Biodiesel: Energy From and For the Farm

Vast changes in the fields of Mississippi have driven today’s farmers to sow different seeds from past years. Cotton, the state’s signature crop, is being replaced with something greener for the environment and for the farmers.

“Cotton has paid the bills for many years,” said Jon Ruscoe, Lafayette County extension director. “The market has driven farmers to plant different crops, and farmers have to diversity to what the market will allow them to plant.”

Since soy oil is the most commonly used vegetable oil in biodiesel, changes have taken place in recent years in soybean production in Mississippi, creating a new market for soybean farmers.

Trey H. Koger, soybean extension specialist with the Delta Research and Extension Center at Mississippi State University, said farmers are changing their crops because of high soybean and corn prices.

“Cotton is being replaced with soybean and corn because of low cotton prices and reduction in demand,” Koger said.

Jay Phelps, area agronomy agent with Mississippi State University Extension Service, said, “Soybeans and corn have replaced cotton acres because the profitability is greater than cotton.”

When oil prices shot up in 2008, the United States produced over 600 million gallons of alternative fuel.

“When oil prices go up, so does the demand for alternatives such as biodiesel,” said Lee Chrestman, owner of H.L.C. Farms.

According to Mississippi Agriculture News, a study by the United Soybean Board and the Soybean Checkoff Program shows the demand for biodiesel brought U.S. soybean farmers an additional $2.5 billion in net returns.

Herb Willcutt, agricultural engineer with Mississippi State University Extension Service, agrees with these findings.

“Biofuels, supply and demand, are the main cause for a shift in farm prices for crops,” Willcutt said. “This results in a perceived, more favorable rate of returns per acre on grain crops than cotton.”

Country singer Willie Nelson, already known for helping American farmers through the Farm Aid, got on the biodiesel bandwagon in 2005 as co-founder of Willie Nelson’s Biodiesel Company. Branded “BioWillie,” Nelson set out to produce, market and distribute his own blend of biodiesel with Earth Biofuels, a Jackson, Mississippi-based biofuel company that had an exclusive license to sell the product. Nelson was “on the road again” singing the message that biodiesel is made from renewable resources, helps U.S. farmers, reduces dependence on foreign oil and improves air quality.

However, the BioWillie ride was short lived. In December 2006, Nelson’s green diesel company found itself $11.5 million in the red after two years of crippling financial losses for the company. When the costs of feedstock and other materials shifted, BioWillie had been selling its product for less than it cost to make and at fewer stations.

And still today, the price for biodiesel remains high and producers few.

“The relative value of grain to oil prices drives the price,” Willcutt said.

Among the factors that push up the costs are the amount of time and energy needed to convert the soy oil into biodiesel fuel, through a chemical process called transesterification, whereby glycerin is separated from the fat or vegetable oil.

The Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and the Mississippi Soybean Promotion Board actively support research aimed at simplifying the biodiesel production process. Reducing the amount of refining time will result in a significant reduction in the cost of biodiesel.

Although the uses and demands for biodiesel fuel fluctuate, during a time of skyrocketing oil prices, it is an important commodity.

Unlike petroleum-based diesel, biodiesel is clean burning and renewable. The raw materials are grown locally in the United States which supports the local economy.

As Willie Nelson said at the 2005 kickoff of his BioWillie campaign, “Hey, here's the future for the farmers and the future for the environment. It seems like that's good for the whole world if we can start growing our own fuel instead of starting wars over it.”

Whether it is now or in the future, biodiesel is good for the people, a gain for the farmer, and green for our environment.

And once the production process for biodiesel is simplified, the cost comes down and the availability of biodiesel spreads across the nation and the state, more and more Mississippi farmers will be using this alternative energy source that is energy from and for the farm.

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