Biodiesel stirs excitement in Four Corners
By Melissa Betrone
Fueling America’s ever-thirsty gas tanks with a waste product from the fast-food industry sounds too good to be true, and critics maintain that it is.
But vegetable oil, in the form of biodiesel, has become the latest and greatest alternative-fuel idea. More than 500 fleet owners nationwide currently pump biodiesel into their fuel tanks.
Many hard-core environmentalists have already begun to produce their own biodiesel in their backyards, developing relationships with local fast-food joints that actually have to pay to rid themselves of used cooking oil. Once assured that the masked bandits absconding with their grease bombs have no plans to eat the oil, the fast-food owners are more than happy to kick it to the curb. One man’s trash is another one’s treasure, as they say.
But biodiesel production and consumption could have implications that extend far beyond the margins of a midnight snack attack, proponents say. What has local farmers and planners excited from Dove Creek to Durango is biodiesel’s potential significance for the region’s economy and its agricultural producers.
In Montezuma and Dolores counties, agriculture remains an important component of the area’s economy and its quality of life. Farmers raise alfalfa, dryland beans, wheat and other crops; ranchers raise beef cattle; and all kinds of folks have horses for both work and pleasure. Even those who don’t, enjoy the open space and views provided by ag land.
But the economics of farming and ranching present tremendous challenges. Making a real living at agriculture is very difficult. The production of oil-seed crops for use in the manufacture of biodiesel could be an economic boon, and could bring 21st-century farmers and ranchers into 21st-century earnings rates at last.
The crops used to produce oils for biodiesel include a huge range of species and varieties, many of which are suited to the dry conditions and harsh growing climate of the Colorado Plateau. They include canola, false flax, dryland mustard, rapeseed, sunflowers, castor beans, euphorbias, oats, pumpkins, safflower, soy, hemp, even calendula, that pretty orange flower that grows in people’s gardens, and many more.
“It’s real encouraging that we can raise these (crops), and show a decent profit per acre.” said Jay Allen, a farmer in Dove Creek.
Allen planted an experimental sunflower crop this season, targeted for biodiesel production, that has turned out extremely well. He was able to use seeders that he already had, and grow the sunflowers in a dryland planting, without any herbicides or pesticides.
He looks forward to harvesting and processing the seed to find out how much oil per acre the planting will yield, and to make future calculations for himself and other farmers. Allen said farmers had grown sunflowers here during the 1980s, but they lacked a marketing plan and many went unsold. He hopes the result will be different this time around.
Bob Bragg of the San Juan Basin Technical College agribusiness program senses that many farmers would be receptive to growing biodiesel. “When I talk to farmers, they always ask what is available to us alternatively to what we are doing now,” he said.
Farmers must calculate not only what will grow here, but how well the crops grow, necessary inputs to production, yields per acre of oil seed, ease of harvest, and the ability to utilize existing equipment for planting, cultivation and harvest. They also must address the demands of processing facilities, which look for seeds that produce either a large quantity or a high quality of oil per seed volume.
While research into improving oilseed crops is still going on, their economic potential is unproven. Very few budgets exist indicating costs of pro- duction vs. return, and these suggest that oil-seed production for biodiesel processing won’t make anybody rich quick.
Bragg worries about this lack of information. “We need some yield data and we need some cost of seeds for producers in order for them to make a decision.”
A recent budget from a plot in North Dakota suggests that the net return on oil-seed production could be as low as $26 to $28 per acre. But Bragg remains hopeful. “It would be great if we could find enough profitability to make this feasible,” he said.
Production of the biodiesel “feedstock” is only half of the equation. The question remains, who will process the seed into oil and thus biodiesel? A group of citizens has formed a formal board to investigate the possibility of building a biodiesel processing plant in the area.
The San Juan Biodiesel Co-op has commissioned a feasibility study and is currently evaluating its content and recommendations, which include putting a biodiesel plant in Dove Creek. Logic indicates that placing a biodiesel “refinery” near the area producing the raw materials makes sense. Such a plant would require a steady supply of oil seeds, water, methanol or ethanol, and a way to dispose of the by-products of biodiesel processing, large quantities of seed meal, seed husks, and glycerin. Because of the low toxicity of both inputs and byproducts, much of this can be recycled into local agricultural operations in the form of livestock feed and compost.
Delivery to consumers, many of whom reside outside the Four Corners, is another concern. Utilizing existing roads and infrastructure, haulers could economically deliver biodiesel to a number of urban areas, including Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, and points in between.
Biodiesel got mixed reviews from the Colorado Legislature late in October, when the Rural Economic Development Committee passed a bill mandating that the state fill its diesel vehicles with a 20 percent blend of biodiesel. That bill will move on to the Legislature as a whole.
But a bill allowing a tax credit for farmers who plant crops to be used for fuel such as biodiesel and another that would have allowed a tax credit for biodiesel plants both failed.
The overall economic impact of biodiesel production in the Four Corners could be far-reaching. It could increase the profitability of on-farm production and bring in dollars from communities outside the region.
A biodiesel refinery would also provide jobs, and might even persuade children of farmers to return home to farm. Commented Allen about his own son: “If farming was a viable operation, he’d be here now.”