"Bumbling Farm Boys" Make Biodiesel

Posted: June 7, 2011

The halls of the Penn Stater Conference Center bustled with excited people from all walks of life who came to learn about and show support for sustainable agriculture at the 20th annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Conference.
John Williamson hosting Governor Douglas of Vermont. Photo courtesy of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

John Williamson hosting Governor Douglas of Vermont. Photo courtesy of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

I was there to learn about biodiesel and attend the workshop ‘Energy Efficiency & Renewables: Improving Your Bottom Line and the Health of the Environment.’ As I finished my cookies and organic milk, I dodged some fellow attendees and slipped into the workshop room where John Williamson, a farm scale biodiesel producer, was presenting. Williamson’s family business, State Line Farm Biofuels, is located on the southern edge of Vermont and has stirred up a lot of interest in the biodiesel world.

From a quick Google search, one can find that State Line Farm Biofuels is becoming known around the country and is accruing some impressive accolades. They were the first farm facility in Vermont to make biodiesel right from crops grown on site. The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund provided them with a grant to expand their biodiesel production, and a partnership was formed between Williamson and the University of Vermont. They were also the subject of a workshop in Texas with the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance, and now a workshop at the PASA Conference.

After being introduced, Williamson stood up from a chair at the front of the room. He was a well statured man; tall with the solid structure associated with a farmer. As he began to speak, a humble demeanor shone through. “We’re just a couple of bumbling farm boys,” he said a few times, underplaying the success and recognition the farm has received.

John Williamson stands in a field of sunflowers. Photo courtesy of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

State Line Farm started their biodiesel venture by growing three acres of canola and working with the oil produced from this preliminary test plot. Over time, they have experimented with many different oilseed crops including mustard, camelina, pennycress, and others in order to determine, which crop will work the best for their operation. They are “heavy into sunflowers now,” Williamson said as he relayed that they currently have about 100 acres in production for oilseed crops. This is due in part to the high oil yield of sunflowers and their improved cold weather properties over soybeans. State Line Farms is also implementing some other innovative farming practices. First, they are working on becoming a certified organic farm and according to Williamson, “We have the potential to make a true batch of organic biodiesel…and I don’t think anyone’s done that.” Second, they are using solar energy to heat water and provide energy and heat for drying grain, heating the biodiesel facility, and processing.

From drying and storage, grain is brought into a new biodiesel barn facility that was built in 2006 with the help of some grant money. The oilseeds are pressed with a Taby Pressen Model 70 oilseed press and the meal and oil are collected. The meal, what is left of the seeds after the oil is removed, is then used for animal feed and the oil enters a gravitational filtration process. After the particles settle out, the oil enters the biodiesel reactor where it is reacted with alcohol, hydroxide, and heat to make biodiesel and glycerol. Williamson’s reactor is a ‘thrifty’ 1500L reactor that was built from stainless steel tanks from a junkyard and used milk lines. Two used propane tanks then serve as storage for the final biodiesel product.

State Line Farms' biodiesel barn, solar water heater, and grain storage. Photo courtesy of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Williamson has complete confidence in his biodiesel process and end product, and he has had great success with it on his farm and neighboring farms. Williamson runs his Challenger tractor on 100% biodiesel and has had very few problems. To him, growing oil seeds to fuel tractors makes a lot of sense. “My grandpa grew oats and that was his power for his horses, so we’re just growing different grains for power.” The processing facility described is certainly oversized for the farms needs, but Williamson has no intentions of selling fuel. Instead, he has set up a co-op of sorts with neighboring farms where they provide oilseeds and he returns to them meal and biodiesel. This neat local business model was fascinating to me and seems to be an idea that could spread and be applicable in many locations across the country.

State Line Farms' biodiesel reactor. Photo courtesy of Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund.

Moving forward, Williamson is hoping to grow to about 1000 acres of oil crops between land owned by State Line Farms and rented ground. He is also looking at removing the need for petroleum-based alcohols, such as methanol, to run the biodiesel process by replacing it with home brewed ethanol. According to Williamson, sweet sorghum has the potential to produce 200-300 gal/acre of ethanol, and he has had a lot of success working with a small-scale reflux still. This would essentially be the last piece to making 100% organic and homegrown biodiesel.

As I’m sure you are wondering, the question about the bottom line biodiesel production cost is often asked when Williamson explains his system. His answer that day was that it can be produced for about $3.00-$3.50 per gallon, but that it is variable based on the price of grain. Then, Williamson took his answer a step further. “[People] ask about the cost of making biodiesel…take the money aspect out of it, it is very important for us to have a secure source of fuel.” This thought of fuel security, and its relationship to food security, hit home for me. It certainly seems unwise to have our entire food production system reliant on one single fuel source. As the room cleared out after the workshop and I once again mingled with the exuberant masses, I was encouraged by the facts that there is another fuel option and that “bumbling farm-boys” are in the biodiesel business.

By Collin Julius, Graduate Student, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Collin attended the 2011 PASA Conference with support from the Northeast SARE Pennsylvania State Program.