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for people who care about the West

Organics and biofuels bring independence

  For years, conventional farmers and other naysayers could dismiss organic farming with a wave of the hand: too many man-hours, too much tilling to control weeds, too few markets. But because organic farming uses no petroleum-based fertilizers or pesticides, it uses as little as one-third the amount of energy of conventional farming. As the cost of industrial ingredients rises, many conventional farmers are taking a closer look at organics.

To understand the economics, consider that Montana had a near-record wheat harvest this year, averaging 37 bushels per acre. Yet many conventional farmers watched their profits slip down the drain. Five years ago, nitrogen fertilizers sold for $200 a ton. This year, they went for as much as $375 a ton. According to Peggy Springer, director of the Montana Agricultural Statistic Service, the USDA price index for fuels rose 70 percent from October 2004 to October 2005, as diesel hit $3.10 per gallon.

Organic farming can actually require more fuel than its conventional counterpart, because farmers must till the soil to control weeds, and plant and till in crops of soil-enriching "green manure." But there, too, farmers are learning to be more self-sufficient by growing, and brewing, their own "biofuels."

Organic farmer Bob Quinn says next spring he will plant three acres of an oilseed called Camelina on his Big Sandy farm. The tough, drought-resistant seed, which has been found in archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age, will produce about 100 gallons of oil per acre. Mixed with methanol and lye, the oil forms biodiesel. If Quinn’s calculations are correct, about three acres of Camelina will supply enough fuel for 100 acres of farming.

Farmer and agricultural consultant Charles Holt of Laurel, Mont., is the force behind building a homegrown biofuel plant that will produce biodiesel from used and new vegetable oil and animal fat. The USDA now offers a $1 per gallon subsidy for new plants that can produce biodiesel. A 35 million-barrel-capacity biodiesel plant in Minot, N.D., is scheduled to start production in spring 2007. Two biodiesel plants will open in Texas next spring.

Biofuels have their detractors. Tad W. Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley, for example, calls the production of biodiesel "delusional," especially if it comes from developing countries. Patzek objects to tearing up fragile soil or established forests and putting in plantation crops, such as palm, just for the sake of making biodiesel.

"A ship coming into this country with a load of biodiesel from the Third World is not a cause for celebration," he says.

But Patzek believes it’s an excellent thing for farmers to make their own fuel. "That’s splendid," he says. "They’re getting away from big markets and taking responsibility for their own fuel production." That, he says, will encourage them to use less.

Doug Crabtree, who oversees Montana’s organic certification program, says the economics of home brewing are compelling: "If you don’t account for your own time, you can make biodiesel for less than 90 cents a gallon." That’s compared to $1.70 to $2.50 per gallon for mass-produced biofuels.

"I’m interested in self-sufficiency and producing it on a noncommercial scale," says Crabtree. He adds that growing grains for biofuels has another benefit: It will improve the soil. "The real value of raising your own vegetable oil is a diversification strategy," he says.