Fuel prices have gone from barely tolerable to almost unaffordable for farmers as well as other Americans in recent months. The price increase has many farmers in the Southeast thinking about alternative types of fuel.

Mark Hall, an Alabama regional Extension agent, is encouraging Alabama farmers to do just that. Hall, who calls the rise in gas prices “an opportunity for farmers,” is a self-proclaimed promoter and advocate of biodiesel and ethanol, and he wants to get the word out on these natural sources of energy.

“I think they both have tremendous potential,” says Hall. “Ethanol and biodiesel will both be a plus for farmers in Alabama.”

The up-and-coming ethanol production in the United States is a byproduct of one of the most popular crops in the South as well as the Midwest: corn. In 2005, about 15 million gallons of ethanol were produced in the United States — a number that Hall thinks can and will grow in coming years.

“We’ve always suffered from an over-supply of corn,” says Hall. “Producing ethanol is a good way to deal with that problem.”

Like ethanol, biodiesel is readily available for production and distribution in the Southeast. It is a renewable fuel used in normal diesel engines that can be made from oils and fats. Hall says the two most common products that would be available to many farmers are soybeans and animal fats.

Jesse Hobbs, a Limestone County farmer and vice-president of the Alabama Soybean and Corn Association, says he has used biodiesel in his equipment. The equipment runs the same on the biodiesel blend as it did on regular diesel, he says. In fact, he adds, the biodiesel did a little something extra.

“Biodiesel was a cleansing agent on my equipment,” Hobbs says. “It cleaned the junk out of the tank. I thought there was something wrong with my filter, but it was just the biodiesel cleaning.”

Hobbs’ only problem was obtaining the biodiesel, which he got from Kentucky. Hall says that is a problem that Alabama farmers should be interested in correcting.

“I think the average Joe wants to help out and would use ethanol and biodiesel as long as it was readily available and at a competitive price,” Hall says. “Our nation needs it now, and we can give it to them.”

Alabama fits the profile of an area that is naturally prepared to produce ethanol and biodiesel through the types of crop growth and the location of rivers and ports — namely the Port of Mobile.

“We are ideally suited for corn production,” Hall says. “The whole situation keeps looking better and better for Alabama farmers.”

The initial steps in putting the infrastructure in place are underway, as a 50-million-gallon ethanol tank is being built in Decatur, Ala. Hobbs says this is an indicator that Americans are interested in producing their own energy instead of funding countries that have historically been our enemies.

“We have to support our own products,” says Jeff Webster, president of the Alabama Soybean and Corn Association. “I hope when all the plants are in place, we’ll support them as farmers and as Americans.”

Along with the ethanol tank in Decatur, plans are in place for a biodiesel plant in Guntersville, Ala.

“We’ve still got to get the logistics planned,” Webster says. “But there’s demand for biodiesel and ethanol in Alabama right now.”

Some of this demand, Hobbs says, comes from affluent areas of Alabama, such as Hoover, which gets its fuel from Peoria, Ill. Hobbs said farmers always can use extra income, and the opportunity is staring them in the face.

“For our survival, we need a little extra armor,” Hobbs says. “We can help ourselves out right now.”

Not only would the fuels be better for farmers, but they also would be better for the environment. Since biodiesel is based mostly on organic compounds, it is environmentally friendly. That issue is growing nationally and globally, and Hall says it is just another reason to turn partially to biodiesel.

Hall, Hobbs and Webster all agree the main problems standing in the way of mass production and consumption of alternate fuels are old habits and information. Hobbs says that if farmers are unsure of the capabilities of biodiesel, they should contact farmers who have used the product.

While a partial or complete switch to natural fuels will not happen overnight, it is possible. In 2004, Brazil began to turn entirely to home-produced ethanol made from sugarcane. In April, they announced their complete independence from Middle Eastern oil suppliers — a move that Hall hopes the United States can someday make.

e-mail: mdischinger@farmpress.com