August 8-15, 2007

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Fuelish Notion

Photograph by Carlie Statsky
Fuelish Notion: Although it takes a lot of mustard seed to produce a gallon of biodiesel, Larry Jacobs (left) and Ken Kimes think its qualities as a fertilizer make growing it for fuel a reasonable proposition.

Mustard Gas

Local farmers harvest a spicy all-natural source of biofuel with hidden benefits

By Steve Hahn

When biodiesel arrives at Pacific Biofuel's Ocean Street filling station, it's already been on quite a journey. Starting off as soybean plants in Kansas or Iowa, the crops selected for fuel are then trucked to the Golden Gate Petroleum refinery in Northern California, where they are processed into liquid fuel. Next, the fuel is transported to Pacific Biofuel's storage tank at Moss Landing, then finally to the Ocean Street filling station.

It's a trip that spans four states and uses a fair amount of fuel and manpower. While the process is much shorter and more efficient than the international supply lines for petroleum, a group of local organic farmers calling itself Farm Fuel Incorporated (FFI) think it has a way to make the supply line even shorter, and chemical-free to boot: mustard.

Last week, Ken Kimes and Larry Jacobs, both local organic farmers, watched as a red combine harvested mustard plants growing on an unused portion of Jacobs' 120-acre herb and tomato farm on Wilder Ranch. Kimes, who owns and operates New Natives sprout farm in Aptos, widened his eyes as the mustard seed poured down the spout of the combine into large white bags. He was excited about the prospect of adding to the bounty from Swanton Berry Farms, Cascade Ranch and B.J. Burns' Pescadero farm, harvested earlier in the week. By the time the harvest was complete, Kimes would have 25 acres' worth of mustard seed ready to go.

But that was just the first step in the plant's transformation into fuel. Next, Kimes will use a plant press to extract the oil from the seeds. After he's separated out the plant material at his Aptos farm, he'll transport the raw oil to Pacific Biofuel's Moss Landing plant, where they'll strip out the fatty acids to make the oil more compatible with diesel engines. Once these steps are complete, which could take up to six months, the Pacific Biofuel station on Ocean should be pumping mustard-derived fuel into old Mercedes and Volkswagens with a whiff of Grey Poupon. Meanwhile, the leftover plant material will be given back to the farmers for use as a weed suppressant and fertilizer.

Kimes stresses that this latest harvest is just a "drop in the bucket," and that his company hopes to be harvesting "anywhere between a thousand and a million acres" in the near future.

"As I drive up and down the coast I notice there are a lot of fields that aren't producing anything at all," says Kimes, who also acts as president of FFI. "In some ways that's great, they need to rest. On the other hand, they could be used for biodiesel."

Kimes has collaborated with a number of local organic farmers to plant fields of mustard in otherwise unused plots of land in what may turn out to be the first local and organic source material for Pacific Biofuel.

The idea of using mustard as fuel in the Santa Cruz area arose from conversations between Kimes, Jacobs and UC Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories renewable energy researcher Robert Van Buskirk. The talk between the three friends revolved around how to grow biofuel crops without using sparse freshwater resources or competing with existing high-value food crops on the Central Coast.

Their questions were answered when the group came across studies from the University of Idaho that which concluded that glucosinolate in the seawater-tolerant mustard plant, which is what makes mustard spicy, is a natural herbicide. It was already common knowledge among organic farmers that mustard was also a very effective nonchemical fertilizer.

The trio realized this was the biofuel ticket for the Central Coast. They created a plan to harness the multiple uses of the mustard plant to create an economically viable biofuel crop that could be planted close to seawater, rely on rainfall for watering and be cost-effective enough to justify using high-value agricultural land.

"The hard thing about biodiesel is how to make it economical, first off, and secondly, how do you make it not compete with food for resources," says Van Buskirk. "Answering one question also answers the other question. The way you make it economical is to not only produce the biodiesel but to also produce a byproduct that is also very useful for the farmers. If you produce a byproduct [on fallow land] that is useful to the farmers, then you're not competing with the food because the byproduct increases your yields. It's win-win."

FFI hopes to eventually cycle mustard production into existing crop rotation patterns at participating farms to create a closed system of resource distribution that will reduce the reliance of local organic farmers on fertilizers and diesel fuel currently shipped in from elsewhere.

"Local farmers that grow some mustard for diesel during the same time as they grow strawberries or some of the other high-value crops around here would have some of their diesel use offset," says Kimes. "With every acre of mustard, you should be able to get 60 gallons of biodiesel, and it takes about 10 gallons to get it planted and worked up. So you have 40 to 50 gallons of diesel for your efforts."

Any diesel not used to operate farm equipment would be sold off to Pacific Biofuel. After the fuel is extracted from the mustard, the plant would still be valuable to the farmers, who could redistribute the leftover plant material onto their other crops, such as tomatoes or strawberries, as a nonchemical herbicide and fertilizer. The leftovers would also replenish the nitrogen that mustard draws from the soil.

"The sustainable way to run a farm is to have a system of rotating different applications and uses that kind of hands off the resources from one crop to the next," notes Van Buskirk. "You can grow mustard, extract the biodiesel, put the meal back into the land to cycle [the depleted] nitrogen back in. Depending on how much nitrogen comes out of the ground, you can replace that with cover crops, legumes or compost later."

At least that's the plan. It may be a while yet before Pacific Biofuel consumers are filling up their tanks with mustard-derived fuel. Kimes still needs to clean the mustard seed he harvested last week and press the oil out, which could take up to a month since he's interspersing work on this project with operating his Aptos-based sprout farm.

Nevertheless, Kimes and Van Buskirk both believe this idea will take hold, especially with organic-friendly Bay Area consumers. They have big plans for the future of FFI.

"Consumers may be willing to pay a premium for it to help us cover the costs," says Kimes, who notes local consumers have already shown a willingness to pay more for organic food products. "Because we're small, our cost per unit is going to be high. But there's a huge demand for feedstock for biofuels right now and we're thinking maybe we can do this on a regional scale to make it more economically viable."

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