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From bushel to biodiesel

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ANN MARIE AMES
November 17, 2007

It might seem like magic.


You take a bushel of soybeans at $10.29 and turn it into a $3.58 gallon of biodiesel.


Aren’t you crushing an expensive product into a cheaper one?


That’s a common misconception, said Jamie Derr, owner of Sun Prairie’s Great Lakes Biofuels. But most of a bushel of beans goes to the same place it always has: the feed bunk on a dairy farm.


Here’s how one bushel of soybeans breaks down:


-- One bushel weighs 66 pounds, and costs $10.29 in Chicago this week.


-- Ground at a commercial solvent crush plant—like the one proposed for Evansville—that bushel makes 44 pounds of soybean meal, a high protein animal feed. That’s about $6.16 worth of feed.


-- That same bushel produces 11 pounds of soy oil, about 1.4 gallons. That much oil sells for $4.73, or about $3.38 per gallon. One gallon of oil makes about one gallon of biodiesel.


-- The rest is soy hulls, which are sometimes used as filler in animal feed, and waste product. Some beans are lost in the crushing process.


“There’s such a high demand for oil, you wish that beans made more of it,” Derr said. “You wish the bean was all oil.”


First crush

The hopes of many soybean advocates were dashed this week when North Prairie Productions announced it was halting construction at its Evansville biodiesel plant.


But there’s still hope.


The news will not change plans for Wisconsin’s first crush plant in Evansville, which will grind beans into meal for cattle and oil—the slippery stuff that’s making things tough for biodiesel production, said John Blaska, board president of Landmark Services Cooperative, which is proposing the crush plant.


Wisconsin is the only state in the nation’s top 13 soybean producers without a crush plant.


“The profit goes to large agribusiness giants,” Derr said.


If Wisconsin had a crush plant, farmers could avoid shipping beans 200 miles out and back to get them crushed. The same would go for biodiesel producers needing soy oil.


Landmark Services Cooperative wants to build the $85 million plant next to the foundation of the biodiesel plant on Evansville’s east side. Landmark has said it would match a $4 million state grant to run engineering and other studies on the plant.


Landmark must apply for the $4 million grant.


Beans at the pump

Consumers can pick from a number of reasons to buy biodiesel at the pump: it’s renewable, it’s good for your truck or it helps wean America off foreign oil.


But the thing that drives consumers to buy is price, Derr said.


“When it’s at price parity with petroleum, you can’t make enough of it,” Derr said.


But the rising cost of soybean oil is challenging biodiesel’s success, he said. Historically, the oil has stayed under 20 cents per pound, but this week it’s trading for 43 cents in Chicago.


That’s putting biodiesel at $3.58 per gallon compared to $3.29 per gallon of petroleum diesel.


Even so, as petroleum oil “flirts” with $100 per barrel, it is more important than ever to find alternative fuel sources and keep them affordable, Derr said.


“It’s showing that we need to bring more diversity to what we use for energy,” he said.


Beans on the plate

There’s one thing you never need to worry about while fueling up with biodiesel.


You’re not using up soybeans that could have been made into tofu.


Whew.


Food grade soybeans are completely different varieties than beans grown for animal feed or fuel, said Jim Stute, UW Extension crops agent. For one thing, food grade beans need to be pure white. They can’t have the little black dot where the bean connects to the pod.


Rock County grows more food grade beans than average, thanks to the food grade program at the DeLong Co., 601 DeLco Drive, Clinton, Stute said.


Rock County farmers plant nearly 90,000 acres of soybeans annually, according to the United States Department of Agriculture statistics. In 2007, DeLong’s contracted 11,500 of those acres for food grade soybeans.


“That’s a lot for a specialty crop,” said DeLong’s Brandon Bickham.



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