Old barn filled with new equipment for on-farm enterprise
"It is not as much about alternative fuels as it is about bringing another industry to the rural community," Conn said.
By Doug Rich
Drive onto the southeast Kansas farm owned by Bob Conn and his wife, Mary, and you will see all the usual farm equipment. There are tractors, pickup trucks, and a hay baler. It is the equipment in the barn across from his house that is unusual, at least for now.
Conn has installed all the necessary equipment for making his own biodiesel. In fact, he has the capacity to produce 1,000 gallons of biodiesel fuel per day. The equipment includes a thermostatically heated screw press, a catalyst premix tank, oil tank, pumps, an ultrasonic processor to speed up the settling process, a flow cell, separation tank, and a wash tank.
Conn said he had not really paid much attention to the cost of diesel fuel until about three years ago. When his bill for diesel fuel arrived in the mail, Conn could not believe how much it was costing him.
"It really got my attention," Conn said.
Conn went on the Internet and began researching how to produce his own biodiesel. The first unit he purchased was capable of producing 60 gallons per day.
"That was good but there was a problem," Conn said. "To produce good quality biodiesel, it is not as simple as setting up a system in your backyard," Conn said.
This is when he really got serious about biodiesel production. Conn formed Eagle Farms Energy, applied for a USDA Rural Development grant, and began putting together a larger, more complex processing system.
Conn said his mission is to create and develop a systemic process for farmers to become energy self-sufficient, build public awareness about the use of alternative fuels and provide additional employment opportunities in rural environments. One of his stated goals is to produce and sell off-road ASTM 6751 standard bio-diesel fuel as well as off-road diesel fuel.
"It is not as much about alternative fuels as it is about bringing another industry to the rural community," Conn said. "What we are really about is putting people to work and creating a money stream in the community. That is what we would like to see happening all over."
Conn started out with the idea of buying canola from farmers in Kansas and Oklahoma for making his biodiesel. He had people lined up who were interested in selling canola to him but, when he was ready to buy, the price was too high. It just was not profitable at the time.
"We are still interested in getting farmers in southeast Kansas to plant canola as a companion crop with wheat," Conn said.
Conn prefers canola to soybeans because canola yields nearly twice as much oil as soybeans. Canola can yield up to 127 gallons of oil per acre while soybeans yield around 48 gallons of oil per acre. Conn said canola is a good alternative for farmers who have been planting continuous wheat because it can improve soil conditions and improve yields on the next wheat crop.
"Basically, I could process anything that is profitable," Conn said. "I could press algae if I knew how to grow it."
Just like any other biodiesel producer, large or small, profitability depends on more than the price of feedstock. The price of regular diesel fuel is part of the equation.
"If diesel fuel is too cheap, then I can't sell it high enough to make a profit," Conn said.
In his business plan for the USDA Rural Development grant, Conn figured 12 cents a pound for canola oil. When he was ready to buy canola for process, the price was 19 cents a pound and reached 27 cents a pound.
Conn is considering purchasing vegetable or soy oil and has purchased waste vegetable oil on the yellow grease market. Waste oil does not have to be pressed but it does have to be thoroughly filtered.
The system that Conn has constructed on his farm has the capacity to produce 1,000 gallons of biodiesel per day but he has not reached that level or anything close to it yet. His plan is to market it from the farm, preferably in bulk, to local farmers and truckers. Once he gets certified test results back on the quality of his product, Conn hopes to start commercial sales in January or February 2009.
Steve Howell, technical director for the National Biodiesel Board, said it is difficult for small-scale biodiesel producers to compete with large-scale industrial plants.
"There is a group within the industry that wants to do things for themselves," Howell said.
Most of the time, when someone is involved in small-scale production, it is not because they just want to make a profit. Howell said these individuals do it because they believe it is the right thing to do. Howell compares these people to those who like to brew their own beer or make their own wine.
"It would be really, really hard for someone to compete with a large industrial plant that has economies of scale," Howell said.
Howell said without sophisticated equipment it is really hard to know if you are making it properly. Conn is concerned about quality and will have his fuel tested to make sure it meets all ASTM standards for diesel fuel before he begins commercial sales.
"But we still have people who say it is the right thing to do," Howell said. "They want to be independent and, if some day fuel goes to $15 a gallon, they will be set. If you want to do it that way, that is great."
Depending on the size of the farm, Conn does not necessarily recommend that every farmer go to the expense and effort of building a system like the one he has put together. Conn would be glad to partner with any farmer or groups of farmers that would like to do what he is doing. Conn said he would help them find the necessary equipment, help with setting up the system, and provide quality control.
"If we can't do that, then we are doing a disservice to the customer," Conn said.
Quality is important if people are going to be putting this fuel into their farm vehicles. Steve Howell said each equipment company supports biodiesel at a different level. There is a difference between what a company recommends and what is legally correct.
"As long as your fuel does not cause the problem in the engine, then legally the engine company has to cover that problem," Howell said. "They may resist that, and they may say the problem was caused by your fuel but it is hard to prove that one way or the other."
Conn wants to make a profit from his biodiesel production but it is not just about the fuel. His intent is to provide another market for locally grown grains, using that grain to produce fuel, which he can sell back to local farmers and truckers at a discount.
"That is our intent," Conn said.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.