Crop-based biofuels feasibility study for Washington County, New York
This project is a technical, economic and social feasibility study of a crop-based biofuels agricultural industry in Washington County, NY. Washington County farmers have felt increasing pressure to sell farmland for development (e.g. residential trends of neighboring Saratoga and Rensselaer Counties.) Additionally, they have also felt increasing cost pressures related to fueling their operations.
Self-grown and processed biofuels, and more specifically biodiesel fuels, represent an opportunity to explore an alternative sustainable use of farmland while also reducing fuel expenses experienced by farmers. Some regional farmers have been experimenting with oil seed crops and biodiesel processing in very small volumes.
This study is;
1. Consolidating existing knowledge related to oil seed crops demonstrated in this region and other similar regions (soil and nutrient requirements, yields, etc.)
2. Exploring available land and soil qualities for use in such an agri-industry
3. Incorporating stakeholder interviews to understand potential interest for farmer cooperation, community concerns, market interest, etc.
4. Summarizing available biodiesel processing products, technologies and transport logistics including consolidation of results from related feasibility studies
5. Exploring 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. Exploring market feasibility (farmer use / cooperation scenarios, equipment warranty considerations, surplus markets, etc.)
Previous studies of biodiesel feasibility have focused on utilizing an existing commodity of vegetable oil and waste oil resources, and have generally been conducted at a state level and considered only large volume production facilities. Biodiesel operations intended as solutions to regional farmland issues are likely to range from micro scale, on farm production to county-wide central processing facilities. A mixed-scale model is also possible in which raw vegetable oil is produced on each farm and sold either on the open market, used directly as a fuel, or sold to a commercial biodiesel producer depending on market forces. No feasibility report focused specifically on matters of scale and logistics has been found during the pre-proposal stage of the current project.
This project has benefited from the support of local farmers, the Washington County Farm Bureau, Cornell Cooperative Extension Service, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Washington County Soil & Water Conservation District, Washington County Dept. of Planning and Community Development, and Washington County Local Development Corporation.
This project has been 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.) PROGRESS: Work, thus far has 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. Crops showing early potential include sunflowers, canola, and rapeseed.
2. Available Land and Soils – OBJECTIVE: Explore available land and soil qualities for use in such an agri-industry. PROGRESS: 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. 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 for oilseed crops such as canola and sunflower in our region is 90 gallons/acre. This means that roughly 12,000 acres (or 11% 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 13 acres (or 9% of the average farm’s 147 acres of cropland) would be required to self-fuel. Oilseed crops will likely compete with corn for the most compatible soils and slightly graded land.
3. Stakeholder Assessment – OBJECTIVE: Incorporating stakeholder interviews to understand potential interest for farmer cooperation, community concerns, market interest, etc. PROGRESS: The Washington County Fair was used as an opportunity to reach out to farmers and the farm oriented public. Regional workshops and farm open houses have offered another opportunity to interact with interested parties. The main public concerns have to do with food / fuel balance and issues associated with large facilities. A survey has been distributed to the 426 members of the Washington County Farm Bureau. Response rates of 5.6% (members) and 6.9% (acres of cropland) have been achieved at the time of writing. The survey aimed to assess farmer’s interest in biofuels, biofuel crops, equipment concerns, farming pressures, fuel use, land use and interest in specific biodiesel business models. The survey results will be tabulated at the end of February 2008 and will help to direct the business modeling effort of this study (Objectives 4-6 below).
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. PROGRESS: This topic has been fairly well covered by other researchers. As a result, this may largely be a literature search and summary activity. However, based on the input from the survey in Objective 3, some custom tailoring of the information will be required. Work in this area, thus far, has been collection of existing reports and vendor information and informal discussion of this information with interested farmers.
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). PROGRESS: Based on the results from the survey in Objective 3 above, the various likely operations will be explored for their economic feasibility. This will include consideration of scale as an economic factor along the value stream of the oil seed products. This work has been delayed in anticipation of the information coming from the farmer surveys.
6. Market Feasibility – OBJECTIVE: Explore market feasibility (farmer use / cooperation scenarios, equipment warranty considerations, surplus markets, etc.) PROGRESS: Examples of other operations have been explored and information about their performance has been gathered. Focused work in this area has been delayed in anticipation of the information coming from the farmer surveys.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
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 many phone calls from enthusiastic farmers seeking more information on the crops and equipment. 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 a menu of options 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 and a “menu” of operational models, it is hoped that these next steps become increasingly clear and that the risk associated with any resulting ventures may be minimized.
Washington County Farm Bureau