Teaching farmers to make biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil

2008 Annual Report for LNE06-247

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2006: $46,476.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $60,000.00
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Matt Steiman
Wilson College

Teaching farmers to make biodiesel fuel from waste vegetable oil


The 2008 project year can be summarized as one of outreach to disseminate lessons learned from research and development work on the project, as well as support for the farmer participants working with project staff to enact biodiesel operations on their home farms. In 2008 the project coordinator and students presented information on responsible on-farm biodiesel production to over 250 farmers and educators at four different seminars. Five farmer participants visited the project coordinator at the Dickinson College biodiesel shop for one-on-one training. The project coordinator and student interns made site visits to seven different participant farms this year to help with equipment design and fabrication, and refresher information on use of the biodiesel equipment. Students working with the PC conducted two independent research trials to determine the effect of the glycerol byproduct from biodiesel production on aerobic composting systems. The year also saw distinct improvements to the biodiesel demonstration facility at Wilson College. In August of this year the best practices manual developed under this project, entitled “Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommercial Use and Production” was published by Penn State University in hard copy, and is also available for free public downloads. Hard copies were made available for sale at Penn State’s Ag Progress Days, a massive public event at the State College campus.

Objectives/Performance Targets

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 this phase of the project:

10 farmers construct biodiesel processors with grant support. (Winter, year one)

10 farmers begin producing biodiesel fuel with staff support. (Spring of year two).

10 farmers successfully process 500 gallons of waste vegetable oil into fuel, and host a public workshop for at least five other farmers. (Fall & winter of year two).

While we have yet to achieve the final milestone in this list, the project has made significant progress toward this goal. The activity of each farmer beneficiary is described below.

Completed and surpassed 500 gallon production goal:

Mary Corboy, Greensgrow Farm, Philadelphia PA. Greensgrow is an urban farm operating on a brownfield site in a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood. Mary Corboy’s staff of interns have taken responsibility for the biodiesel project. The farm has access to ample supplies of used cooking oil from the many downtown restaurants that it services as produce accounts. In 2008 Greensgrow purchased a diesel delivery truck to use the fuel produced on site, helping to significantly cut their overall fuel bills. Greensgrow has adopted the advanced practice of methanol recovery from the glycerol byproduct, which has allowed them to not only clean up their own byproduct, but also to act as a drop-off site for glycerol from other local non-profit biodiesel producers. Steve Richter, a local (Philly) biodiesel expert who was hired on contract by the project to assist Greensgrow in their start-up phase, continues to maintain a friendly relationship with the farm, and most recently his son Cody Richter has joined the farm as a biodiesel intern. Greensgrow has adopted biodiesel production as a regular practice on their farm, and has shown the processing system to numerous groups of individuals on tours of the facility. In June of 2008 the PC visited the farm to field production questions and provide encouragement.

Sebastian Kretchmer, Sankanac CSA, Kimberton Hills, PA. Sebastian and his interns have also made biodiesel part of their normal farming practice. Sankanac is a large biodynamic vegetable farm on the outskirts of the Philadelphia metro area, with both diesel tractors and trucks to fuel. The farm is part of a larger Camp Hill community that provides life-skills experiences to developmentally disabled adults. The farm hosts one and two year apprentices from around the world, and also has significant visitor traffic. CSA members and volunteers helped Sebastian create a dedicated biodiesel production area inside of the farm’s main barn, allowing fuel processing to carry on into the fall and spring when the farm work load is reduced. In addition to biodiesel production, Sebastian has developed some experience in using straight vegetable oil as a fuel in a modified diesel truck. In the fall of 2008, a cosmetics company that deals in tropical oils and also provides assistance to oil producing communities in developing countries flew Sebastian to Honduras to help teach campesinos to convert diesel equipment to run on straight vegetable oil. The PC visited Sankanac farm in June to discuss methanol recovery equipment and answer other production questions.

Charles Kolb, Thurmont MD. Charlie is an expert fabricator and enthusiastic tinkerer. His biodiesel processing system handles 400 gallons of oil per batch, so he was able to quickly surpass the 500 gallon production goal. Charlie continues to make fuel and collect oil from restaurants in his area on a regular basis. In 2008 he helped teach another farmer in the area to start his own biodiesel production system, and has served as that farmer’s mentor through the start-up phase.

Ben McKean, Healthberry Farm, Dry Fork, WV. Healthberry Farm is a mixed crop homestead operation in the mountainous area near Dolly Sods and Seneca Rocks, WV. The farm raises bees and produces honey and honey products for sale, as well as berries, some wine, and several vegetables. Ben McKean collects oil from several local restaurants in his area. In April of 2008 the PC visited Healthberry Farm to help complete the initial biodiesel production system. After carrying through the first batch of fuel, Ben and the PC fabricated a methanol recovery condenser, and proceeded on to this advanced step on day two of the visit. Ben has continued with biodiesel production and has demonstrated the processing system to several local farmers. Fuel is used in a diesel vehicle and diesel tractor.

Attila Agoston, Mountain View Farm, Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, Purcellville, VA. Attila has been an aggressive consumer of biodiesel production information. After attending the introductory production workshop at Wilson College in 2006, Attila and his partners at the farm began putting together their production system. In 2008, Attila attended the Advanced Biodiesel field day organized by the PC at the annual PASA conference (described in “Outcomes”) and visited the PC at Dickinson College Biodiesel for a one-on-one question and answer session. As of the winter of 2008, the Mountain View Farm biodiesel facility has produced and used several batches of fuel, and has demonstrated the facility to several visitors.

In Progress Toward Production Goal:

Ned Foley, Two Particular Acres, Royersford, PA. Two Particular Acres is a large commercial composting facility and hay farm on the outskirts of suburban Philadelphia. The farm collects and accepts yard waste and food waste from Philadelphia businesses and converts this into high quality compost for retail and wholesale markets. Two Particular Acres uses heavy diesel equipment to handle compost materials, and as such has a large annual fuel bill. Ned Foley and two friends (one a food service business owner and the other a hardware store owner) have collaborated to build their biodiesel production unit and have collected significant quantities of used cooking oil. In order to reduce labor input, they have designed and built a large volume processing system. At the point of last contact, the farm had yet to carry out their first batch of fuel, but progress toward the production goal is expected this winter. The processing equipment was built in a high traffic public space, which allowed for much visitor attention during the construction phase. In June of 2008 the PC visited Two Particular Acres to run through a 20 gallon demonstration batch with team members, using a small portable biodiesel reactor created for this purpose.

Jim Bricker, Waste Oil Recyclers, Modena, PA. Jim Bricker became a project participant while living and working at Dancing Goat Farm in central eastern Pennsylvania. At the same time as commencing his biodiesel project, he also collaborated with friends to start Waste Oil Recyclers, a used cooking oil collection service and brokerage. After leaving Dancing Goat Farm in order to fully develop the waste oil recycling business, Jim temporarily stopped producing biodiesel, and the PC considered “repossessing” the grant-funded biodiesel processing equipment. However, in the fall of 2008, Jim and his colleagues began working with a local greenhouse grower to produce biodiesel for winter heating fuel and will remain as participants in the project. Waste Oil Recyclers is a well developed business that promotes sustainable transportation fuel. They host regular public “diesel days” to promote the use of vegetable oil as a cleaner burning petroleum alternative: http://www.wasteoilrecyclers.com/

Sean McDermott and Jennifer Schmehl, New Morning Farm, Hustontown, PA. New Morning Farm is a high volume production organic farm servicing numerous restaurant and farmers market accounts in the metro Washington DC area. New Morning and the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative hosted a biodiesel production workshop in the fall of 2006. Sean and Jennifer, crew field managers at the farm, applied and were selected to be funded farmer participants in the project. Sean visited the PC for a one-on-one tutorial at Dickinson College Biodiesel in 2007. Unfortunately, as the management and crew situation changed unexpectedly at New Morning in 2007, it became increasingly difficult for Sean and Jennifer to find the time to commence biodiesel production. New Morning elected to return all grant funds and withdraw from the project in 2008. Funds set aside for New Morning Farm were re-designated to Phil Roth, described below.

Phil Roth, Fairfield PA. Phil Roth is a retired apple/fruit farmer from the Adams County orchard area of south-central PA. He continues to work with his son who now manages the family orchard, as well as other local farmers. In May of this year Phil contacted the PC for support in starting up a biodiesel project on his farm. The PC was impressed with Mr. Roth’s dedication to researching biodiesel production methods, as well as his fabrication skills and general interest in the subject. By May Phil had already constructed a sophisticated system for collecting used cooking oil from restaurants, and had begun seeking oil accounts. When New Morning Farm withdrew from the project, the PC contacted Northeast SARE and was given approval to transfer project funds to Phil Roth. As of this winter, Phil has purchased a commercial automated biodiesel processing system (the “BioPro”) and is currently installing the equipment in his facility.

Brian Harris, Sunset Ridge Farm, Milan, PA. Brian operates Sunset Ridge Farm, a 250 acre mixed crop dairy farm milking 56 cows. He and his son Aaron were selected to be funded participants after attending the spring 2007 biodiesel introductory workshop at Wilson College. Brian attended the Advanced Biodiesel workshop at PASA in Feb of 2008. The PC visited Sunset Ridge Farm in April to run through a 20 gallon demonstration batch and to help Brian and Aaron envision their production facility. At the time of this writing, Sunset Ridge Farm has purchased a biodiesel reactor kit and begun some fabrication and oil collection work, but has yet to produce fuel beyond the initial demonstration batch. Daily and seasonal responsibilities on the family operated dairy have taken priority over work on the biodiesel project thus far. Hopefully work will progress through the winter of 2008/9.

Ken Cummings, Rock Ridge Farm, Oakland, MD. Ken Cummings is an skilled fabricator and equipment operator, raising row crops, hay, and small grains on 80 acres in rural western Maryland. After attending the 2006 workshop at a nearby farm in Oakland, MD, Mr. Cummings was selected to be a funded farmer participant due to his impressive skill set and interest in the project. Thus far, Ken has acquired some processing equipment at salvage sales and has secured some cooking oil, but has yet to produce any biodiesel fuel. In 2007 and 2008, Ken spent most of his non-farming time building a house for his family, which significantly cut into his ability to work on the biodiesel project. The PC may also bear some responsibility for Ken’s lack of progress, in that it has been difficult to arrange a visit to Rock Ridge Farm given the distance to the project base area (about 5 hours driving). The PC hopes to visit Rock Ridge Farm for a refresher in February of 2009.

“Unofficial Participants”:

Wilmer Newswanger, Wil-Ar Farm, Newville PA. Wil-Ar farm is a grass based dairy/ mixed animal farm with an on-site artisan cheese production plant and an on-site poultry processing facility. Wilmer attended several introductory workshops at Wilson College, but did not apply for grant funds due to a conflict with his belief system (Wilmer is part of the Old Order Mennonite community, which does not participate in many government funded programs.) After visiting the PC at Dickinson College Biodiesel in 2007, Wilmer and his sons constructed a processing system based on the water heater design used at Dickinson and Wilson Colleges. The Wil-Ar farm has now produced several hundred gallons of biodiesel for use in diesel equipment on the farm, and has adopted biodiesel production as a regular farming practice. The PC continues to visit Wil-Ar farm and support them with technical advice when solicited.

George Right, Newburg PA. The Right farm is a mixed crop hay farm operated by several brothers and in-laws. After purchasing some used biodiesel production gear from a neighbor, George and his friend Ralph Jones visited the PC at Dickinson College Biodiesel in March of 2008 for a hands-on demonstration and tour. In December of this year the PC visited George and Ralph on the Right farm to assist with their first batch of fuel in the purchased equipment. George has set up an oil collection and processing system and seems optimistic about adapting biodiesel production to his farming system.

Lessons Learned:
The PC hopes to glean some insight from the varied progress of farmer participants in the biodiesel project. It is interesting to compare those who have successfully reached the production goal with those who have achieved less progress. The farmers selected for funding and intensive technical support were chosen by a group of five application readers, and all seemed to rise to the top of the pool during the selection process. What then makes one farm more likely to succeed with biodiesel production than another?

Time and labor to apply to the project seem to be obvious critical factors. While all participants are busy people, those who have succeeded thus far have made room for biodiesel production in their busy operating schedules. Three successful farms, Greensgrow (Corboy), Sankanac (Kretchmer), and Mountain View (Agoston) have established educational missions and include interns in their farm labor pool. Phil Roth is retired but still working with the farm. Of the two dairy farmers, Wilmer Newswanger operates a grass based dairy, and has several capable sons working with him on the project, while Brian Harris runs a more conventional mechanized dairy with only one son. Charlie Kolb and Ken Cummings run similar farming operations, yet Kolb did not have a house to build in 2007.

Enthusiasm and self motivation have also been important factors in participant success. While the PC has attempted to maintain regular phone or email contact with participants, it has been easiest to provide advice to those who regularly seek it. Distance from the PC’s home base is also an obvious factor: WilAr farm is located between Wilson and Dickinson Colleges, and thus is an easy spot for the PC to visit. Sunset Ridge, Healthberry, and Rock Ridge Farms are over 4 hours from the project center, and thus require dedicated trips for PC visits.

In 2008, the PC also worked regularly with the Eric Benner, new farm manager at Wilson College, and Dr. Edward Wells, chair of Environmental Studies, to renovate and relocate the Wilson College biodiesel production facility. The processing system is now located in a dedicated building, which facilitates safer processing of fuel and removed a potential fire hazard from the school’s historic barn. The Wilson College team has faced some challenges with EPA permitting for the facility, but has persevered in an attempt to set an example of a small scale biodiesel processing system that is compliant with all applicable regulations. The PC is supporting this effort with contacts at the state level and technical advice.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

PUBLICATIONS: 2008 saw the long awaited publication of the 40-page manual “Biodiesel Safety and Best Management Practices for Small-Scale Noncommercial Use and Production”, also referred to here as the “Best Practices Manual” or BPM. This work was a collaborative effort between Penn State University personnel (environmental health and safety engineers, agriculture faculty, chemists and chemical engineers, crop and soil science grad students, and the farm operations manager), officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Project Coordinator (Matt Steiman). The PC was served as co-author and co-editor for the document, and contributed much of the text and diagrams concerning small scale production issues. This manual is now available for free PDF downloads at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/agrs103.pdf Hard copies are available from the Penn State publications department at http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/PubTitle.asp?varTitle=biodiese&Submit=Go

Those who would like to order hard copies by phone can do so by calling 814-865-6713 and asking for the biodiesel safety manual.
Hard copies will be sent to all farmer project participants in February of 2009. This document has been well received by all who take the time to read it, and has been shared electronically with biodiesel producer / educators around the country.

In 2008 the PC also published an article “Regulators at the Door” in BiodieselSMARTER magazine. This article was an effort to promote the practice of small producers working with local and state fire and environmental officials to conduct biodiesel production in a safe, environmentally responsible, and legal manner.

PRESENTATIONS: The PC and students working with the project spoke on responsible biodiesel production at the following events in 2008:

Advanced Biodiesel Pre-Conference workshop for the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) in February of 2008: The PC organized this full-day event for PASA, attended by over 50 farmers and educators from around the region. Speakers included Penn State operations personnel, NE-SARE’s Vern Grubinger, a straight vegetable oil conversions expert, and a large-batch farm biodiesel producer. Ali Dethoff, a student from the Dickinson College project, presented the results of her biodiesel glycerol composting research. The PC set up the renovated Wilson College demonstration reactor at the event to demonstrate the advanced practice of methanol recovery.

In March, the PC co-presented with Vermont’s Vern Grubinger and John Williamson at the national SARE conference in Missouri, to an audience of about 75 people. The PC covered safe and responsible production practices outlined in the best practice manual.

In July, the PC and students presented on methanol recovery and best practices at “Fueling the Farm” organized by the Center for Ecological Farming Systems in North Carolina. The main production workshop was given by Piedmont Biofuels Co-op. Approximately 50 people attended the full day workshop.

In September, the PC and students presented Safe and Responsible Biodiesel Production at the Pennsylvania Renewable Energy Festival (Kempton, PA.) to an audience of about 75 people. At the same event, the PC politely “heckled” a biodiesel demonstration presenter who showed blatant disregard for best safety practices. The PC encouraged this presenter to improve safety protocols for future presentations, so that conference attendees do not learn unsafe or illegal biodiesel practices.

RELATED RESEARCH: In 2007 and 2008, students working with the Dickinson biodiesel project conducted several research trials to determine the effect of the addition of crude biodiesel glycerol (the main biodiesel byproduct) to aerobic compost piles on the farm. It has long been a popular belief that biodiesel glycerol is “compostable”, but there is as of yet no published research demonstrating the impact of such a practice. Students working with the PC carried out replicated trials in an attempt to determine the effect of glycerol additions on nutrient content, phytotoxicity, biological diversity, and physical characteristics of the resultant compost. Ali Dethoff, a senior in the Dickinson Biology department, conducted several of the trials, and wrote an article about her work for BiodieselSMARTER magazine, a trade journal for small producers. With NE-SARE permission, the PC redirected some unused grant funds to pay for compost analysis through Woods End compost lab in Maine.

This research is ongoing and we hope to repeat the compost trials in 2009. Thus far we can make the following statements with confidence: Additions of glycerol to compost piles increase the heating of the piles. The temperature of compost piles in several trials has been shown to increase in correlation with the amount of glycerol added. This may be of interest for those hoping to use heat to kill pathogens or weed seeds in compost. Our biodiesel and resulting glycerol was made using a potassium hydroxide catalyst, and the potassium content of the finished compost was shown to increase in correlation with the amount of glycerol added. This may indicate an opportunity to increase the valuable nutrient potassium in custom blended soils or composts. Producers who use a sodium hydroxide catalyst would be advised not to compost their glycerol, as increased sodium levels in soils is generally considered undesirable. Relative alkalinity (pH) was also shown to increase with glycerol addition. Several bioassays were conducted using the experimental composts, including cucumber seedling germination/ growout tests, and assessing the macroinvertebrate biodiversity of finished composts using Berlese funnels. While the results are not statistically conclusive, there did not appear to be any overwhelming hostility to life or reduction in diversity in the glycerol compost piles. A unique white fungus was noted to be prevalent in repeated trials in the high glycerol content piles. Glycerol seems to result in “caking” of the compost, indicating that this substance may have some application as either a soil binder or erosion prevention component for disturbed soils.

All glycerol used in the research trials was taken from the processing facility AFTER methanol recovery, and the research piles were covered with Compostex compost fabric to prevent excessive runoff to ground or surface waters in heavy rain events. The Pennsylvania DEP was invited to visit the compost site and biodiesel plant several times in 2008. The PC maintains a collaborative relationship with DEP officials that began with the production of the Best Practices Manual.


Brian Harris

[email protected]
Sunset Ridge Farm
RR # 1
193 Locust Dr
Milan, PA 18831
Office Phone: 5705963077
Mary Corboy

[email protected]
Greensgrow Farm
2503 E. Firth St
Philadelphia , PA 19125
Office Phone: 2154252702
Website: www.greensgrow.org
Ben McKean

[email protected]
Healthberry Farm
PO Box 40
Snyder Rd
Dry Fork, WV 26263
Office Phone: 3042274414
Charles Kolb

7127 Blacks Mill Rd
Thurmont , MD 21788
Office Phone: 3012712333
Kenneth Cummings

Rock Ridge Farm
6285 George Washington Hiway
Oakland, MD 21550
Office Phone: 3013348551
Jimmy Lee Bricker

[email protected]
Farmer / educator
945 South Caln Rd
Coatesville, PA 19320
Office Phone: 6103570375
Sebastian Kretschmer

[email protected]
Sankanac CSA
PO Box 1045
Kimberton, PA 19442
Office Phone: 6104957295
Ned Foley

[email protected]
Two Particular Acres
301 Rittenhouse Rd
Royersford, PA 19468
Office Phone: 6104549635
Phil Roth

[email protected]
223 Fairfield Station Rd
Fairfield, PA 17320
Attila Agoston

[email protected]
Mountain View Farm Blue Ridge Center
11661 Harpers Ferry Rd
Purcelville, VA 20132
Office Phone: 5406687640