated warranty is either unimportant (50%) or somewhat important (38%).
10. Grain meal is a bi-product of the oil pressing process. This meal can be used as part of a ration for livestock or may represent a valuable revenue stream. The value of this bi-product has been well covered by other researchers [24].

ECONOMIC FEASIBILITY
1. Farm economics was noted as the main reason respondents have considered not farming anymore. Fifty-two percent (52%) of those who have considered stopping farming indicated this was the reason. Retirement was the second most common reason (24%).
2. Fuel represents about 10% of all farm expenses in Washington County.
3. Vegetable oil can be produced regionally at $3.50/gallon, and can be used directly in most diesel engines. Pure vegetable oil does require some additional equipment to be installed on equipment to heat the oil in cold temperatures. The cost of seed production equivalent to a gallon of oil is estimated at $3.00/gallon (at the farm gate). Pressing the oil from the seed is estimated to cost roughly $0.50/gallon on farm-scale equipment.
4. Crop-based biodiesel production has been demonstrated at a cost of roughly $5.00/gallon in our region. Processing the oil mentioned in #3 above to biodiesel adds another $1.50/gallon to the estimated $3.50/gallon cost for pure oil. The processing of vegetable oil to biodiesel introduces the most economic uncertainty due to costs of additional chemicals required for the reaction. Net yields in either case will be impacted by pest damage, disease and weather resulting in another significant variable. Off-road diesel was selling for $4.50/gallon at the time of writing, having risen $3.00/gallon in the past 10 years and $2.00/gallon in the past six months.
5. Centralized, co-op scale pressing of oilseeds can be done for as little as $0.05/gallon and conversion of oil to biodiesel may reduce the cost per gallon significantly to about $3.50/gallon due to economies of scale when compared to an on-farm processor.
6. Capital costs are significantly reduced by pooling resources to support a cooperative scale processing center. An 80 gallon batch processor for use by a single farm would cost about $5,800 and have a useful life of 10 years. A 300 gallon batch processor would cost about $50,000 and have a useful life of 20 years and could provide fuel for approximately 50 farms each year. Amortized capital costs work out to about $0.03 / gallon for a single farm processor and about $0.01/gallon for a cooperative. Cooperatives will also benefit from reduced chemical costs since they could be purchased in larger quantities. Savings would be experienced in consolidating oil press operations, or using a mobile pressing unit that is shared within the co-op’s region.
7. Assessment of the impact of scale on biodiesel processing (Figure 7 and Figure 8) suggests a medium sized co-operative (15-30 farms) could produce biodiesel at roughly $4.00/gal compared with $3.95/gal when produced in a commercial facility from the same feedstock (locally grown oilseed crops) using similar equipment. A larger co-operative (30 or more farms) is predicted to produce fuel for even less ($3.65/gal). These comparisons all assume used grain bins and Asian oil presses. In reality, a commercial facility will likely not include used grain bins and may opt for more automated, higher cost European oil presses which would result in a higher cost of $4.92/gal. The inherent thift and fabrication ability of area farmers is an asset not typically appreciated or quantified. This assessment shows its value.

Research results and discussion:

The following sections identify the most significant feasibility findings in three categories: social, technical / environmental, and economic.

Social Feasibility

1. Farmers surveyed indicate strong shared concern about stability of fuel supply and pricing as they relate to the long-term viability of their farming enterprises. Eighty-seven percent (87%) of respondents indicated fuel costs were either their most significant concern or had a major impact on their operation. The vast majority of farmers surveyed (79%) believe the Washington County agriculture industry should pursue biofuel crops.

2. Most farmers in the county would prefer a mode of operation in which they grow oilseed crops and sell the seed to a processor or cooperative. Forty-three percent (43%) indicate they would prefer to grow and sell, compared with those who would process the seed into saleable oil (13%) and those who would make biodiesel fuel (9%). Thirty-seven percent (37%) would opt to join a co-op when compared to partnering (17%) or “going it alone” (9%).

Environmental & Technical Feasibility

1. Washington County possesses soils that are compatible with production of oilseed crops. Oilseed crops will likely compete with corn for the most compatible soils and slightly graded land.

2. Oil seed crops have been grown in Washington County, though at relatively small scales. Examples of oilseed production for on-farm fueling can be observed in neighboring areas of Vermont. In fact, initial processing of pioneering Washington County farmers growing oil seed crops has been done at a cooperative scale processor in Southern Vermont. Common crops include sunflowers, canola and soybeans.

3. High yields have been demonstrated regionally for sunflower (2397 lbs/acre seed & 119 gal/acre oil) and canola (3360 lbs/acre & 112 gal/acre [est.]) More typical yields are lower (1800 lbs/acre seed and 70 gal/acre oil for sunflower and 1300 lbs/acre seed & 24 gal/acre for canola). Soybeans are grown widely in New York for feed with an average yield of 1976 lbs/acre (est. 52 gal/acre oil potential) National averages are 1454 lbs/acre sunflower grain and 2132 lbs/acre canola grain. European oilseed yields tend to be higher than US yields (France 1852 lbs/acre grain & 99 gal/acre oil for sunflower, Italy 1892 lbs/acre grain & 101 gal/acre oil). Interestingly, the climate of the dominant European growing regions is closer to the Northeast US than the Midwest when considering temperature and precipitation. Precipitation results in better growth and higher gross yield, but also presents a challenge for timing of harvest and moisture control.

4. The vast majority of fuel use on Washington County farms is diesel fuel (87%).

5. Washington County farmers could self-fuel their operations through the use of a minority of their existing cropland. Roughly 108,459 acres are designated as cropland in the county with 67% used for forage, 23% for corn silage and 7% for grain corn. Corn and forage, therefore, account for 97% of the cropland use in the county. Annual diesel fuel consumption by Washington County farms is 1.1 million gallons. A conservative estimate of net yield of oil from for oilseed crops such as canola and sunflower in our region is 75 gallons/acre. This means that roughly 14,700 acres (or 13.5% of cropland) would have to be dedicated to oilseed crops for all farms in the county to be self-fueled. At the farm level, to support average fuel use of 1200 gallons per year, roughly 16 acres (or 11% of the average farm’s 147 acres of cropland) would be required to self-fuel.

6. A majority of farmers in Washington County (75%) lack experience with biofuels.

7. Of those who have some experience with biofuels (25%), none have had any equipment issues that they would attribute to the use of the alternative fuel. Many farmers and others around globe have had excellent experiences running equipment on both pure vegetable oil and on biodiesel. This is consistent with research through-out the world; well filtered pure vegetable oil and well converted biodiesel fuel will not impact equipment longevity.

8. Relatively few farmers surveyed indicate that equipment warranty is an extremely important issue for them (12%). The balance of respondents indicated warranty is either unimportant (50%) or somewhat important (38%).

9. Many farmers and others around globe have had excellent experiences running equipment on both pure vegetable oil and on biodiesel.

10. Grain meal is a bi-product of the oil pressing process. This meal can be used as part of a ration for livestock.

Economic Feasibility

1. Farm economics was noted as the main reason respondents have considered not farming anymore. Fifty-two percent (52%) of those who have considered stopping farming indicated this was the reason. Retirement was the second most common reason (24%).

2. Fuel represents about 10% of all farm expenses in Washington County.

3. Crop-based biodiesel production has been demonstrated at a cost of roughly $5.00/gallon in our region. Vegetable oil can be produced regionally at $3.50/gallon, and can be used in most diesel engines. The cost of seed production equivalent to a gallon of oil is estimated at $3.00/gallon (at the farm gate). Pressing the oil from the seed is estimated to cost roughly $0.50/gallon on farm-scale equipment and processing this oil to biodiesel adds another $1.50/gallon. The processing of vegetable oil to biodiesel introduces the most economic uncertainty due to costs of additional chemicals required for the reaction. Net yields will also be impacted by pest damage, disease and weather resulting in another significant variable. Off-road diesel was selling for $4.50/gallon at the time of writing, having risen $3.00/gallon in the past 10 years and $2.00/gallon in the past six months.

4. Centralized, co-op scale pressing of oilseeds can be done for as little as $0.05/gallon and conversion of oil to biodiesel may reduce the cost per gallon significantly to about $3.50/gallon due to economies of scale when compared to an on-farm processor.

5. Capital costs are significantly reduced by pooling resources to support a cooperative scale processing center. An 80 gallon batch processor for use by a single farm would cost about $5,800 and have a useful life of 10 years. A 300 gallon batch processor would cost about $30,000 and have a useful life of 20 years and could provide fuel for approximately 150 farms each year. Amortized capital costs work out to about $0.03 / gallon for a single farm processor and about $0.005/gallon for a cooperative. Cooperatives will also benefit from reduced chemical costs since they would be purchased in larger quantities. Savings would be experienced in consolidating oil press operations, or using a mobile pressing unit that is shared within the co-op’s region.

Research conclusions:

The primary impact of the study has been to raise the interest in oil seed crops and farm-based biodiesel among Washington County Farm Bureau membership and the general public. Outreach has included introducing farmers with limited to no experience in oil seed crops to those who have been pioneers in the area. This has led to some trial runs of pressing crops that some farmers have been growing for feed but haven’t considered for fuel (e.g. soybeans). It has also helped to provide the audience with a tangible sense of what the equipment looks and feels like for a certain scale of operation.
The survey of Washington County Farm Bureau members has unexpectedly served two purposes. First it has provided very local, specific data about farmer’s attitudes toward biofuels. Secondly, it has piqued the interest of some farmers in the topic. The surveys were anonymous, but the researcher has actually fielded phone calls and letters from enthusiastic farmers seeking more information on the crops and equipment as well as opportunities to collaborate with others. This should help with the distribution, acceptance and use of the final project report among this critical group of stakeholders.
Ultimately, the benefit of the research will be to provide interested farmers with background to consider if they plan to enter the biodiesel or oilseed crop market. This project aims to provide farmers with a consolidated summary of feasible models for a bio-diesel crop operation. A core, critical mass of farmers with interest in alternative fuels exists within the Washington County Farm Bureau. Their questions regard specific next steps that they could take and which steps would make the most sense. By providing a summary of the feasibility it is hoped that these next steps become increasingly clear and that the risk associated with any resulting ventures may be minimized.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

Project status updates have been communicated to the Washington County Farm Bureau in monthly newsletters. Additionally regular updates were provided to the Farm Bureau Board of Directors at their meetings on roughly a quarterly basis. The membership newsletter was used to communicate an executive summary of key findings in Fall 2008.
This report will be made available on the SARE report clearinghouse website as well as on the author’s website, www.callahan.eng.pro. It will also be emailed to interested parties.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

The author is collaborating with the Washington County Farm Bureau and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Washington County to organize an energy conference in Spring 2009. The results of this survey have identified several areas that need to be addressed to facilitate farmer adoption including communication and collaboration via cooperatives. The conference agenda seeks to include topics relevant to forming and operating cooperatives in addition to information on renewable energy such as biodiesel.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Several challenges face county farmers in pursuing crop-based biodiesel production and are worthy of continued study and support. The most significant include:
1. Development of small grain combining expertise and/or ventures providing these services.
2. Development of grain drying and storage capability on-farm, or alternatively, establishment of a cooperative model that eliminates the need for this on-farm (e.g. trucking directly after harvest to central plant).
3. Development of cooperative ag-business structures within the county to support pooling of resources and development of farm fueling infrastructure.
4. Education regarding oilseed crops (e.g. planting, cultivation, treatment, harvest, disease and pest management.)
5. Assessment of sustainable, local production of anhydrous alcohol and lye for conversion of vegetable oil to biodiesel.
6. Assumption of risk relative to crop production on the farm, financial risk associated with capital investment in combining, pressing and biodiesel production equipment.

REFERENCES

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2. Bell, Howard (AAA Chemical). Personal Communication regarding pricing on various volume purchases of biodiesel production chemicals.
3. Darby, H and Hills, K. 2007 Final Report for Project Title: Oilseed Research and Demonstration Trials. University of Vermont Extension. Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund Grant # 04-2007.
4. Ferchau, E. Equipment for Decentralised Cold Pressing of Oil Seeds. Folk Center for Renewable Energy (Denmark). November 2000. Webpage downloaded from http://www.folkecenter.net/gb/rd/transport/plant_oil/9190/ on July 8, 2008.
5. Frisby, J. C. and Schumacher, L. G. Biodiesel Fuel. University of Missouri Extension. Webpage downloaded from http://extension.missouri.edu on 8/7/2007. Last updated 5/30/07.
6. Grubinger, V. et al. Project Overview: On-farm Oil Seed Production and Processing. State Line Farm, Shaftsbury, Vermont. October 25, 2006.
7. Humburg, D.S. et al. Biodiesel Use and Experience Among State DOT Agencies. ASABE Paper No. 046072. 2004.
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11. Martin Grain Systems. Personal communication regarding regional grain bin and drier costs. 11/25/2008.
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Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.