Nationwide the demand for corn, and subsequent 10-year high prices, has generated a tremendous interest in production.

Southeast, cotton, peanut and tobacco acreage is expected to continue a downward trend, with much of that acreage going into corn production.

Despite the dire predictions of some trade analysts predictions, soybean prices have remained good into 2007. The use of soybean oil for biodiesel production is more than adequate to compensate for record holdover supplies of soybeans on the world market.

Though ethanol from corn gets the most attention, the whole arena of biofuel production offers some interesting opportunities for farmers in the Southeast, according to Chuck Sopher, an analyst for C&S Agri-Systems Inc.

Speaking at a recent meeting of the North Carolina Agricultural Consultants Association, Sopher says the demand for alternative fuels has and will create some interesting business partnerships for farmers.

“I'm currently working with Memphis Gas, Light and Water, for example, and they are in great need for an alternative to diesel fuel. They operate a number of stationary generators on diesel fuel that create a big pollution problem. The company is constantly on the cusp of being shut down, and they know going to biodiesel will keep them in business longer,” Sopher says.

The city of Breckenridge, Colo., recently passed legislation requiring busses in the city to operate on biodiesel. Breckenridge, like many ski resort towns banks on clean, fresh air as part of their appeal to attract tourists. Biodiesel burns cleaner than regular diesel and makes the air smell better.

These are only two examples of hundreds or thousands of municipalities and businesses in the U.S. that are looking for alternative sources of fuel. Biogas, methane, ethanol, biodiesel, hydrogen fuel cells, biomass, even energy from the sun and wind are all viable options for solving this demand for alternative fuel, Sopher contends.

Biofuels are renewable, reduce dependence on foreign oil, reduce trade deficits, are environmentally preferable to fossil fuel and create some economic opportunities for a wide range of professionals. Grain sorghum, cereal grains, cotton, sugar crops, potatoes, hay, conservation crops, spoiled fruit products, mixed seed products — are some of the many things you can make biofuel from, Sopher explains.

Biomass conversion, he says, is one option that has not been developed in the U.S., but offers some cropping and possibly income options for farmers. Biomass can be converted to methane, carbon dioxide, and sulphur compost, which is biogas. Biomass can be converted to biodiesel.

The first step in an ideal biofuel system, Sopher says, are the ethanol and biodiesel plants that are in operation today. If these plants could be taken a few steps further, they could become more profitable and more renewable. For example, he says, “pipe the distillers grain that is a byproduct of ethanol production, take manure and make biofuel from it, send the methane back to the ethanol plant. Along the way, sell some ethanol, sell some beef and make some money,” Sopher says.

“I think in the future we will see municipal waste disposal plants saying ‘hey, you want to bring us some of your cow manure and take away some of our sludge. Sludge is a good source of biofuels to make electricity,” he says.

Waste and byproducts from the growing vegetable industry in the Southeast is potentially a big source of raw material for biofuel production. “I had a young engineer come to me a few years back, when I worked with Del Monte, who wanted to build a facility to compost corn cobs and shucks from a sweet corn plant. His idea was to use the compost material to fertilize highway interchanges,” Sopher says.

The compost system worked great, he explains. The problem is that five percent of the compost generated at only one of eight procession plants was enough to fertilize every highway interchange in Illinois — the amount of these products is enormous, but too often over-looked, he says.

Biodiesel production in the U.S. is increasing dramatically. In 2005, 150 million gallons of biodiesel was produced, with estimates for 300 million gallons in 2007. Soybean oil accounts for over 90 percent of biodiesel. However, yellow and brown grease from waste disposal plants are ideal sources for biodiesel. Other crops, such as rape, mustard seed, canola, peanuts, cottonseed, and sunflowers are also good sources for biodiesel. Lard, chicken fat, and fish oil also are good sources, according to Sopher.

Biodiesel can be used about any place that uses diesel fuel. A big advantage of biodiesel over diesel is reduced emissions. In a 20 percent biodiesel/diesel blend, carbon monoxide emissions are reduced 12.6 percent versus straight diesel fuel. In a 100 percent biodiesel fuel, these emissions are reduced. 43.2 percent.

Hydrocarbons are reduced 11 percent in a 80-20 diesel/biodiesel blend and 56.3 percent in a 100 percent biodiesel fuel. Overall, air toxins are reduced up to 90 percent with 100 percent biodiesel versus diesel fuels.

Biodiesel is renewable and has a positive energy balance. It takes one unit of diesel fuel to produce 3.2 units of biodiesel. Biodiesel has lower sulfur content, lower emissions, no engine alterations to burn it, and it is more valuable than diesel fuel.

On the negative side, biodiesel doesn't produce quite the power of diesel, it is expensive to produce, and it doesn't store as well as diesel. Biodiesel has slightly higher nitrogen emissions than diesel.

The first use of ethanol in the U.S. came in 1908 when Henry Ford powered his first Model T Ford with it. The initial demand for ethanol came from fossil fuel shortages in the 1970s, and demand for it has grown steadily since the 1980s. By 2005, over 3.5 billion gallons were produced in the U.S., according to Sopher.

If all the corn grown in the U.S. was grown only for ethanol, about 35 billion gallons would be produced. In the U.S., we use 150 billion gallons a year, so only a small percentage of gasoline consumption can be replaced with corn-based ethanol.

In the future, sweet potato and sweet corn varieties bred for ethanol production will likely take some of the pressure off corn for ethanol. Sweet corn, for example, can now be genetically altered to produce over 40 percent sugar, regular field corn, by comparison is about 2-3 percent. Sweet potato varieties with sugar content over 35 percent, is another option that is very obtainable through genetic selection.

Sopher contends that developing nations, especially China, will want an ever-increasing piece of the world fossil fuel supply. In the future, the U.S. will not be the dominant buyer in the world fossil fuel market. The Chinese, especially, will be able to compete for fossil fuel.

To offset our current demand for fossil fuel, Sopher contends we need to understand we can reduce, not eliminate, our need for fossil fuels. He says energy from the sun, hydrogen fuel cells and other potential sources for alternative fuels may come to fruition long-term, but the immediate concern in what to do now.

“We will develop high starch, high sugar content crops. We genetically engineered sweet corn to taste sweeter, no reason we can't engineer new varieties that produce even greater sugar content, but are not so good to eat. I am confident we will develop a great big high sugar ear corn. And, hydrolysis enzymes to ferment straws will come along soon,” according to Sopher.

Transportation systems will be critical to moving crops to ethanol and biodiesel production plants and moving the alternative fuels to the people who need them. Understanding the difference in biofuels and how these fuels interact with government programs will be a big part of the future of farm planning, Sopher contends. Also, understanding how municipal waste facilities are also critical to using waste materials to make better crops to produce more raw material for alternative fuels.

Sopher contends that opportunities are available now for farmers to take advantage of the biofuel demands. In the future, producing raw products for biofuels production and taking advantage of the interactions between production and use of these products will be a critical part of farm management.

With the recent increase in corn prices, and the stability of soybean prices despite record high supplies, indicates the future is now for farmers to play a role in alternative fuels.