Farmers across Vermont want to diversify operations, lower fuel and feed costs, and be more self-sufficient. Momentum is gaining as to how oilseed crops like sunflowers, canola, and soybeans can be raised for making biodiesel as a fuel replacement and oilseed meal to feed livestock, and even be sold as crops.
State Line Farm Biofuels is at the forefront of oilseed crop growing and biodiesel processing in the Northeast and the first to grow and process on-farm in Vermont. Located in North Bennington, the Williamson family has owned and operated State Line Farm since 1936. The falling milk prices of the 1990’s led to diversifying operations and today maple syrup, honey, sorghum syrup, and hay are sold in local markets. In 2004 owner John Williamson and his family began experimenting with sunflower, canola, mustard, and flax varieties in an effort to fuel their farm with biodiesel.
State Line Biofuels operates a 120,000 gallon/year (300 gallon per batch capacity) biodiesel production facility, providing biofuel and livestock meal for on-farm use. The production capacity of State Line Biofuels can additionally serve oilseed pressing and biodiesel production needs of 10-15 farms within a 30 mile radius, encompassing 1,500-2,000 acres of oilseed crops. State Line Biofuels is also an educational demonstration center for developing and teaching best practices for small-scale oilseed crop and biodiesel production across Vermont and the Northeast.
Biodiesel fuel can be used to power most any diesel engine equipment and on varying levels of scale. “We used to have a really small batch processor making about 100 liters to a batch. Then we moved to the biobarn and built a reactor that makes about 400 gallons to a batch—a batch of fuel is the amount of oil that is reacting to alcohol and lye,” John explains.
The harvested seeds are dried and stored in a grain bin and then moved through an oilseed press to yield two products: meal and oil. Using the relatively simple batch reactor conversion process (oil, alcohol and lye), the oil from these crops becomes a low cost renewable fuel after being refined into biodiesel.
The meal could be considered the by-product, yet finds great value as a potential feed for livestock like dairy cows, goats, hogs, chickens, and sheep. It’s said the Amish feed sunflower meal and oil to their horses, which is what gives them their healthy and shiny coats.
At 40 plus acres of sunflowers, flax, mustard, and canola John averages 75 gallons of biodiesel per acre. Even factoring in wind, rain, and wildlife damage, John considers the State Line Biofuel operation a low cost fuel source, paying for both time and equipment.
“If you had to start from scratch, it is cost prohibitive. But if a farmer is already set up to grow grains, you’re most of the way there. If you can plant, harvest, and store grain, it’s really just the oil mill and biodiesel mixing equipment that’s needed,” says John. “There are many ways to look at costs, but the bottom line is it’s cheaper than buying fuel and money doesn’t leave the farm.
John has tracked the cost from tilling the ground to harvesting oilseeds and processing and at his calculations; the $2-2.5 per gallon to make biodiesel is cheaper than buying petroleum. Operation costs are further reduced with the oilseed meal produced replacing the need to purchase grain. Additionally, John sells the surplus feed and oil, as well as the biodiesel.
State Line Farm participates in the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative which is drawing the connection between diversified agriculture, renewable energy, and food production in Vermont in the form of oil, grass, and algae biofuels.