Reading Eagle via Associated Press
READING, Pa. (AP) -- Of the hundreds of farm fields planted in Berks County this spring, one 8-acre plot in Maidencreek Township was filled with flowers so vibrantly yellow it made passing motorists stop to take photographs.
Farmer David Brown wasn't growing sunflowers or mustard seed. He had planted his first crop of canola, a plant with bright yellow flowers that eventually turn into seed pods.
In late July, Brown harvested the seeds from one of the few crops of canola planted in southeastern Pennsylvania in the last 20 years.
"It's not something that's grown around here," said Brown, who also grows hay and soybeans on his 260-acre farm on Ridge Road. "There's not a market for it. People tried to do it years ago, but it didn't stick."
Brown's canola experiment could prove to be a financial boon for him in unpredictable economic times. He plans to turn the harvested seeds not into canola cooking oil but into biodiesel fuel to power his farm equipment.
Canola is a multipurpose crop. The tiny seeds contain about 40 percent oil, compared with the approximately 20 percent contained in soybeans. The oil can be used for cooking, then the leftover oil can be converted into fuel.
Brown is skipping the expensive processes needed to make food-grade oil and going straight to biodiesel.
"I hope to make enough biodiesel to run all my tractors and trucks," he said. "The oil helps the engines last longer and gives off less pollution than regular diesel."
He's likely to make neighbors hungry when he drives by - canola biodiesel smells like french fries when it's burned.
Since this was his first year growing canola, Brown wasn't expecting his crop to yield much. He reaped about 20 bushels an acre. The average yield is 30 to 50 bushels per acre.
Advice on how to grow canola in Pennsylvania was hard to come by, but Brown found a mentor of sorts in Don Rill, a crop researcher at Penn State.
Brown first happened upon the idea to grow canola at Penn State's Ag Progress Days two years ago. The university is currently conducting a canola experiment of its own, growing 70 acres on Penn State farmland to use as biodiesel for some of its farm equipment.
"Someone approached me with a bag of seeds six years ago and I said I'd try it," Rill said. "It works well with the climate here, but obviously grows better in drier climates in the Midwest."
North Dakota produces about 88 percent of the canola grown in the United States, according to Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. But Canada outgrows the U.S. by millions of acres: The U.S. canola comes from about 1.2 million planted acres; in Canada it comes from about 15 million acres.
Rill said there is a lack of facilities to process canola locally, and it's too expensive to ship the seeds to processing plants in Canada or the Midwest.
But Josh Leidhecker of Susquehanna Mills in Williamsport is hoping more farmers will give canola a chance.
As far as he knows, Leidhecker owns the only canola oil processing plant in Pennsylvania.
He got involved with canola for the same reason that Brown did - to make biodiesel for his construction company.
At his Lycoming County plant he crushes, refines and bottles oil that is sold for cooking. The leftover seed, or meal, can be sold as livestock feed, adding another cycle and another profit to the multipurpose crop.
"I found it was a little more profitable to do frying oil and biodiesel," Leidhecker said. "It started out as a hobby and now it's a full-on business."
The process of going from tiny seeds to fuel is intricate. First the seeds go through a press, in which about 90 percent of the oil is squeezed out. The oil is then put in a processing tank and mixed with methanol and lye, then left to settle as the glycerins are filtered out. The oil is finally cleaned again before being ready for use as biodiesel.
Additional steps to create food-grade oil are necessary to remove bacteria.
Brown purchased his own press, and a neighbor owns a processor he'll use to keep the whole project in-house. Brown's ultimate goal is to press canola for other farmers who want to create biodiesel for themselves and help them save money.
Right now, Brown estimates he can make his own biodiesel at $3 a gallon. With the fluctuating price of regular diesel fuel, currently costing an average of $3.97 in Pennsylvania according to AAA, Brown said knowing exactly what he's paying in advance will save money.
"There's a lot of oil in these little buggers," Brown said. "Hopefully, this stabilizes fuel costs for me and turns out to be a profitable experiment."
Information from: Reading Eagle, http://www.readingeagle.com/
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.