Chinese Food in the Vineyard:
Long Meadow Ranch Adopts
Biodiesel Fuels for All Farm Equipment
July 30, 2005, Rutherford, CA - When a tractor starts up at Long Meadow Ranch missing is the familiar odor of smoke and exhaust laced with #2 diesel fuel. Instead the air is filled with smells more reminiscent of San Francisco's Chinatown. "We laugh when a tractor starts up early in the morning because it smells like Sichuan food - vegetables cooking in oil in a hot wok with spicy seasonings and hot peppers. These surprising aromas in the vineyard are from the biodiesel fuel used by our tractors," said Long Meadow Ranch foreman, Mike McDaniel.
Long Meadow Ranch confirmed today that it had formally adopted a policy of exclusively employing biodiesel fuels in all of its farming equipment after more than two years of experimentation. Biodiesel is an alternative fuel produced from plant oils and animal fats that can supplant the use of conventional petroleum-based fuels in most diesel engines.
The adoption of the biodiesel policy conforms with Long Meadow Ranch's overall commitment to sustainable farming practices. "Like our use of solar energy for electricity, biodiesel fuels allow us to employ renewable energy sources to meet our farming needs and at the same time create a healthier, safer work environment," said co-owner Ted Hall. "On a per-gallon basis the current cost of biodiesel fuel is very close compared to conventional diesel fuel. But, with the price of oil pushing $60 per barrel, our use of biodiesel fuel is looking more and more like a very sound long-term economic decision. Furthermore, our maintenance costs have remained stable throughout our trial period and we have dramatically lowered the risks to our workers of exposure to toxic hydocarbons."
Surprising to many, the original diesel engine used vegetable oils as fuel when it was invented in 1892. Rudolf Diesel of Germany experimented with many different types of fuel to feed his invention - a compression ignition engine - now called a "diesel" engine in recognition of his groundbreaking work. Initially whale oil seemed to provide the best solution for fuel. However, whale oil - although commonly available in the 1880s and 90s - was expensive.
Looking for other options, Rudolph Diesel is said to have had a friend who grew peanuts and who had a stock that had gone so rancid that even livestock would not eat them. Apparently Diesel obtained several cart loads and used an olive press to obtain the yellow oil contained in the nuts. This peanut oil fuel proved sufficiently effective to allow Diesel to continue the development of his engine.
In 1900 Diesel chose to exhibit his new invention for the first time at The Paris World Exposition. A prototype engine, along with several hundred gallons of peanut oil, was shipped to Paris and installed on the expositions grounds near the Eiffel Tower. Much like today's experience with biodiesel fuels, many people commented as they wandered into the area displaying Diesel's engine that they thought it was a food pavilion - due to the smell of burned peanut oil! When petroleum oil was discovered in Pennsylvania a few years later, Diesel's engine had progressed far enough to utilize this new sort of fuel which was produced as a waste by-product from making lubricating oils.
Fuels for diesel engines have now come full cycle. Biodiesel fuels are being created in a wide array of formulations. Some are made entirely from virgin vegetable oils extracted from crops like rapeseeds and soybeans while others are made exclusively from recycled oils from restaurants, butcher shops, and rendering plants where wastes such as used frying oils, fat trimmings, and tallow are obtained.
In keeping with their early history, conventional diesel engines can utilize most of these biodiesel fuels without modification. At Long Meadow Ranch biodiesel fuel is used in John Deere tractors and gators without any change to the engine. "We find the tractors have more power when using the biodiesel fuel," said co-owner Ted Hall. "This is because the fuel contains about 15 percent more BTUs per gallon of fuel compared to standard diesel fuel. This is often overlooked when gallon-for-gallon price comparisons are made between bio- and petroleum-based diesel fuels."
Biodiesel fuels significantly lower emissions into the air compared to petroleum-based fuels. Sulfur emissions are essentially eliminated with pure biodiesel fuel and other emissions such as unburned hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter are dramatically reduced. An additional benefit is disposal of spilled or dirty fuel. "Because biodiesel fuel is biodegradable, a spill is a much less serious matter," said foreman McDaniel. "We can let nature help us with the clean-up as the fuel will naturally breakdown like any other plant or animal product. In theory we could even add dirty fuel to the compost pile."
The use of biodiesel has not always been so easy at Long Meadow Ranch. "We first started experimenting with the fuel about two years ago. Everything worked well until one November morning when the temperature went below 40 degrees. That morning nothing would start," recalls McDaniel. "It turns out that the original formulation coagulated at temperatures below about 42 degrees. The stuff looked like cold bacon grease in a unwashed frying pan. It was a real mess."
The problems were eventually solved by suppliers learning to add a mixture of different plant-based oils to the fuel. Much like 10-W-30 motor oil was created to perform over a range of conditions beyond 10W or 30W individually, the updated biodiesel fuel formulation can now perform over the full range of conditions encountered in the Napa Valley. "The only thing we miss with this new formulation is the smell of donuts and french fries. Now we have Chinese food instead," concluded McDaniel. "Who knows, maybe we'll even try some olive oil in our own formulation someday."