A hundred miles upriver from Fairbanks, springing from the abandoned fields of the Delta Barley Project, is the site for the Delta Junction Biodiesel Pilot Plant. Hans Geier, an Alaska Cooperative Extension agent, has been farming in Delta for over a decade. Currently he is growing Canola, along with his son, for fuel. They received a $20,000 grant to create a Canola to fuel project in rural Alaska.
Delta Junction was a part of the 1970s-1980s massive state-funded project to develop agriculture in Alaska. Farmers were given government loans to buy land and equipment for Barley farming. It failed, the loans were called in and the state acquired many of the farms through defaults. Geier purchased his first quarter-section of abandoned fields in 1994 for $9,000. Then he learned how expensive it is to farm in Alaska. His farm grew throughout the 1990s, and he is now working with a 4-year rotation of Canola followed by barley, and then 2 years of nitrogen-fixing sweet clover.
There is a common misconception that the Canola grown in Alaska is not marketable because is has a green hue to the oil, instead of a crisp golden color. Geier says he has solved that problem by early planting of a Polish variety instead of the more popular Argentine varieties.
Another myth, Geier says, is that there are no Alaska registered pesticides for Canola. Also known as rapeseed, Canola is a four foot tall type of mustard that grows so fast and weedy, that on good soil it will out compete everything but lamb’s quarters.
The Canola grown in Alaska has over 50% oil. The 50 acres Geier is currently farming will provide him with 8.9 tons of oil, over 2000 gallons. What is needed is a market not only for the oil, but for the meal leftover from the pressing. Geier says “Biodiesel needs cows.” Canola meal can be used as a fed supplement for dairy cows. But, with the impending closure of Matanuska Maid, the future of the dairy industry in Alaska is troubled.
This project is still in the early stages. Their Chinese-built seed press arrived this year, but the 7.7 horsepower diesel engine wasn’t enough to press the seeds. A 12 horsepower engine is being shipped up, along with a 10kW diesel generator to power the 240v heater in the press.
Canola can be grown well in Alaska, the first oil should be pressed this fall. Next will be to test the oil and develop truly Alaska Grown fuel.
Source: personal interview, Hans Geier November 1, 2007