Farm Fresh Fuel
By Joshua Brown Article published March 7, 2007
John Williamson’s baseball hat has seen so many seasons that the brim has split open like pages of a soggy book, but he has a boyish eagerness around the eyes.
His pick-up truck is a blue Dodge diesel. Nothing much to look at, except for its curious license plate: “B 100.”
His 130-acre farm in Shaftsbury, northwest of Bennington right on the New York state border, seems like a typical aging dairy farm, with a slate-roofed barn, some old silos, and a skid pile of oak logs heading to the sawmill. But what he is doing inside the walls of a brand-new shed nearby might have as much to do with Saudi Arabia as Vermont. Because John Williamson is not just a farmer, putting together a living selling honey, timber, maple syrup and replacement heifers. He’s an oilman.
Getting the most out of your plants
With help from Extension professors Vern Grubinger and Heather Darby, and others at UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Williamson is growing test plots of oil-producing seed crops — three varieties of canola, two mustards, flax, soybeans, and his favorite, sunflowers. He’s not making salad dressing; he’s brewing oil with alcohol to make fuel for his tractors and other farm equipment.
“This is biodiesel,” he says, holding a glass, canning jar up to the sunlight. Inside, there’s a liquid the color of ginger ale. “We can make it right here on the farm, with our own ingredients.”
Biodiesel is, roughly speaking, vegetable oil with a glycerin molecule stripped off and an alcohol molecule, usually methanol or ethanol, stuck in its place. To make it requires a bit of heat, a catalyst, like lye, and not much else.
“It’s pretty simple,” says Steve Plummer, Williamson’s business partner and a biofuels enthusiast who provides much of the technical can-do in the project. “You might have heard of B20, which is a blend of 80 percent petroleum diesel and 20 percent biodiesel,” he says. “We make straight biodiesel, pure B100, and haven’t had any problems running it.”
In one of the first such efforts in New England, Williamson and Plummer, with help from the UVM scientists, are trying to produce all the ingredients for biodiesel — not just the oil, but the alcohol too. In order to distill their own ethanol, they have been growing sweet sorghum — with the necessary permit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. They have even learned how to make lye from wood ash, a modern-day return to Shaftbury’s first commercial product in the 1700s.
Self-sufficiency the Vermont way
At one end of the shed, a metal container is nearly overflowing with oil the color of melted butter. With a cost-sharing grant from UVM, Williamson and Plummer bought a $9,000 screw-auger press from Sweden that squeezes the seeds, sending oil down a pipe and the pressed “seed cake” into a hopper below.
Stainless steel reactor tanks sit on the concrete floor near hoppers of dry seed. Inside these safely sealed tanks, the biodiesel chemical reaction will bubble away once the new facility is completed.
“We’re still collecting equipment; we just got these tanks last month from Chicago,” Plummer says. “They cost about $10,000 used, which was a great deal. Eventually, we’ll have a grain elevator, and there’s quite a list of other things.”
Their electrical power will come from a wind turbine, hot water from a solar system. The residue from the sorghum and possibly sugar beets will fuel a furnace that both heats the oil in the biodiesel reactor and fires the ethanol distillery. And, perhaps most important, the pressed seeds have value as a component of cow feed.
“Our goal is to have our own source of fuel and control of it,” says Williamson, “but the other side of that is growing your own grain. I see this project fitting into a lot of dairy farms.”
Spreading the word
State Line Farm is not doing this alone. Williamson has collaborated with Clear Brook Farm, also in Shaftsbury, in a trial of canola and sunflowers. “As greenhouse vegetable and flower producers, they’re interested in biodiesel not only for their tractors,” Grubinger says, “but also for heating their greenhouses.” And Heather Darby has helped conduct trials of oil seed crops at Borderview Farm in Alburg. “We’re working both ends of the state,” Grubinger says. “ We want to understand what happens in different soils and climates.” Beyond UVM, other researchers are exploring similar systems in Maine and New Hampshire.
“John and Steve have the goal of developing a decentralized biodiesel production model that other farmers could adapt,” Grubinger says. “This model supports energy independence, reduces consumption of fossil fuels, and contributes to a sustainable fuel-food cycle.”
Now, Williamson is making biodiesel with waste oil from nearby restaurants. But once the seed system is operating, he anticipates making more fuel than they’ll need. “Once we get good at growing it, get the acreage up, we’ll have surplus oil,” he says. “I think of that as a cash crop. It’s like syrup or hay: If you’ve got extra, you sell it.”
“We’re looking to process neighboring farmers’ crops as well,” he says; “our own farm would only keep us busy for a few weeks.”
The project’s supporters — UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture, UVM Extension, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, the office of Senator Patrick Leahy, the McClure Foundation, and the Frank and Brinna Sands Foundation — are watching to see how well these crops will work as a renewable energy feedstock and to understand the economic challenges. They’re not imagining the 30-million-gallon biodiesel factories now taking root in Iowa. Instead, they’d like to see this work on the scale of a Vermont family farm.
“If fuel goes to ten dollars a gallon, that’s bad. But people will still pay it,” Williamson says, sifting a black mass of seeds from one hand into a barrel. “But if it’s not available, then what will we do? If the farms run out of fuel, then the next thing people are going to run out of is food,” he says. “Self-sufficiency is having farms where the source of fuel is secure, so you can keep farming.”