10/2007 Capital Press - Think Outside the Still

Summary: 

EUGENE, Ore. - According to a California biofuels expert who spoke in Oregon recently, alcohol produced from corn and/or other plant-based materials has a definite fit in the Northwest.

But not for the reason you'd think.

While ethanol, which is the form of alcohol produced when carbohydrates are fermented, can be used in farm equipment and is mostly atmosphere-friendly, it's the byproducts left over after fermentation that are drawing most of the attention.

Biofuels advocate and author David Blume, who farms organically in Santa Cruz, spoke in Portland and Eugene recently about small-scale ethanol plants and how they can become nice little profit centers. The secret is to use the leftover mash to grow other products such as gourmet fish and mushrooms that can be sold in the community. "Those dwarf the value of the alcohol and also are often quite a bit more profitable than even the high-value vegetable crops," Blume said in an interview after his Eugene talk.

One example of a mash-fed income earner is tilapia, a sub-tropical fish species that's become popular in this country. "There are other species of fish you can use but tilapia are really easy ones to do on the farm," Blume said.

Not only do tilapia grow very nicely on the fats and proteins found in spent mash, they can be sold for a handsome profit to restaurants and seafood markets, Blume said.

"For every gallon of alcohol you produce that's worth $1.50, you can produce anywhere from $20 to $40 worth of tilapia with the byproducts. Then, after the fish have processed the byproducts, the fish water is now full of nutrients that can replace the fertilizer that's needed to fertilize (crops)."

Not only does alcohol fermentation provide the nutrients for the fish farm, it also provides the heat needed to keep pond temperatures warm. Blume said 25 acres of non-irrigated field corn yielding 150 bushels per acre per year will support a small tilapia operation.

When asked if Northwest growers would want to become fish farmers and build and operate fuel plants and fish tanks, Blume said "the money is so well worth it, most people would find it not too much of a problem."

"This is not such a fringy, strange idea. Archer Daniels Midland has a 5-acre tilapia farm sitting right next to its alcohol plant in Decatur (Ill.). What (they) do, which would even be easier on a smaller scale, is sell directly to restaurants."

Blume said that a small-scale, farm-based 250,000-gallon-per-year ethanol plant can be up and running for around $100,000, that is, "if you're the least bit thrifty, and that basically is almost every farmer."

Fish ponds would cost extra but could simply be excavated on farm ground and then lined with a suitable material.

While there are no alcohol plants in the Northwest that are producing tilapia, Blume said there are a number of operations raising the fish in more conventional ways. "What I'm saying is that these are examples of two things that go together well."

Other foods that can be produced using alcohol mash are shrimp, which are more profitable than tilapia, and oyster mushrooms. "Oyster mushrooms, a higher-end product you see in many, many markets in Oregon and Washington, grow very well on byproducts from alcohol fuel plants," Blume said. "For every dry pound of dried distillers grains (mash), you get about a wet pound of mushrooms.

"So, basically, you take three or four cents worth of byproduct and you make it into $5 or $6 (worth of) wholesale oyster mushrooms. Consumption is going up 10 percent a year, so it's quite a growing market."

Earthworm castings, which should find a good market with Oregon and Washington nurseries, are also an alternative.

While field corn is most often mentioned in conjunction with ethanol production, Blume said that it is only one example, and a rather poor one at that in terms of alcohol yields.

While corn yields around 250 gallons of alcohol per acre in a year, sugar beets produce 750 gallons and sugar cane, which in the last 30 years has revolutionized the Brazilian energy sector, yields up to 1,000 gallons, Blume said.

Blume has written a definitive book, "Alcohol can be a gas!" that covers every aspect of the plant-based ethanol industry, including tax incentives.

Freelance writer John Schitz is based in Salem. E-mail: johns6869@msn.com.

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