Biofuels for Ontario farmers: use your own crops to save the planet

by Emily Hunter

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Farmers using seeds for energy was considered nothing more than a joke 30 years ago in Canada.

But that’s just what Jasmin Hofer did when she was five-years-old with her family in their Ontario farm. Taking a process used in Europe, her family converted soybeans into biofuels for their tractor.

Little did she know some experts say this could be a solution to our climate crisis today.

“I remember other farmers used to come by to see if our tractors were still running. Nobody believed we could do it,” Hofer said.  “But within the first year, we reduced our costs by forty-percent.“

Twenty-five years later, Hofer was at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto Thursday  displaying her family’s age-old tractor technique as a cutting-edge technology to farmers. She is the manager of Energrow, a company that sells biodiesel production systems to the agricultural industry. Amongst the prized cow competitions, screaming kids and country line dancing, she stands proudly beside her biodiesel gizmo, offering the public a firsthand experience in pressing seeds into biofuels.

Listen to the interview with Jasmin Hofer here.

The machine looks like nothing more than two oil barrels attached to a seed grinder spewing feed pellets. Yet it is this technology that is allowing farmers to use their own crops to create eco-friendly and low-cost alternatives to fossil fuels, separating the liquids from seeds and the remainder into animal feeds.

It is also this technology that has brought success to this young company. Established in 2006, Hofer’s Newton, Ontario company has won numerous awards including the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2007.

But some argue that thinking of farming as an environmental solution is something of a naive idea. Agriculture after all has a long history of being anything but green. Though more food has benefited us, it has contributed to more population and with that, an ever increasing demand on resources.

Already, scientists say 30 per cent of the earth’s surface has been reshaped or degraded by agriculture, like in the Amazon basin where two-thirds of it’s biodiversity has been taken up to tillage, while the agriculture industry alone is responsible for 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it one of the top accelerators of climate change.

Yet some believe the problem can be the solution: just as farmers use a lot of energy, “They can have a huge role in producing that energy,” Hofer said.

Everything from plants and seeds, cow feces and organic waste can be turned into “bio-energy” that is carbon neutral and renewable.

“It’s a crop of a new kind,” said Andrew Barrie, environmental specialist for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, one of the exhibitors at the fair, a crop that the Ontario government is eager to capitalize on to stimulate Ontario’s green economy plans.

“The province wants to be leaders in the green economy for North America,” Barried said, noting farmers are a major player in that economy.

With Ontario shutting off coal power by 2014, officials predict there will be gaps in the province’s energy supply. The province is not just looking at solar, wind and hydro to narrow that gap, Barrie said, but looking to food producers. Provincially, the government is providing subsidies and training to farmers to stimulate this bio-energy growth.

“The reality is this is going to create jobs,” he said, jobs in new industries, on-going research and development, as well as for suffering farmers.

Growing up as a farmer himself, Barrie recalled the experience of economic uncertainty.   But now, he sees hope for farmers in the new electricity crop.

“The technology has improved and the economics are as such that it is beginning to make sense” to create energy, he said,  providing a second pay cheque for struggling farmers.

Energy crops are benefiting the pockets of farmers in more than one way, argues Julian Reed, an ethanol promoter and former MP who worked closely with Jean Chrétien. He was another exhibitor at the fair. According to Reed, ethanol production for instance, the main bio-replacement for petroleum, “has raised the price of corn and allowed those farmers to make a little money for a change.”

But bio-energies aren’t without their challenges. Critics of  the new energy crops, especially food justice activists, argue that food is now being pitted against energy needs and they fear that energy will win. Meanwhile, there are one billion people malnourished across the globe, according to a recent report by the United Nations.

Other groups fear issues including water scarcity, deforestation for arable lands and even more climate change as farmers produce more crops for biofuels.

Some critics even predict this new economic market may collapse before it has begun. Increasing food prices from agriculture used as energy may help farmers in the short-term, they say, but could ultimately hurt in the long-term. The higher prices would potentially cause consumers to retreat in both food and energy crop markets, while making the food scarcity issue even more a problem.

Reed says it may not be perfect, but that it’s a start to a greatly needed alternative.

“The notion that the world will survive on fossil fuels for the next 50 to 60 years is nuts,” said Reed, who has been pounding the pavement in Ottawa on an ethanol crusade since the 1970s.

“Everything future generations will need will come from the sun, not beneath the ground,” he said, reminding this reporter that the first commercial car, the Ford Model T, ran on an ethanol tank, not gas.

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