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Farmers turn to biofuels to keep engines running
Seminar on process set for Feb. 24 at NWTCA century ago, most farmers grew their own fuel for use on the farm: They raised oats to feed the horses to pull the plow to raise more crops.That practice ended with mechanical horsepower and cheap oil. But with volatility of diesel fuel prices, many small-scale producers are returning to growing crops to fuel their tractors.
Farmers harvest soybeans, canola seeds or rapeseed and crush them in a press that collects the oil. The organic matter left behind can be used as animal feed.
The harvested vegetable oil is combined with a small amount of alcohol and lye. The chemical reaction produces biodiesel fuel, which is siphoned from the glycerine soap byproduct that settles in the bottom of smaller tanks.
The fuel produced can be used in diesel engines, not gasoline engines.
A biofuels seminar Feb. 24 at Northeastern Wisconsin Technical College aims to show how farmers can cut their dependence on foreign oil.
"We're seeing a lot of interest in small producers wanting to grow crops for their own fuel," said Bob Brylski, instructor for renewable fuels at NWTC.
The seminar will include a demonstration of an oilseed press and equipment to make biodiesel fuel and ethanol fuel, and discussion of regulatory requirements and assistance for producers.
The ability to produce fuel can protect farm operations from outside market forces, Brylski said.
Jamie Derr, a farmer in Marshall, said his goal is to become an energy-neutral operation.
"It's not really that hard to start up," he said. "I tell people to keep in mind all the components. If you buy a press, take a systematic approach and find an outlet for your byproducts."
A basic system costs about $50,000, half that if you can build it yourself, he said. A seedpress uses simple corkscrew technology to separate oil from soybeans or canola seeds in one container and pellets of organic fiber in the other. The high-protein pellets can be sold as animal feed for swine and poultry, Derr said.
Producers can either modify their diesel engines or modify the oil for use in diesel engines.
"We do both on our farm," Derr said.
He makes biodiesel to be used in tractors with BioPro brand equipment, which heats the alcohol and lye mix in a chemical process that strips glycerine from the oil to make diesel fuel.Another option is using straight vegetable oil in modified diesel engines.
Derr said the goal is vertical integration, in which producers control the entire process from raw material through final product. Capturing the finished oil product and pellets for animal meal while saving on transportation costs is an added value, he said.
The cost of petroleum diesel fuel is a big motivator to set up these kinds of systems, he said.
When diesel cost $4 a gallon in 2008, biodiesel was more cost-effective than at the current price of $2.90 a gallon.
On his 400-acre farm, Derr uses 2,000 gallons of diesel a year, of which 25 percent is biofuel. As the price of diesel rises he said he can gear up production accordingly.
Paying off the system could take about 10 years, but it could be as few as four or five years depending on the price of diesel.
"I'm very certain the equipment will last beyond the payback time," Derr said.
Derr's farm has been run by his family for 125 years. It has practiced conservation farming for the last 60 years, with a rotation of soybeans, corn, winter wheat and now winter canola.