German farmer saves thousands on home-grown energy


We're standing next to a large rectangular metal tank at the farm of Andreas Tornow in Varchentin, Germany. The tank attaches to the front end of a tractor and contains pure plant oil from rapeseed, the main power source for all of Tornow's farm equipment on this 3,700-acre farm in the economically depressed region north of Berlin.

A few steps away a 20-foot high pyramid of rape cake, the leftover meal from rapeseed, is taking shape. A nearby tank is collecting oil from Tornow's oil mill, which churns out 650,000 litres (172,000 gallons) a year. Tornow will use about 25% of that production to fuel his farm equipment, and the rest gets sold for biodiesel or food uses.

Welcome to value-added, German-style.

"I'm motivated by the idea of energy independence,•bCrLf says Tornow (right, with leftover rapeseed cake), speaking through our interpreter Martin Ramm, who has taken time from his schedule as a freelance marketing consultant to make the trip from Berlin with me. "The idea of farms supplying their own inputs is a very old idea.•bCrLf

Farm celebrity Tornow has become something of a farm celebrity for his leadership in helping farmers gain their own energy independence. He's had hundreds of farmers visit him in just the last six months to find out how he's using his own crop to slash energy costs.

"The nice thing, is, you don't need much capital for an oil mill,•bCrLf he says. "This could work for other farmers in a decentralized infrastructure. If this idea spreads, it wouldn't have to be competitive — most farmers would just try to cover their own consumption.

"It's a very simply technology, so every farmer could do it.•bCrLf

Tornow is extremely wary of big agribusinesses. He's pretty well convinced farmers here aren't allowed to grow hemp because big companies like DuPont lobbied against it, since the crop needs no herbicides. He talks with glee about how before 2000, ADM was the only buyer in the market for rapeseed in northern Germany, and could dictate price. "It's the first time ADM has some competition,•bCrLf he says.

Even so, he's not out to lead some kind of plant oil revolution. Far from it. For one thing he's limited by crop rotation — he can only grow rapeseed on 25% of his land, for disease prevention reasons.

"Producing biodiesel only makes sense in big, centralized companies, and that's not what we are working toward,•bCrLf he says. "I believe the rape oil will play a role in farming, but not in the cities. We just need something like this in these smaller, decentralized regions, where farmers will use it as a fuel.•bCrLf

Big savings But Tornow had compelling reasons to convert all his equipment to run on plant oil — reasons that go beyond the noble purpose of adding value to his community. Before 2000, German farmers couldn't produce biofuels economically, he says. Since then two things happened. Energy prices spiked, and government tax breaks for agricultural fuel went away. From the mid 1990s to now, costs for energy quadrupled, he says.

Biofuels started making sense. Cost for diesel fuel are around 90 eurocents per litre, but Tornow can produce plant oil for around 60 eurocents per litre. He saves 30 eurocents and the other 60 eurocents goes to pay his earnings, the salaries of his employees, and depreciation for the cost of the oil mill, giving him extra tax savings. What's not to like?

Tornow converted his biggest tractors and harvesters to run strictly on plant oil. They take 10,000 litres a year, or 2,642 gallons. Last I checked, diesel cost $2.46 in the United States. That's a savings of over $6,000 on just the largest machines. The smaller tractors on Tornow's farm take from 3,000 to 5,000 litres per year and run on two tanks — one to start the engine and the other I mentioned at the beginning of this story. Attached to the tractor, it is filled with rapeseed oil (shown below), and switched on after the machine warms up.

Tornow's grand vision is to have hundreds of other farmers set up their own small oil pressing operations to serve their farm needs — no more. That's the opposite of the U.S. business model, where farmer-investors pool their dollars in an ethanol plant that may provide fuel to markets far away.

Equipment companies like John Deere are working on engines to allow pure rapeseed oil to be used as fuel. If such machines come to market, others will follow, and even more farmers will be knocking on Tornow's door to learn his secrets.

It's a good bet they will come away filled with at least some of his passion and commitment to using plant oil for equipment power. Cutting costs and helping your local community sounds pretty good anyway you look at it.

Farmers like Andreas Tornow may be on to something big. (Please comment below)

Tomorrow: Are we growing the wrong crop for biodiesel in the United States? A visit with a European biodiesel quality expert.

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