Teaching farmers to make biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil
The goal of this project is to teach farmers to make biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil collected from restaurants and other food service establishments. The Wilson College Biodiesel Project is an established educational program with a reputation in the Pennsylvania sustainable farming community and the grassroots biodiesel community. SARE funds are being used to enhance the curriculum offered by the Wilson College program, and to deliver a farmer-specific biodiesel educational package to farmers in the region. Additional funds will then be used to support farmers who choose to adopt biodiesel productions on their farms.
Biodiesel fuel is a renewable alternative to petroleum diesel that can be used to power any unmodified diesel equipment and some heating appliances. Burning biodiesel in place of petroleum fuel improves air quality, reduces net carbon dioxide output, reuses a domestically produced waste product, and may reduce farm fuel costs. Biodiesel production on a small scale using low-tech equipment is fairly straightforward, yet requires careful attention to detail in order to be safe and environmentally responsible. The rationale for this project is that an experienced biodiesel production team will guide farmers through the start-up phase of their own fuel-making processes, so that they can succeed at safely making quality fuel from the outset.
The project is proceeding in three phases. In phase one, the project coordinator has been studying the most up-to-date practices for safe, efficient, and environmentally responsible production of biodiesel fuel on farms. This information has been used to revise the existing Wilson College biodiesel production facility, and improved methods have been incorporated into workshop curricula. In tandem with this study, the project coordinator is co-writing a “Best Practices Manual” for small-scale biodiesel production in Pennsylvania. Also during phase one, the project coordinator has trained three student assistants who will serve as co-educators for farmers during the project.
Phase two involved presenting free hands-on biodiesel production workshops to farmers from around the region. Five workshops were held in the summer and fall of 2006, and one will be held in spring of 2007. These full-day workshops walked small groups of farmers through the basic information needed to get started with fuel production, and included a 50 gallon fuel “brew” on-site, and an in-depth discussion of processing equipment. Participating farmers received an educational resource packet, and were then invited to apply for further funding for start-up costs.
In phase three, ten farmers will be selected to receive $1500 to cover equipment and materials costs involved in developing their own small scale production facilities. These farmers will be supported by the Wilson College program staff and a project engineer via site visits and phone and email support. In return for SARE start-up funds and staff support, farmers are asked to produce at least 500 gallons of biodiesel fuel over the first year, and to offer a field day demonstrating their fuel production system to farmers in their communities.
Of the 70 farmers who participate in hands-on biodiesel workshops, at least 10 will adopt biodiesel fuel production as a part of their regular practice. These 10 farmers will have achieved success when they have produced at least 500 gallons of biodiesel, and have hosted a workshop on fuel production for five or more other growers.
The outcome of this project will be improved farm sustainability by lower operating costs and decreased environmental impact resulting from a reduction in fossil fuel use.
Project success will be measured by initial workshop evaluations, and through close communication with farmer participants using support calls and visits. Farmers will be asked to track their fuel production, and will agree to hold a public workshop as a condition of funding for their biodiesel processors. Project staff will assist farmer participants in presenting public workshops, and will evaluate each farmer’s grasp of fuel-making techniques and safety protocols.
The following milestones are relevant to year one of the project:
100 farmers express an interest in intensive biodiesel workshops. Assessed by recording number of phone, email, and personal inquiries. (Summer of year one).
70 farmers participate in hands-on biodiesel workshops. (Fall of year one).
30 farmers demonstrate understanding of biodiesel process and a desire to pursue production on their own farms. Assessed by close-of-workshop evaluation forms. (Fall, year one).
18 farmers submit processor plans and apply for grant funded processor construction. (Winter, year one).
Narrative: Farmer response to the project has been strong, and the project is proceeding successfully. Work is going according to schedule, with some minor deviations from initial expectations, to be discussed below.
Over the spring and summer and early fall of 2006, project coordinator Matt Steiman (hereafter referred to as PC) conducted a study of the most up-to-date practices for safe and effective small scale biodiesel production. This involved (and continues to require) exhaustive study of existing literature and participation in internet users forums such as the biodiesel discussion board (http://biodiesel.infopop.cc). In May, the PC and student Darwin Jackson constructed two “economy scale” biodiesel processors based on the “Appleseed” or water-heater design (see www.biodieselcommunity.org) and began the process of retrofitting the Wilson College production facility.
In July the PC traveled to the “Biodiesel Co-ops Conference” at the Colorado School of Mines, a meeting of leading small scale producers from around the country. There he participated in discussions on safe processing, fuel quality testing, cold weather performance issues, and regulations effecting small scale producers.
In September, Wilson College hosted an internally funded conference on biodiesel fuel production and renewable energy entitled “Life After Cheap Oil” (www.wilson.edu/lifeaftercheapoil). Several nationally recognized producer/educators presented at the event, including Maria Alovert (www.girlmark.com) and Lyle Estill, Leif Fohrer, and Rachel Burton from the Piedmont Biofuels Co-op (www.biofuels.coop). Several farmers from around the region, including some potential beneficiaries of the SARE project, attended the conference for supplemental information. Following the main conference, Maria Alovert stayed on to present a two-day hands-on fuel production and equipment building workshop to the public, which enabled the Wilson College team to improve the curriculum under development for farmers.
Over the course of the summer and early fall, the PC trained Wilson College students Darwin Jackson and Carla Konter to serve as project assistants for workshops and further support of farmers during latter phases of the project. Mr. Jackson is now fully versed in the logistics of fuel production and regularly operates and maintains the Wilson College biodiesel equipment. Ms. Konter has an analytical chemistry background and has developed a fuel quality testing protocol in conjunction with the PC. Ms. Konter will help farmers with fuel quality assessments once they begin production. Shippensburg University student Kyle Shenk (previously trained) also assisted the project on occasion during farmer workshops.
Initially a “Best Practices Manual” (compiling all of the relevant information gathered by the PC during the study phase of the project) was planned for production in time for distribution to farmers at the workshops held in the fall of 2006. The release of the best practices manual has been delayed due to a fortunate occurrence: the PC was invited to participate in the development of a “Best Practices for Small Scale Biodiesel Production on Farms in Pennsylvania” guidebook in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State University and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The team assembled for this task also includes faculty and staff from Penn State (three chemical engineers, an agricultural engineer, the PSU farms manager, and environmental health and safety personnel) and an environmental compliance officer from the DEP. Working together, the expertise assembled in this group will produce a document of a much greater scope than what would be attainable by the PC working alone. The PC will serve as co-editor of the final document, and SARE will be acknowledged as a co-supporter when it is released. The finished document and accompanying CD-ROM will be distributed to all farmers who participated in the 2006 hands-on biodiesel workshops.
Five farmer workshops were held in 2006 and all were well attended. Workshop dates and locations were as follows:
August 15th, Adams County Cooperative Extension (PA)
August 19th, Spoutwood Farm and Education Center (York County, PA)
September 30th, Backbone Farm (Oakland, MD)
October 7th, Wilson College/ Fulton Farm (Franklin County, PA)
October 31st, Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative (Huntington County, PA)
Over 100 people attended the five workshops. (Eleven or more of these were not farmers, but were people associated with farmer education such as extension personnel or high school vo-ag teachers). Despite already exceeding the 70-farmer milestone for workshop participation, a sixth workshop is planned for the spring of 2007 to meet continuing demand for the curriculum. Farmers traveled from Virginia, West Virginia, Philadelphia, and western PA for the workshops. Interest generated by publicity efforts for the project led to invitations to host workshops for farmers in several other Pennsylvania counties (Centre, Perry, Lancaster, Cumberland, Somerset) and New Jersey. It is clear that if time and funds were available, the demand exists for farmer biodiesel workshops around the region.
Workshops were publicized by listings in the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) newsletter, the Lancaster Farming newspaper, extension publications, and via personal email and internet contact lists. The PC was not able to reliably track the number of farmer phone and email contacts expressing interest in the project due to the sporadic nature of these contacts and some lack of organization at the project office. In addition, some farmers registered for the workshops through the host site or co-organizing body. However, it is estimated that the milestone of 100 farmers expressing interest has been met, considering that workshop attendance was over 80 farmers, and requests for information are still continuing.
Several useful lessons were learned by the project staff over the 2006 workshop series. First, half the work of giving a workshop is in organizing participants and responding to requests for information. Workshop size was intentionally kept small to promote a thorough hands-on experience for farmers. Initially we hoped to limit attendance to 15 people per session, but expanded some sessions to 25 people to accommodate high demand. The phone and email communications with participants hoping to ensure their spots for the workshops were more time consuming than anticipated.
Secondly, the facilities used for the workshops each provided a unique character to the different sessions. Amenities varied from the ideal (an indoor classroom and outdoor pavilion at Adams County Extension) to the challenging (under tents in the rain at Backbone Farm). Nonetheless, participants reported positive experiences at each session and the response to end-of-workshop surveys has been wholly positive. Several farmers reported that they had previously read about biodiesel production in books or online, but that seeing the process in person and gaining some hands-on experience gave them the confidence they need to go forward with trying fuel production at home.
Workshop participants identify most readily with the biodiesel equipment being used on-site during the event, despite pictures that were shown promoting other potential equipment designs. For this reason, at the October workshops held at Wilson College and Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op, a smaller, safer, and more efficient reactor design was used to produce fuel on-site, in lieu of the original Wilson College processor, which is larger and more showy, but has some inherent safety and efficiency concerns associated with its design.
Overall it was apparent that six hours was about the limit of most participants attention span, and the project team did our best to compress extensive information and a hands-on lab into this timeframe. By then end of each workshop session it appeared that participants were saturated with information. All farmers received a copy of the 110-page Biodiesel Homebrew Guide by Maria Alovert and several handouts produced at Wilson College. (Farmers were also given copies of Biodiesel Power by Lyle Estill at the first workshop). Farmers were encouraged to contact project staff at any time with follow up questions, and all were invited to apply for supplemental funding under phase three.
In retrospect, applications for supplemental funding should have been distributed to participants at each workshop session, but the PC was deliberating over the wording of the applications, and decided to mail them out to participants after the last workshop in October. Applications were emailed and sent by postal service to farmer participants in mid November, with a request that they be returned by the end of December, 2006. As of yet response has been light and is not meeting the expected milestone (only eleven applications have been returned thus far). This is surprising given the number of people who expressed an intent to apply at the close of the workshops. One eager participant elected not to apply for funding because virtually all of the waste fryer oil in his community has already been claimed by another small producer.
In early January 2007 student helpers from the program personally telephoned all registered participants, which resulted in several additional applications being returned. In mid January, the first eleven applications were reviewed by the following five people: the PC, Project Engineer Greg Birky, student staff Darwin Jackson, Jenn Halpin (PASA board and Dickinson College student farm director), and Heather House (PASA staff).
Five farmers have been selected for funding from the first round of applications, and the farmers have been notified to begin developing their biodiesel processor plans. Farmers will receive a contract followed by an initial check for $1000 in early February. Once farmer participants have completed their commitment of 500 gallons of fuel produced and hosting of one field day, they will receive the remaining $500 from their allotments. Farmers not selected from the first round of applications will be put into a pool of new applications, to be reviewed in mid March 2007.
Farmer participants from the first round will be Edward Foley, Two Particular Acres; Ben McKean, Healthberry Farm; Jennifer Schmehl and Sean McDermott, New Morning Farm; Charles Kolb, Thurmont Md; and Jimmy Lee Bricker, Dancing Goat Farm.
The PC has purchased a set of professionally drawn plans for a small scale biodiesel reactor from an equipment supplier in Utah. These plans have been distributed to farmer participants as one example of a design for safe and efficient small scale fuel production. Farmers are invited to develop their own processing facility designs, but have been asked to confer with Project Engineer Greg Birky before beginning construction.
Sunset Ridge Farm
RR # 1
193 Locust Dr
Milan, PA 18831
Office Phone: 5705963077
PO Box 40
Dry Fork, WV 26263
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7127 Blacks Mill Rd
Thurmont , MD 21788
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Rock Ridge Farm
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Oakland, MD 21550
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Farmer / educator
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Coatesville, PA 19320
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Kimberton, PA 19442
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Two Particular Acres
301 Rittenhouse Rd
Royersford, PA 19468
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223 Fairfield Station Rd
Fairfield, PA 17320
Mountain View Farm Blue Ridge Center
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Purcelville, VA 20132
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