September 2008
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Marion County Farmer is Going Green

Sunflowers Will Offset High Fuel Costs for Chip Enlow
   
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Young  farmer Chip Enlow stands in his 200-acre field of sunflowers.  

 By Susie Sims

Going green just took on a new meaning in the Bexar Community of Marion County. Young farmer Chip Enlow is making preparations to produce his own biodiesel.

Soaring fuel prices have hit everyone pretty hard, especially those who make their living while using large amounts of fuel. Enlow, 40, is one such farmer. When he’s not in the field tending to his 300 acres he is busy moving dirt with his excavating business.

The farmer said he normally purchases about 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year to keep all of his equipment running. Even if the price of diesel fuel drops to $4 per gallon, that’s still $24,000. Enlow knew he had to do something to lower his fuel costs or his business would continue to feel the strain.

 
  Marion County farmer Chip Enlow planted sunflowers behind winter wheat. He will use the sunflower oil to make biodiesel.
The idea to take his fuel production into his own hands came during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"As fuel prices went over $3 a gallon, I thought it might be time to do something," recalled Enlow, noting that prices soon fell again so he put the idea on the backburner.

This past year as the price of diesel fuel soared to well over $4 a gallon; Enlow knew it was time to put his idea into action.

 

"I thought I can sit still doing exactly what I’m doing and go broke or I can do something about it," said Enlow.

He began checking on alternatives to conventional diesel fuel. His brother-in-law, who is an aerospace engineer in Huntsville, also helped with the research.

Inspired by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries’ machine that makes biodiesel out of used cooking oil, Enlow continued his research.

He estimated he would need to gather oil from close to 35 restaurants in order to make the amount of fuel needed to run his operation. Enlow noted that was not feasible in the area where he farms.

He heard about a study being conducted by Auburn University and Alabama A&M.

"A professor called me and asked if I would be interested in contracting some acres of sunflowers," said Enlow.

Enlow plans to use his homemade sunflower biodiesel to fuel his excavating operation

Being a farmer, Enlow liked the idea of producing a crop he could grow and then turn into fuel. He finally settled on the sunflowers. Turned out sunflowers is one of the highest producing oil crops and required little in the way of specialized equipment to plant and harvest.

Enlow said he ordered sunflower plates for his planter and special pans to go on his combine. Otherwise it’s business as usual.

Sunflowers?

Needless to say, Enlow’s 200 acres of sunflowers have turned more than a few heads in Marion County. Enlow lives and farms in the Bexar Community, which is west of Hamilton. Corn and pine trees are a common sight, sunflowers are not.

"I took a little kidding from folks when they heard I was planting sunflowers," said Enlow. "But you can tell the idea of making my own fuel interested them."

Enlow said he would like to see more producers get on board with biodiesel.

"This is a good idea," he said. "We all need to be concerned and look for ways to lower our dependence on conventional fuels."

It didn’t take many alterations to have his current equipment ready to plant the seeds. He will use a regular combine with a bean head to harvest the crop in late September.

 The Process

At first, Enlow’s plan was to grow the sunflowers and truck them to a plant in Resaca, GA, for processing. When he learned the plant made edible sunflower oil, Enlow put his plan to work.

"I asked if I could get back some of the oil from the sunflowers I produced," said Enlow. "They said I could."

Enlow explained that during processing, a substance called "mash" is left after the oil is extracted. The mash is about 40 percent protein and is then sold to livestock producers to feed their animals.

The plant told Enlow that 50 acres worth of sunflower mash was the monetary equivalent of 50 acres of oil. So he could swap his mash for oil.

Enlow is waiting on delivery of an electric machine that will convert the sunflower oil into biodiesel.

The Numbers

In order for his plan to work, Enlow will need to harvest 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of sunflower seeds per acre. That amount will provide him with more than enough mash to trade for oil. The remainder will be sold as a cash crop.

Enlow calculated that with an average harvest he would yield 100 gallons of oil per acre. With that yield, he said 50 acres of sunflowers should produce close to 5,000 gallons of fuel, which would run his operation for almost a year.

Enlow said the conversion process is very efficient in that for every 100 gallons of oil going in, he will get 99 gallons of fuel back out. The machine takes about three hours to produce 55 gallons, which Enlow noted will be a good project for rainy winter days.

If his harvest goes as expected, Enlow estimates he can produce biodiesel at a cost of about $2.50 a gallon. That includes the 25-50 cents per gallon it will cost him to convert the oil into fuel.

If all goes according to plan, Enlow will recoup the cost of the $20,000 conversion machine within one year.

To keep his farm going, Enlow relies on the Marion County Co-op in Hamilton. He purchases his seed, fertilizer and other crop inputs as well as sprayer parts and pet food. He also purchases tires and gets his oil changed at the local store.

Enlow is a member of Alabama Farmers Federation, on the Marion County board of directors and serves on their cotton and soybean commodity boards.

He is also member of the board of directors of the Bexar United Methodist Church.

Contact Information

Enlow encourages those interested in producing their own biofuel to visit the www.biodiesel.org website. You may also contact your local Extension office for more information.

Persons wanting to speak to Enlow may call him at (205) 921-3622.

Susie Sims is a freelance writer from Haleyville.