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Biofuel a growing idea for vehicles, farms

(Friday, Jan. 13, 2006 -- CropChoice news) --

1. Biofuel a growing idea for vehicles, farms
2. In appreciation of small towns
3. American Corn Growers Call for emergency assistance, re-establishment of conservation funding, rethinking U.S. farm policy, better energy policy and expansion of home heating aid

1. Biofuel a growing idea for vehicles, farms

Jan 12, 2006 Seattle Times
Christopher Schwarzen, Times Snohomish County bureau

From the farmer's field to the gas tank, Snohomish County is betting that biofuel — and the crops used to produce it — can offer a new source of economic development and environmental benefits.

To help prove it, the county has begun switching part of its vehicle fleet to biofuel, a mixture of traditional diesel made from fossil fuels and seed crops pressed into oils. The alternative fuel is cleaner than traditional diesel, emitting fewer atmospheric pollutants.

Now, biodiesel is more expensive at the pump than regular diesel. But unpredictable fuel prices and a coming federal mandate to use ultra-low-sulfur diesel have some analysts predicting biodiesel soon could be competitive in price with both traditional and ultra-low-sulfur diesel.

But perhaps more important, Snohomish County is poising itself to potentially be a statewide, and possibly national, supplier of biofuel crops. For more than a year, county officials have worked with farmers to test seed crops to determine what grows best in this environment and what would be most useful for fuel.

With more than 60,000 acres of available farmland in the county — about 30,000 of those acres now fallow — the raising of biofuel crops could be an alternative that re-established an almost-forgotten livelihood locally.

Making the switch

About 275 of 1,500 county vehicles have been switched from traditional diesel to a cleaner biodiesel mixture, made up partly of pressed oils from mustard and rapeseed, crops now grown in small volumes in the United States.

The switch is part of a one-year pilot project the county hopes will lead to an entire fleet switchover in the future.

The county has contracted with Petrocard, a commercial fuel supplier, to provide the biodiesel at an Arlington pump station the company operates. Petrocard cleaned and converted one of its tanks to supply biodiesel.

Although only about 18 percent of the county's fleet is using an alternative fuel, officials selected a variety of vehicles to better test biodiesel's efficiency, including road-maintenance and Solid Waste Division trucks.

Also, because the biofuel has been blended to automotive standards, there's no additional maintenance required to use the fuel, said Allen Mitchell, the county's fleet manager.

The county spent months researching alternative fuels to be certain there were no maintenance problems from long-term biodiesel use and to make sure fuel mileage was comparable.

Although national studies show a slight loss in mileage when using biodiesel, the differences have been mostly negligible, according to the Energy Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Mitchell said other counties and cities using similar fuel have no complaints. Tacoma uses a biofuel mix for its fleet.

In Snohomish County, about 16,000 to 20,000 gallons of traditional diesel will be replaced each month with the fuel mixture, which is about 20 percent oil from seed and 80 percent low-sulfur diesel.

The mixture costs about 30 cents more per gallon than regular diesel, which sells for about $2.69 a gallon in Everett. But the county is paying only about 15 cents a gallon more, County Executive Aaron Reardon said. Petrocard receives a federal tax credit for supplying the biofuel, and its operators have agreed to pass on that savings to the county.

Although it makes no financial sense yet to switch the county's whole fleet over to the alternative fuel, Reardon said, there soon may come a day. In the fall, the federal government will require a switch to ultra-low-sulfur diesel to reduce soot that diesel vehicles emit into the atmosphere.

The ultra-low-sulfur diesel costs more than regular diesel, which could make switching to biofuel less of a stretch from a price standpoint. Plus, higher demand for biofuel could lead to greater production and lower prices, Reardon said.

The county will be doing its part to make that happen locally, Mitchell said.

"We maintain the fleets of many of the cities here," he said. "We'll be talking with each of them, trying to get them interested in switching."

Lake Stevens, one of those cities, is interested in using biodiesel and has inquired about grant opportunities to cover the additional cost.

"We're very willing to look into it, but we're still at a very preliminary stage," said Sara Evans, the coordinator of Lake Stevens' public-works program.

Regardless of price, biodiesel offers environmental benefits that traditional and ultra-low-sulfur diesel can't match.

Traditional diesel emits some 300 to 500 parts per million of particulates — polluted dust that can lodge in the lungs. Ultra-low-sulfur diesel reduces that to about 15 parts per million. But better still is biofuel, which can drop emissions to below 5 parts per million.

According to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, if the county were to switch its entire fleet to biodiesel, its particulate emissions would decline by 60 tons a year.

However, doing so would increase the release of nitrogen oxides that produce smog, according to the Energy Information Administration. Producers of alternative fuels are experimenting with additives to cancel that increase in air pollutants.

"There is definitely an environmental angle that we have to consider," Reardon said.

Focus on farming

Although partly driven by the environmental benefits of biodiesel, the county also sees the possibility of jump-starting its lagging agricultural economy by introducing biofuel crops.

For more than a year, scientists and county farmers have joined in testing which crops grow well in the area and which produce the best oils.

During fall 2004, scientists from the Washington State University Extension Service planted several types of mustard seed, canola and rapeseed. Each can be used to produce different oils for vehicle use. The plants were assessed for their capability of handling the wet climate and producing enough volume and quality to be profitable.

"Of the testing done then, there were enough results to show that there may be some sort of promise for both oil quality and production volume," said Mike Hackett of the Extension Service's agricultural-development department.

Trials continued last spring, and results again were positive, Hackett said.

"Being a scientist, I don't want to get everybody excited and say this is all wonderful," Hackett said. "But following two small plantings on less than half an acre, this spring we'll find a 40-acre piece and see what happens."

With about 30,000 acres of fallow farmland, Snohomish County has room for biofuel crops. But making them economically viable is a must, officials say. The county can't offer financial incentives, but it can promote the idea to farmers and consumers, setting up the county to make a name for itself in biofuel products.

Bolstering such an effort could be Gov. Christine Gregoire's recently proposed low-interest loans for biodiesel plants. Gregoire also is backing legislation that would require some biofuel be added to diesel produced in Washington.

State Rep. Janéa Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, is expected to introduce legislation this session to require statewide use of biodiesel. Expected backers include state Reps. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and Jeff Morris, D-Mount Vernon.

"We want to set a 2 percent figure for biodiesel," Morris said. "What we haven't settled on is whether that's 2 percent of total annual sales or 2 percent of biodiesel blended in with regular diesel."

Morris and Dunshee worked together three years ago to pass legislation that mandated the state to use at least 2 percent biodiesel in its vehicles by June 1. Morris said he is set to receive an update on the state's progress soon.

With state interest growing, Reardon wants the county at the forefront.

"I'd like to see our farmers produce enough to fuel all of our vehicles in the county and be competitive nationwide," he said. "Progress has been slow, but many barriers to making this viable have been removed."

For years, biofuel production had been limited to the Midwest, where corn is turned into ethanol. But outside that region, few vehicles were fueling up with the gasoline substitute. The same situation could occur in the Northwest, but county officials say they must help take steps away from dependence on foreign oil and toward fuel self-sufficiency.

Even if the 40-acre test crop is successful in spring, an active farming industry would still be years away, Hackett said. One hitch is that the crops can easily cross-pollinate — altering one or more of a plant's characteristics — and many precautions would need to be taken.

"Yet this could be another alternative to farmers seeking to grow something different than marginally profitable commodities like potatoes, corn or peas," Hackett said. "We're always looking for farming alternatives, and biofuel seems pretty timely."

Not a magic potion

As the county explores biodiesel's potential, competition from Skagit County and farming counties east of the Cascades seems inevitable. But by testing crops and beginning to make the switch, Snohomish County already has a jump on the others, officials say.

Still, leaders point out that any biofuel success story here would be only part of solving the county's economic puzzle.

"I'd caution anyone from thinking this solves our energy or environmental issues," Reardon said. "We still need to prove this can work."

2. In appreciation of small towns

By Aubrey Streit
Prairie Writers Circle

You don't have to be from a small town to know what one is like. Your stereotype is right: Old-timers gossip over morning coffee, and every person at the cafe knows you, and your dog too. Streets are nearly empty most nights, with only a few teen-agers driving in circles until they finally accumulate enough velocity to spin out of town.

I was one of those teen-agers. And my parents supported me. They thought staying would waste their hard work, my talent.

For the first time in my adolescence, I agreed with them. I would never get anywhere, I thought, if I stayed in the middle of nowhere.

I decided I would leave to have the freedom to make my own life, to escape the claustrophobia of a small place, to continue my education, so I could get a job.

Last summer, with my parents' encouragement, I studied writing at an institute in upstate New York. I did my best to hide my small-town past -- I tried to change the subject when people asked where I was from.

One writer was not diverted.

"Rural America is dying," he said, "because creative young people like you leave."

This was obvious, but I had always thought it applied to someone else. My parents and my town, by believing my decision to leave inevitable, had in effect given me permission and absolved me of responsibility.

The problem is that small towns bank only on potential, and simply pray that we will someday have a change of heart and return.

That won't be enough to save them. Small towns can't afford to wait. If small towns want to survive, they must both retain and attract young adults.

More parents must teach their children that there's no shame in the stereotype we rightfully perpetuate about small towns. In fact, the stereotype reveals the best things about small towns. Economically shaky or not, they're built on the bedrock of human nature.

Yes, small-town life can be riddled with painful gossip. But shared stories can also weave people and their lives together.

In small towns, people can seem nosy invaders of privacy. But sometimes this is simply unabashed concern. It's for better, not worse, that nothing and no one are forgotten.

There may be cracks in small-town sidewalks, but small-town students don't fall through them. Small class sizes allow teachers to give the personal attention that can truly keep a student from being left behind.

Some small towns are in the middle of nowhere. But that's really somewhere: "now" and "here." Small towns offer an experience of the present that is wholly unmediated, face to face. With nowhere to hide, we can stop trying to. And thanks to technology, these places are no longer isolated from the world outside.

I wanted to leave my small town to be independent. But I've realized that needing other people isn't dependency, it's community. Being part of a community is realistic, useful and good. Unlike people in larger places, small-town residents know that when "somebody has to pay," that somebody is likely themselves.

This isn't naive idealism. I've never experienced the "good old days" of small-town life. I don't know anyone who has, or who's expecting to.

But neither is the stereotype as bleak as we make it sound. By "we," I mean all of us -- those who live in small towns, those who have left, those who have never been. All of us know those empty streets, whether we've walked them or not.

I thought I wanted to leave to find something new. Now I realize what I've been looking for is something so familiar that I used to overlook it: a sense of caring, of community, of connection with humanity -- something so apparent in small towns.


Aubrey Streit grew up in Tipton, Kan., population 235, and wrote this for the Prairie Writers Circle while she was an intern at the Land Institute. She is a student at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan.

3. American Corn Growers Call for emergency assistance, re-establishment of conservation funding, rethinking U.S. farm policy, better energy policy and expansion of home heating aid

For Immediate Release
Contact: Larry Mitchell (202) 835-0330

WASHINGTON ­ Jan. 2, 2006 ­Keith Bolin, president of the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) and a corn and hog farmer from Manlius, Ill., urged quick action from the second session of the 109th Congress, and inclusiveness of the priorities of rural America in its agenda. ACGA called on Congress for expeditious completion of last year’s emergency assistance legislation for farmers, reestablishment of conservation program funding, rethinking of U.S. farm policy, better national energy policy and increased funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP).

"Farmers in many parts of the nation are continuing to experience financial hardship due to weather related disasters, especially the hurricanes, as well as drought in many parts of the country," said Bolin. "For all the good intentions of the last Farm Bill and the latest improvements in crop insurance, there is no management tool available which could have prevented the financial devastation associated with the kind of losses we have experienced. When you make every necessary investment in a crop only to see it washed and blown away in a matter of hours or the hot sun bakes and withers it away day after day and week after week, it is a very disheartening experience."

Bolin also explained ACGA’s disappointment in congressional action to reduce funding for conservation programs last month. "Farmers are the best stewards of our environment and natural resources. Their ability to earn a living depends directly upon the preservation of the land that provides their bounty," said Bolin. "We urge Congress to fulfill the agreement of the 2002 farm bill and fully fund the conservation programs it contains."

"We must also rethink U.S. agriculture policy and change course to secure farmers’ livelihoods world wide," added Bolin. "It is time we move toward a U.S. agriculture policy that relies more on improving prices paid to farmers for the fruits of their labor and less on direct subsidies from taxpayers. But until we treat and eliminate the disease of low prices, we are dependent on the current subsidy structure. Simply eliminating subsides, without first enacting mechanisms to improve prices, will devastate U.S. farmers and will not help farmers in developing nations. We must have fair and decent prices in order to help all farmers."

"Rural America is facing one of its most challenging economic catastrophes in decades," said Bolin. "Corn and other commodity prices received by farmers have sunk to new lows, while energy prices have increased at an economically unsustainable pace. Today it takes well over three times as many bushels of corn to buy a barrel of oil as it did just one year ago. That is an inflation rate of over 200 percent! Congress must address the issues of a better energy policy for the nation."

"On a most critical and immediate issue, Congress must increase funding for LIHEAP," concluded Bolin. Insufficient LIHEAP funding undermines and threatens state and local initiatives that need federal support to provide energy security for working poor, elderly and disabled Americans. With the dramatic increase in energy costs, it is imperative that LIHEAP funding be expanded as soon as possible.

The American Corn Growers Association represents 14,000 members in 35 states. See http://www.acga.org .