Family Farms & Biofuel Feedstock Supply
By Bill Vasden, Jr.
Chairman, Florida Feedstock Growers Association
For those not already in the fight to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil and to reduce our fossil fuel consumption, it may have taken the Gulf Oil Spill or the price of oil hovering at $90 a barrel and gas prices at a 24-month high to encourage further action. Much like those involved in the Navy’s Great Green Fleet or the Air Force Renewable Fuels program, my situation is a little different. In fact, you could say I’m immersed in the subject matter. Four years ago I started growing biofuel feedstock crops and blending biodiesel on my Florida farms. Today our cooperative has 7,000 planted acres of camelina due for harvest February 2011. If you understand “feedstock” as any commercially viable, non-food crop that can be used to make biomass power or biofuels, you’ll get the picture.
My position as Chairman of the Florida Feedstock Growers Association found me in Washington, D.C. recently to attend the Navy Energy Forum. In fact, I may have been the only farmer present as Navy leaders discussed their continuing energy transformation – one that will include third generation biofuels. Our military recognizes the problems we and our children will face if we continue our business-as-usual energy consumption and dependence, especially as this applies to nonrenewable resources. In addition, everyone knows that a significant amount of U.S. oil imports come from countries we have problematic relationships with. Imagine an act of terrorism or war that interrupts the supply chain for an extended period – scary stuff indeed. These and other outcomes that will affect humanity’s quality of life is what “fuels” my desire, and that of my fellow farmers, to provide alternative energy sources and to present those solutions to decision-makers in Washington.
So what is the answer to this momentous problem? May I offer a solution – some simple farmer logic? Cellulosic ethanol and/or algae may someday make significant contributions to the hundreds of billions of gallons of diesel and gasoline we use each year in this country. Most experts agree these technologies will be ready for prime time anywhere from five to 15 years from now. But, in the meantime, we need to address an immediate set of issues while investing time and money into new technologies.
At the farm if you don’t immediately fix the problem at hand it tends to magnify itself in one way or another. For instance, we certainly wouldn’t let the crop die while we wait for someone else to fix the sprinkler. Therefore, with regard to our current energy problems, my suggestions would be:
Our Navy has a mandate that calls for a 50 percent reduction by 2020 in petroleum consumption. Our Air Force has a similar mandate that calls for a 50 percent reduction by 2016. Reaching these goals should be our nation’s top priority. In order for our freedom to be maintained and our children to have a sustainable future, we must get our military and, eventually, entire nation to petroleum independence.
I encourage our leaders to consider the following business issues not outlined or addressed in any Federal or state incentive program I’ve ever seen:
New facilities cost a lot of money and are not easily financed. Loan guarantee programs only work if there is a lender to fund the guaranteed loan, and those companies are hard to find and harder to access in this economy.
Most facilities take up to two years to permit and 12 to 18 months to build afterwards. If a facility is the first of its kind, then it’s safe to assume the owners will want to run and to prove it before building a dozen more, which obviously falls under problem one.
Feedstock supply issues have crippled the largest biodiesel facilities, and the food-for-fuel debate over corn ethanol has had tremendous ripple effects on biofuels as a whole. Large facilities need large sources of renewable feedstock supply. If you think 18 months is a long time to permit a 100-million gallon facility, try to get your arms around farming the hundreds of thousands of acres needed to feed it (a lot of tractors, time and money required, trust me).
Part of the solution may be found on America’s family farms where rural residents grow up with old-fashioned values and patriotism still thrives. During these past four years, I’ve seen first-hand how simple agriculture practices paired with farmers like those in our growers association can play an immediate role in securing not only our food supply at home, but also our nation’s tactical fuel and energy supply.
With direct support and encouragement over the next few years, tens of millions of gallons of camelina can be crushed and converted each growing season into both renewable jet fuel and diesel for our military by farmers in both the southern and western states. Camelina is commercially harvested twice per year in Florida – once in the fall and then again in the winter. In the western states, our friends grow it from late spring to summer. Because of its versatility, these crops can be grown and harvested year ‘round between western growers and Florida farms. It’s fair to say that we could plant millions of acres before any food crops would be uprooted, displaced or negatively impacted.
Energy crops like the 2500 acres of kenaf we harvested in December 2010, prior to this camelina planting, can be grown and converted to clean and renewable power easily, thus creating thousands of megawatts of power in your state, just as we do here. And, as a byproduct, our nation’s economy will be strengthened. And, of course, all our farms are run on 100 percent biodiesel, which makes them completely petroleum independent. This significant action is among our greatest achievements because our plan works just as well for vegetable farmers and cattle ranchers as it does for us. Think about the energy, economic, safety and sustainability implications for our country.
Farms and simple agriculture practices paired with the right end consumer, and government support, can absolutely help our military reach their petroleum reduction mandates while simultaneously securing the nation’s food supply and promoting economic improvements. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and military must continue to work together in their strategic alliance while not overinvesting in new technology to the point of de-incentivizing proven, non-food crops already being grown for energy and fuel like camelina and kenaf.
It is my hope that articles like this one will encourage our military and USDA leaders to visit the feedstock farms and to talk with farmers when designing the next Farm Bill or Bio Mass Crop Assistance Program. Although programs such as these help educate farmers and reduce their risk, federal subsidies and/or incentives are not as important as identified end consumers and a stable market for our crops. The biofuels military marketplace alone will help the feedstock farming industry grow while ultimately helping to meet the renewable energy mandates of our Navy, Air Force and Army.
Our military should pay heed to the history of biodiesel and ethanol facilities that so closely ties them to their feedstock sources. It is neither appropriate nor prudent to assume that only the USDA should be responsible for identifying and for encouraging sources of feedstock. That will not be enough to reach these mandates or to achieve even good results. The tangled web of EPA, USDA and government bureaucracy will and has already bogged down the supply chain and programs. Politics must be put aside and barriers need to be broken. The military must work closely with farmers and companies that can provide the most immediate and largest sources of feedstock oil right away. This action alone will have the greatest chance of helping to reach near term reduction mandates. We cannot put the cart before the horse; you must have feedstock farms incorporated into your facility plans and petroleum reduction mandates or you’ll end up with shiny new equipment and vehicles with literally no fuel to run them.Issue No. 8, 2011
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