Recycling for Biodiesel Down on the Farm
What happened when Kim Alexander met Luis Centeno
Choosing to make a living on a family organic farm takes a particular kind of person: someone with a strong work ethic, a fiercely independent spirit, a self-sufficient facility for fixing things, and the patience to work in concert with nature for the healthiest results. Central Texas farmer Kim Alexander tells the story of his eagerness to escape the family farm of his Iowa childhood.
"I couldn't wait to get away, to get off to college. My roommates were city boys, and all they talked about was finding some land in the country and having a farm," Alexander recalls. "It began to dawn on me I might have been in the right place all along." He's certainly in the right place now. These days, Alexander once again resides on a family farm. He and his wife, Gloria, and their eight children live on 300 acres near Garfield. Fans of Alexander Family Farm Eggs line up at Fresh Plus, Wheatsville, and Farm to Market every week. Those same eggs are also used in cooking at the likes of Sweetish Hill Bakery, Jeffrey's, Asti, and Fino restaurants. Alexander's natural, free-range broilers, turkeys, and grass-fed beef are available at the farm by appointment (247-4455, email@example.com).
In many ways, the Alexanders' farm is much like the farms of the pioneer families that built this country. Although they rely on such modern conveniences as motorized farm equipment, electricity, telephones, and computers, the Alexander operation closely resembles those of our agrarian forebears: The family believes in self-reliance and is guided by a strong faith, they live off of what the farm produces for the most part, the children are home-schooled, and both the family and the livestock eat a healthy, natural diet free of pesticides and chemicals. The same independent spirit that prompts Alexander to eschew third-party organic certification for his farm has a lot to do with why he's willing to go to the trouble to make biodiesel fuel to run his farm machinery.
"It costs me about 70 cents a gallon plus my time, and I haven't bought fuel at the gas pump in well over a year. When the price of diesel fuel started going up, I read an article in a small farming publication about making your own biodiesel, and it gave a list of the most reliable places to get the used oil necessary to do it. The list included tortilla factories," Alexander says. He called around to tortilla factories until he found a like-minded soul in Luis Centeno, an executive at Austin's el Lago Tortillas.
"In the past, we had provided used frying oil, leftover corn, and out-of-date chips to ranchers and farmers for use in animal feed. But when the price of gasoline went up and Kim asked if we'd be willing to give him our used oil to make biodiesel, I was happy to provide it to him," explains Centeno, whose quality el Lago products are available at most grocery stores across Central Texas and who's a firm believer in being a responsible member of the food continuum that includes farmers, producers, retailers, and consumers. Supporting family farmers who feed both their families and the community was a natural for him. Although the recent installation of a new high tech frying system at el Lago means there is less used oil available, when Centeno has it, area farmers Kim Alexander, Larry Butler (Boggy Creek Farm), and Steve Kraemer (Buena Tierra Farm near Llano) are welcome to it.
Here's how it works: Centeno lets the farmers know when the oil is available, and either Alexander or Butler goes to the el Lago plant to pick it up in 250-gallon plastic containers. The farmers then divide up the oil, and each man makes his own biodiesel. Because the process of making biodiesel requires handling chemicals, it is not without risks and requires protective gear and great caution. Larry Butler describes the basic formula this way: Potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide are combined with methanol and added to oil that is heated to a temperature of 130 degrees. After the mixture sits for eight hours, glycerin settles to the bottom and the remaining 90-95% liquid is biodiesel fuel.
For these farmers, making biodiesel fuel is not just about saving money at the gas pump, although with diesel fuel going for more than $3 a gallon, a cheaper way to fuel their farm machinery is certainly one of the perks. Talking to Alexander and Butler, it becomes obvious that independence and self-sufficiency are their main motivations. While a few family farms in Central Texas recycling used frying oil into biodiesel won't free America from our dependence on foreign oil, that small effort, and everything else about the way they do business, is their way of being part of the solution to a bigger set of problems.