Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oil seed carries growth potential

A biodiesel education PowerPoint presentation is reflected in the glasses of Rosalia farmer Dave Dowling during a meeting held at the Masonic Temple in Oakesdale, Wash., on Tuesday. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

OAKESDALE, Wash. – Bruce Nave has a vision of fields of gold carpeting the Inland Northwest. Each fall, flowers in these fields would yield billions upon billions of seeds – each about the size of a BB and each holding a small drop of energy.

Nave’s business would crush the seeds and turn the oil into diesel fuel. He would make money, the farmers would make money, and the Middle East would have a little less control over the fate of the nation’s energy supply.

By the end of the week, Nave hopes to have his portion of the vision under way – the Arizona businessman has already made an offer on land near Clarkston, Wash., for his processing plant, which he said could be crushing seeds by October.

Somehow, Nave just needs to convince the farmers. That was his goal last week as he stood before about 60 wheat and lentil growers at the annual meeting of the Pine Creek Conservation District.

The farmers took notes and nodded their seed-cap-covered heads as Nave laid out his plan. But few were ready to sign papers promising to deliver canola seeds to Nave’s yet-to-be-built Wi BioFuels plant.

“I’m going to let the other people try it first, let them figure out the mistakes,” said Tom Henning, chairman of the conservation district.

Same is true for Bob Goldsworthy, who farms near Rosalia, Wash. Goldsworthy loves the idea of growing diesel fuel out of the black dirt on his Palouse farm, but there’s too much uncertainty and not enough promise of profit.

“I’m waiting and listening,” he said. “I hope these other guys do it. It sure needs to be done.”

The prospect of biodiesel has sparked an unusual amount of hope this year across the region’s farm country, said Gretchen Borck, director of issues for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. There’s talk of at least six biodiesel production facilities that could be coming to the state and a new law that would mandate upward of 30 million gallons of biodiesel be added into the state’s energy mix by 2008.

Borck doesn’t know of any farmers, though, who are making large-scale changes in what they plant. From sugar beets to boards made out of straw, Inland Northwest farmers have heard pitches before about new crops guaranteed to keep them in business.

“They’ve gotten a little gun shy,” she said.

Banks are also not willing to put up financing for unproven crops, Borck said. But if the biodiesel mandate is signed into law, and as soon as the first seed crusher opens for business, “You can bet that’s going to be the coffee shop talk every single morning,” Borck said. “They’re really looking towards any additional crop so they can continue farming.”

Depending on yields, most farmers need at least 12 cents a pound to break even with canola, according to a recent study conducted by Washington State University. The seeds, however, are available from Canada for about 9 cents a pound, delivered.

Nave wants to buy his seed from local growers and has even offered a limited number of contracts for 15 cents a pound. Farmers would also get a penny’s worth of biodiesel for each pound of seed. Local seed sources would mean less transportation costs and better quality assurance, Nave said. But there’s another reason: “I’m fiercely American,” Nave told the farmers. “I’d rather put my money in you guys.”

Nave hopes to produce 5 million gallons of biodiesel each year, which would require about 120 million pounds of seed. He said a large dairy in Yakima has already expressed interest in buying the leftover crushed canola seed. The seed meal is a nutritious source of protein for livestock.

Of all the farmers who listened to Nave’s presentation, only about a dozen signed a sheet asking to receive more information. Colin Cook, who farms near Pine City, Wash., said he’s considering planting some canola. “I’m not sure, though,” he said. “I sure like what (Nave) is saying, but it sounds too good to be true.”

Apart from the uncertainty of profits, farmers also question the region’s suitability for growing seed oil crops, said Chad Kruger, director of outreach for the Climate Friendly Farming Project at Washington State University. The plant thrives in the higher humidity of the Midwest and Canadian prairie, but not enough has been grown here to satisfy concerns. Farmers have 125 years experience in growing wheat, but few have ever tried to grow canola.

“We just don’t know how to grow the stuff yet,” he said. “Farmers just can’t take the risk.”

Many fields are also saturated with high-tech pesticides that would kill any plants besides wheat or lentils. These chemicals take upward of four growing seasons to leave the soil.

Last year, only 4,000 acres in Washington were planted with canola, Kruger said. At least 100 times as much would be needed for the state to replace 2 percent of petroleum diesel with energy from plants, he said.

Kruger, like most farmers, loves the idea of growing energy. Unlike wheat, there seems to be no end to the nation’s hunger for energy. But regional farmers will need incentives to begin growing vegetable oil, he said. More research is also needed into developing new strains of canola or mustard capable of transforming Inland Northwest sun into energy.

“We need a major investment in research,” Kruger said.

Unless that happens, Kruger doesn’t expect a new state law requiring biodiesel to have much benefit for local farmers. This leads him to wonder, “Are we overselling the potential for this legislation?”