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Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - 15:04:10

Field to Fryer to Fuel: Advancing WNC’s Clean Energy Future

By Frances Figart (original article on The Laurel of Asheville)

If you see a beautiful yellow field in Western North Carolina this spring, you may be looking at canola, a second crop harvest option for area farmers. Canola plays a major role in Field to Fryer to Fuel (F3), a project creating biodiesel from locally grown feedstock. F3 seeks to reduce WNC’s dependence on imported fuels and achieve North Carolina’s clean energy goal of replacing 10% of imported oil with local biofuels by 2017.

The F3 project won the 2011 Blue Ridge Entrepreneurial Council’s Breakthrough Business Challenge conducted by AdvantageWest to advance innovative WNC business opportunities. With the support of “seed” grants facilitated by AdvantageWest from NC Biofuels Center and US Economic Development Agency, F3 got underway in 2012.

“This started with the search for a truly sustainable and resilient source of energy,” says Woodrow Eaton, general manager of Blue Ridge Biofuels and the project’s leader. “We are now offering the only cooking oil that is grown in the Southeast and processed within 100 miles of Asheville. Factor in that our oil is non-GMO, the environmental and social benefits are multiplied. On top of that, we recycle the used cooking oil into clean burning biodiesel—the only EPA-designated Advanced Biofuel commercially available—right here in Asheville.”

In the fall of 2012, Biltmore Estate donated the fields and labor to plant four varieties of winter canola on 50 acres to determine which best tolerate winter conditions in Western North Carolina. The canola was harvested last June and the pressed oil will be processed into biofuel for use in the estate’s farm equipment and vehicles.

“Our second 50-acre crop was planted last fall and we will see another harvest this spring,” says Ted Katsigianis, vice president of Agricultural Sciences at Biltmore. “Our current harvest will supply 20% of the estate’s diesel fuel needs ...” After the seeds are pressed and the oil extracted, the canola meal byproduct is used as a high-protein feed supplement for estate livestock.

“Once the canola crop is harvested and loaded on a truck, it is delivered to our EcoComplex Crush Facility in Catawba County, where the seed is processed into vegetable oil and protein meal, a valuable commodity used in animal feed,” says Jeremy Ferrell, outreach and operations manager for the Appalachian State Energy Center’s EcoComplex Biodiesel Facility.

There are at least four Western North Carolina farms currently growing canola for the North Georgia processor supplying the Blue Ridge Biofuels local oil effort.

The cold pressed canola oil can be used directly as food oil for dressings or light sauté, or further processed for deep-frying. Blue Ridge Biofuels distributes the oil to participating Asheville area restaurants and then collects the used oil for recycling into biodiesel.

“We use regionally produced canola oil at all three of our food service operations, Corner Kitchen, Chestnut and Corner Kitchen Catering,” says Joe Scully, chef and owner. “The cost is solidly $10 more per 35-pound container, but we feel strongly that it is the right thing to do.” He adds that his staff likes telling customers the story behind the oil.

“I have enjoyed being a part of the very beginning of F3,” says Katie Button, owner and executive chef at Cúrate and Nightbell. “We did a side-by-side test of many of our fried items, comparing the canola oil that we had been using with the F3 canola oil—and the flavor was a much tastier and cleaner fry.”

To make the project sustainable, there is still much work to be done.

“Currently, most of this oil is coming from canola grown outside of WNC,” says Matthew Raker, vice president of Entrepreneurship and AdvantageGreen at AdvantageWest. “But as more local farmers start growing canola, there is great potential to have an all-WNC-grown canola oil.”

“F3 offers an opportunity to solve many of our environmental and social problems in one clean sweep,” says Woodrow Eaton. “Restaurants have the option of a locally-produced non-GMO cooking oil, which reduces transportation miles, cleaning up our local air quality. Farms that have seen the loss of revenue through the decline of the tobacco industry are finding that oil seeds offer an opportunity for additional revenue. And diesel fuel consumers have a clean burning option that reduces air pollution, which affects each and every one of us who lives here.”

Restaurateurs who are interested in sourcing the regionally grown, non-GMO canola oil or farmers interested in learning more about growing Non-GMO canola for this project should contact Woodrow Eaton at Blue Ridge Biofuels at 828.253.1034. Frances Figart ( writes about WNC ecology and sustainability.

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