October 6, 2006
Coastal Bend farm cooperative turns to biofuel
technologies to secure future
By Bobby Horecka
Clarence Chopelas remembers well the day the cotton crops dried up in his part of South Texas.
But unlike this year's drought-parched fields, the problem then had nothing to do with the weather. Rather, another foe dealt a deadly blow to the area's cotton industry in 1966. The tiny town of Tynan was overwhelmed by boll weevils, Chopelas recalls.
"People were spraying a crop 12 or 13 times a season," he said. "It got where you couldn't afford to raise a crop."
So they found another way to earn their living, a better way to apply their skills as growers to make a profit.
That spirit is still alive and well today as they face their latest challenges. Tynan looks to become home of one of the first completely cooperative-owned biodiesel refineries in Texas. With building set to begin in the spring of 2007, they plan to use locally produced crops to fuel their farms.
"That's really how the idea was born," said Bee County Farmers Coop Manager Darwin Anderson. "We needed other options to make farming a viable business for our members."
When you consider the limits of world markets and demands, efficiency in production methods and this year, drought, making a buck for what you grow can prove daunting for most any farmer, Anderson said.
So they turned to a newly emerging enterprise, one they're hoping will turn the tide for farmers all along the Coastal Bend.
Anderson is definitely no stranger to agribusiness operations, having worked as a former county agent and longtime area cooperative manager. So when he hired on in Tynan a few years back, expectations were high.
"My board challenged me to make this cooperative profitable, so I began looking at ways to enhance the value of our grain elevators," Anderson said.
The problem, however, came in farming itself.
Crop prices have hung at the same level for decades now, while productions costs soared.
Although boll weevils had killed off cotton in the area for several years, the crop made a comeback after the boll weevil dwindled with regional eradication efforts.
Still, the co-op had sold its gin long ago. Starting it back up not only required lots of capital but also ran in direct competition with a half dozen privately owned gins in the county.
"So he (Anderson) put the plow in the ground and came up with something we never considered before," said Chopelas, a lifelong Bee County farmer and Farm Bureau leader, as well as a former president of the cooperative.
The plan was to set up a seed press in one of the existing elevator components and produce oils that could later be refined into homegrown biodiesel. Considering such operations produce a lot of leftover material, Anderson also drew up plans to gather the scraps and make cattle feed.
The raw product after press can offer a steady and nutritious feed supply. With a little processing, Anderson said they could also produce pellets and range cubes.
With a little help from private consultants, the Bee County Economic Development Corp., and a local banker, Anderson drew up the necessary business plans and began securing investments.
By 2010, Anderson says he hopes to be producing 1.5 million gallons of biodiesel annually for use by cooperative members, as well as others wanting to purchase fuel.
An acre of cottonseedthe premier crop in his areawill produce about 29 gallons of B-100 fuel (pure biodiesel), he says. They intend to blend their biofuels with petroleum diesel, with mixtures largely dependent on what best suits the farmers of the area, he said.
They can also blend road diesel fuels (typically B-20, or 20 percent biodiesel) for use in passenger and transport vehicles, as well as make pure biodiesel available to those wanting to make their own mixtures.
"When we're running full steam, we'll crush eight tons of cottonseed an hour," Anderson said, adding the round-the-clock operations will eventually add about a dozen new jobs to the local economy.
That same hour of crushing can yield thousands of pounds of whole pressed cottonseed meal, which should prove a valuable feed source for neighboring beef cattle operations.
In an area typically capable of three-bale-an-acre cotton yields, the addition of the plant and its end-use products could be a good source of income for each and every one of the 150 farmer members in the cooperative, Anderson said, both through cooperative shares and in their individual operations.
Plus, as Anderson and Chopelas explained, the plant will be well-situated for other types of crop processing. Just a few years ago, neighboring Victoria County was the No. 1 soybean producer in the state, another good crop for biodiesel production.
And with a ready place to process the goods, farmers could easily see the return of crops such as flax, which hasn't been grown locally since the 1970s because farmers had such difficulty finding markets for the crop.
Being just a few minutes drive from rail and seaports, the Tynan co-op has ready market access for their finished products and, in off years, raw ones.
"If we needed any reason to sell any of us on this idea, this year's drought definitely did it," Chopelas said.
Bee County recorded an 86 percent loss on the roughly 30,000 acres of dryland cotton planted, according to figures from the Risk Management Agency. Additionally, 88 percent of the 10,000 acres of dryland sorghum failed, and 83 percent of the 9,100 cares of dryland corn were a loss.
"Most of the planted crops never even broke surface this year," Chopelas said.
Toss in aflatoxin troubles on corn crops and midge on sorghum along with cinch bug and head worm infestations, and farmers were left reeling by the 2006 crop year for his part of South Texas.
"We had to do something," he said. "And change is something we've grown accustomed to around here."
As far back as he can remember, Chopelas said his family relied on crops such as cotton and grain sorghum, sometimes supplementing with a few onions.
But when boll weevils began killing off the main cash crop when he was a younger man, Chopelas and his father had to do some major crop rethinking. By the mid-1960s, when the Bee County co-op closed its ginning operation, the Chopelas family was running full bore in cucumber production.
They harvested cucumbers by the truckloads, built shipping warehouses and employed pickers by the dozens for nearly a decade. They still raised a few grain crops to supply neighboring cattle feeding operations, but the real money lay in salad bowls, not cattle troughs.
But new times call for new action.
"We're looking forward once again to meeting our challenges head on," Chopelas said. "And with all the focus on renewable energy, I believe we'll be able to accomplish just that."