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.
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.)