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April 11, 2005   Email to Friend 

Alabama's Oil Fields
Jeff Helms

Madison County farmer Dennis Bragg holds a handful of shelled beans, which can be used to make biodiesel.
Dennis Bragg isn't among the American soldiers serving in Iraq, but the Madison County farmer is doing his part to support the troops by burning biodiesel in his farm machinery.

"I have a friend who made the choice to go to Baghdad," Bragg said. "He's doing something I can't do. But what I can do is choose not to buy oil from Iraq. I can choose to produce soybeans and make my own oil."

That's exactly what Bragg and more than a dozen other Alabama farmers did last year when they agreed to use biodiesel in their tractors and combines as part of a project funded by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).

"This project was set up to not only inform (farmers about renewable fuels) but to stimulate the use of biodiesel," Bragg said. "It's a new technology, and not everybody knows about it. What we wanted to do was get some of it into equipment in different places where people are using it and are satisfied with it. The more we get the word out, the quicker it will catch on. I'm choosing to use it now to show everybody else the possibilities."

And the possibilities are tremendous, said Mark Hall, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System regional agent who is coordinating the biodiesel initiative.

According to Hall, Alabama farmers use more than 12 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. Since a bushel of soybeans will yield about 1.5 gallons of biodiesel, consumption of soybeans could increase by 1.6 million bushels a year, if all farmers used a 20-percent biodiesel blend in their engines.

Alabama Farmers Federation Soybean Director Steve Guy said farmers are excited about the potential benefits of biodiesel. "Alabama Soybean Producers--a division of the Federation--is helping fund biodiesel projects because farmers understand that biodiesel not only increases demand for their crop, it also reduces our dependence on foreign oil," Guy said. "Through the producer-funded soybean checkoff program, farmers are investing in this technology, which creates a new market for their product while benefiting the environment."

For the ADECA project, each farmer was given 500 gallons of biodiesel to use in his equipment. Bragg is burning a blend of 10 percent biodiesel and 90 percent petroleum diesel. He's so convinced of the product's benefits, however, that he plans to continue burning biodiesel at higher concentrations even after the project ends.

"I'll use it for the rest of my life, and my son will use it for his," Bragg said. "So, the first 500 gallons were free, but the next 360,000 gallons will come out of my pocket."

Hall said the blended fuel costs about a penny more per gallon for every percent biodiesel used. But Bragg said that investment could pay big dividends for farmers--and the economy-- by increasing demand for soybeans.

"If I burn my own soybeans, and the price of soybeans is 10 more cents a bushel because I'm consuming more, then I'll make more (money). What would I do with it? I wouldn't go bury it in a hole. I'd call John Deere and say 'send me another combine.' John Deere would then hire five more people, and those five more people would go to Wal-Mart and buy more things. It stimulates the economy," Bragg said.

"To put it into perspective, if we don't do this, that money is going to be spent. But, it's going to be spent in Saudi Arabia, and it benefits the Saudi Arabian economy," Bragg added. "(You have to) make a choice. Who do you want to help, yourself of someone else? For me, the choice is easy."

Madison County Farmers Federation Board Member Roger Jones agrees. He recently helped secure a "Farm-to-Fleet" grant from the Alabama Soybean Producers to purchase biodiesel for use in the vehicles operated by Madison County Commission District One, where he serves as commissioner.

"With the world situation the way it is, we need to look for alternative fuels. We need to look at more economical fuels," Jones said. "This will allow us to try biodiesel. Hopefully, it will work, and it will lead to some sort of program where we can use it in the future."

One of the driving forces behind projects like Farm-to-Fleet and the one funded by ADECA is the environmental benefit associated with burning biodiesel. Hall noted that the use of biodiesel in conventional diesel engines results in substantial reductions of unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter when compared with petroleum-based diesel fuel.

"It also smells better," Hall said. "Biodiesel users literally are able to breathe more easily while operating their equipment."

In addition, Bragg said biodiesel is better for tractor engines because it contains more natural lubricants, and it works as a solvent to clean up dirty fuel systems. More importantly, biodiesel blends can be burned in conventional diesel engines without any modifications--though Bragg notes extremely high concentrations of the product may reveal leaks because engine seals aren't built to handle such a high-caliber fuel.

"That's the beauty of this product. You really don't have to change anything other than your mind," he said. "You have to make a conscious decision to spend a little bit extra to gain five times the benefit."

Unfortunately, even if farmers choose to use biodiesel, they may find it difficult to locate a supplier. As demand increases, however, Bragg believes more farm supply stores will stock biodiesel. He's also hopeful Congress will provide tax incentives to farmers who use the product, which could offset any additional cost.

Meanwhile, ADECA is exploring other ways farmers can utilize alternative fuels and conserve energy. Russell Moore, who works in the agency's Science, Technology and Energy Division, said the City of Eufaula already is using biodiesel made from restaurant grease to power its school buses, and some poultry growers are burning used motor oil to heat poultry houses.

Bragg, however, isn't waiting on another grant to expand the use of biodiesel. As his combine cut through waist-high soybeans, harvesting its own fuel, he already was making plans to purchase a pickup truck that will burn an 80 percent biodiesel blend. For Bragg, it's a way to honor his friend who is fighting in Iraq, but it also makes good business sense.

"If I'm a corn farmer, I want to burn ethanol. If I'm a soybean farmer, I'm going to burn biodiesel. If I'm a cotton farmer, I'm going to buy cotton instead of polyester," Bragg said. "That ought to be the standard. It is with cotton; it ought to be with grain crops, too."


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